nirvana: official brand of the early ‘90s


Today marks the 15th anniversary of the finding of Kurt Cobain’s body. (Here’s a grisly trinket of wikitrivia: he might be the first person whose actual time of death is “circa’d” not to the year, but to the day: c. April 5, 1994. Forensic science! [And also, his middle name was Donald.])

On this day back in ‘94, I got out of school, hopped in my truck, and turned on the radio to find the local alternative-radio personality muttering in the official “solemn” DJ voice. Immediately I thought: “So Cobain finally offed himself.” Followed by the irritated realization that I wouldn’t be hearing any actual music on the radio because of this long-anticipated event.

For people my age—the ones who were teenagers in ’91, right when we were forming our musical identities—the demographic (aside from barristas in Seattle) most influenced by grunge . . . Kurt Cobain’s death was never a huge deal to us. He was gone, and that was it. No more Nirvana. So what.

—Of course, that attitude was entirely in keeping with the boot camp of indifference through which our grunge heroes put us.

Turns out that people who were elementary/middle school kids then were infinitely more impacted by his death; by the time they’d reached their own teen-angst phases, he’d faded into legend. Those of us who came up with the man as our “spokesman” weren’t that ripped apart by his passing, and have long since moved on, whereas I will still occasionally hear some 25-year-old rhapsodizing about the greatness of Cobain as if he attended the very first Nirvana show.

When I started seeing kids wearing Nirvana shirts, I naturally (for people my age) assumed it was some kind of joke—because, by our training, if you wore a Nirvana shirt after about January 1992, you were advertising what a wanker you were. The whole point was to find more obscure bands and wear those t-shirts.

. . . So I figured this next generation, which is even more obsessed with cultivating irony than ours, was wearing Nirvana shirts as a way of mocking us. And I thought, “Fair enough. what goes around . . .”

But then I actually talked to one of my friends’ younger brothers, and he wasn’t being a sarcastic little shit at all. He went on and on about how great Nirvana was, and Primus, and Ministry . . . and on down this list of bands that have long since faded from relevance.

I guess kids these days don’t have that level of angry-but-also-somewhat-witty music we had in the early ‘90s. All I know for sure is, I was your standard pissed-off teenager, but I had Layne Staley of Alice In Chains singing clever, poetic lyrics about his heroin addiction with a mixture of megalomania and self-deprecation. And a kid just 5 or so years younger than me had Limp Bizkit writing songs with titles like “Break Stuff.”

In our current celebrity-as-product-as-celebrity era, then, “Nirvana” is the official brand of the early ‘90s. And though I’m tempted to end this little essay with something like, “I wonder how Kurt Cobain would feel about that”—I hate it when writers pull that stunt.


5 thoughts on “nirvana: official brand of the early ‘90s”

  1. Pretty dead-on. I remember me and the drummer of the band I was in when I was fifteen having the exact same reaction to the news of Cobain’s death.
    And now everyone I know who’s about five years younger than me holds this weird reverence towards him and assumes I must too being that I was the proper age at the time. I’m like “I didn’t really listen to Nirvana then. I think I was really into Pantera at the time.”
    But those poor kids had some of the worst music possible when they hit high school…

  2. It’s funny, I was actually thinking about this just today. I’m taking undergraduate courses and a lot of the kids in my classes are 10 years younger than me. There’s one kid in my Physics class who is the spitting image of Kurt Cobain. I can’t even look at him without chuckling a little bit. He’s got the goofy hair, the attitude, the cardigan…everything.

    I was wondering if he knew that he was emulating the father of grunge. I suppose he does.

  3. When I think “early 90s”, it’s totally They Might Be Giants ftw. Nirvana et al = buncha spoiled whiners. Ya gotta pay yer dues if ya wanna sing the blues, and if ya don’t, then pick up your grampa’s accordian and start singing silly nonsense, white boy!

  4. I wouldn’t say I reacted to the news of his death with indifference. It was mostly like “wow, that is weird”. I really liked Nirvana when they came out, and still like them, although I don’t put them up on a pedestal like some people do. I think they were simply in the right place at the right/wrong time (depending on your viewpoint). But I still found it odd and sad that that was the end of the story, as inevitable as it might have seemed.

  5. it was sad . . . but i remember being weirded out by the candlelight vigils and whatnot. all the grief stood in direct opposition to what he was ostensibly trying to preach. to paraphrase verbal in the usual suspects, the greatest trick kurt cobain ever pulled was getting people to eulogize him as a rock deity while steadfastly disdaining the existence of same during his life.

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