By Cameron Stuart | Radio Director
Whether it be James Dean, John Lennon or Nelson Mandela, each generation has a voice and a face that they can point to and say: They spoke for us. For 1990s America, adolescents pushed back the blonde locks from their eyes and pointed to a man from suburban Seattle who was a prisoner to fame and didn’t even live to see half the decade. Nonetheless, the ’90s needed Kurt Cobain like humans need oxygen.
While the 1980s were a booming time for the music industry, singers and bands that ruled the pop charts usually lacked one critical component: skill. While the decade became known for a bit of experimentation and ultimately the birth of hip hop, the industry was more focused on a new facet of entertainment that would change music forever: MTV and the music video. The quality of the song became overshadowed by who could wear the flashiest outfits or make the most well-choreographed video.
The ’90s, on the other hand, saw music go back to its roots, revolving around bands who didn’t care nearly as much about their commercial image as they did about the genuineness of their music. Acts like Oasis and Radiohead were being compared to the careless rockstars of yesteryear, but no band became more iconic than Nirvana. With grunge music being arguably the most popular new genre of the decade, Nirvana quickly became America’s most important band.
As Nirvana’s fame rose precipitously, Cobain’s face became more and more prominent and he became the most relatable star to young people in the country. As America left social and economic conservatism in the ’80s, teenagers in the ’90s were ready to regain their voice. What did they want to say? They wanted everyone to know they didn’t give a damn. Cobain didn’t care what anyone thought of his haircut, his voice, his clothes or his music. Grunge music was born in the garage and, if it were up to him, that is where it would have stayed. People were tired of the over-flamboyance of the ’80s and were much more content trading in the Brat Pack films for more contemporary teen manifestos like “Scream” and “Trainspotting.”
Students today, whether they grew up on grunge bands or not, can recognize Nirvana’s influence in the U.S. Charles Town, W. Va. junior David Craft reflected on what made Nirvana so popular all across America, not just in the Seattle grunge scene.
“I think people were so drawn to Cobain at that time because of how different the sound was,” Craft said. “Nirvana represented a great transition between hair metal to grunge that I feel inspired a lot of new age and alternative rock today.”
The underbelly of America was no longer concerned with big and burgeoning in the ’90s, but rather elected for the macabre that would rock the establishment, which became popular in the ’60s and ’70s. Cobain and Nirvana embodied the new age of anti-establishment better than anyone else in any form of entertainment at the time. Instead of making epic, movie-style music videos a la “Thriller,” they made one with an old man crucifying himself while a young girl in a KKK outfit looked on. They made a song called “Rape Me,” had a massively successful album with a naked baby on the cover and played an hour and a half long concert for millions to watch on MTV, only to abandon their hit songs and play a setlist of mostly covers. If anyone was not caring what other people wanted, it was Kurt Cobain. Whether they entirely agreed with his methods or not, America loved him. They loved his creativity, but more so they loved his gall.
Pocahontas, Ark., senior Kenneth Hanson has been a fan of Nirvana since he was young, and thinks the band came to fame at the perfect time.
“I think in the early ’90s, teens just sort of felt displaced and that they didn’t really have their own voice in America,” Hanson said. “I think their grungy edge that they had really gave those kids their voice.”
Cobain almost single-handedly brought angst back to the mainstream. The only thing more powerful than Cobain’s fame was his hatred for it. Ultimately, the fame and fortune became Cobain’s downfall, driving him into a deep depression and his eventual suicide in 1994. While ascending into martyrdom, Cobain proved that the ’90s and the young people of his generation were not going to be satisfied with what was already determined to be “cool.” The kids who grew their hair out and were shunned to their own garages to get stoned in the ’80s became the ones that defined the ’90s and have solidified their spots on the social totem pole ever since. As we look back into the ’90s, we will remember Kurt Cobain not as the man who had a hit called “Rape Me” or had child pornography for his album artwork. We will remember him as the man who told an entire generation of misunderstood rebels labeled as “ne’er do wells” and “dirtbags” to come as they are, giving the silent majority a loud, rugged voice ever since.