The Lasting Impact of Grunge’s Tortured Soul, Kurt Cobain

By Charles R. Cross

Originally published on Advocate.com April 08 2014 8:00 AM ET

When Los Angeles County’s child protective services stepped in to threaten to take Frances away, Kurt [Cobain] was beside himself. Just a day after Courtney [Love] gave birth, Kurt went to the delivery room with a loaded pistol, intending for the two of them to commit suicide together. He was talked down by Courtney, and Eric Erlandson of Hole helpfully whisked away the gun, but the incident shows how on the edge Kurt was. Guns and suicide were already established parts of his world, even with a one-day-old daughter next to him.

But something also shifted with Kurt in the season of Grunge, and the change ultimately affected his legacy for the better. Kurt had always been liberal, and Nirvana had played several antiwar benefits before they became famous. But by 1992, Kurt was motivated to speak out on social issues he felt important. Perhaps he thought that if he was going to be asked the same questions about Grunge over and over in every interview, he’d better shift the control and use these opportunities to affect change. He chose to discuss feminism, bigotry, racism, and intolerance, topics he spoke about in every interview he did for the rest of his life.

The transformation was, in some ways, remarkable. Kurt Cobain, who previously had spent most of his spare time watching inane television or playing with his Evel Knievel action figures, became the most outspoken man in rock ’n’ roll. His pro-feminist stance and his support of gay rights became almost crusades for him at this point. If Grunge gave Kurt a soapbox, he was going to use it for good.

The most obvious example of Kurt’s new outspokenness came in his liner notes to the B-side collection Incesticide, which was released at the end of 1992. The notes are unlike any other liner notes ever penned by a rock star. They are more of an open letter to fans, and the public, than a description of the music on the album. In them, Kurt urges “homophobes” to no longer buy his albums. He wrote: “If any of you, in any way, hate homosexuals, people of a different color, or women, please do this one favor for us—leave us the fuck alone. Don’t come to our shows and don’t buy our records.”

With this battle cry, Kurt was trying to do something during the mad year of Grunge that was unheard of in the marketplace of pop culture: he was attempting to self-select who bought his records. Nirvana’s initial fan base was made of their peers, progressive fans who came out to tiny clubs to watch a band touring in a van. But as Nevermind broke massive, Nirvana no longer had one type of fan. That bothered a control freak like Kurt, particularly as Grunge became a label he was saddled with, and particularly when Nirvana’s audiences began to grow.

And when his music was co-opted, Kurt became enraged. In those same liner notes Kurt wrote about a real-life incident of two men in Reno raping a girl while they sang lyrics to the song “Polly” from Nevermind. Kurt said they were “two wastes of sperm and eggs.” Hinting at his own suicide, or at least retirement, he added, “I have a hard time carrying on knowing there are plankton like that in our audience.” Kurt was particularly upset that “Polly,” a song he wrote about a newspaper account he’d read of the torture and rape of a fourteen-year-old girl, would then later be used as a soundtrack to another horrific crime. The song had displayed his extraordinary creative mind, written from the view of the attacker in the deplorable crime, but it was set into a catchy pop song. Oddly, Kurt wrote three separate songs over the course of his career about rape, one on every album Nirvana put out: “Floyd the Barber,” “Polly,” and, obviously, “Rape Me.”

After Kurt wrote “Rape Me,” he felt he had to explain himself to the media. He told Spin, “It’s like she’s saying, ‘Rape me, go ahead, rape me, beat me. You’ll never kill me. I’ll survive this and I’m gonna fucking rape you one of these days, and you won’t even know it.’ ” In the same interview Kurt said he hoped In Utero would shift some of rock’s “misogyny.” “Maybe it will inspire women to pick up guitars, and start bands—because it’s the only future of rock ’n’ roll.”

Rape became just one of many social issues Kurt often spoke out against, and Nirvana performed several benefit concerts for anti-rape groups. They also played benefits for anti-hate groups, against racism, and for gay rights. The more mainstream Kurt’s music became and the more Nevermind sold, the more he felt the need to try to control his agenda. Nirvana played mostly loud, raucous guitar rock, and that style of music—be it Grunge or heavy metal—primarily attracted a young male demographic that oftentimes felt concerts were a place to work off aggression or party. That stereotype had fit Kurt at one point in his youth, but once he saw his own countenance reflected back at him from his concert crowds, he tried to shift that vibe. He tried to pick bands who were less mainstream to open concerts for Nirvana. Mirroring his comments on women being the future, he also gave opportunities to female-fronted bands like L7 and Shonen Knife.

In some ways, Kurt was successful in gaining back some control. Grunge became a much more finely nuanced musical movement than heavy metal, and there were opportunities for females that hadn’t really existed within hard rock before. Courtney’s band, Hole, inspired a generation of young women as well, and so did Babes in Toyland, the Breeders, Veruca Salt, and Seattle’s own Seven Year Bitch.

Kurt promoted these groups whenever he did an interview and wore T-shirts with their names on them, and that was one of the reasons he was often cited as being a feminist. He was comfortable with that title, and both he and Courtney used it to describe him. “No one ever talks about how many of these rock guys were just sexist, asshole jocks who used alternative rock to maintain the same misogynistic power they had in high school,” Courtney Love once told me. Kurt, she said, was different. And I think she was right.

Kurt’s feminism has inspired several academic studies. Cortney Alexander wrote her master’s thesis on gender identity in Grunge, focusing primarily on Kurt. She titled it after one of Kurt’s quotes: “I’m Not Like Them, but I Can Pretend”: A Feminist Analysis of Kurt Cobain’s Gender Performance. The blog Gender Across Borders has written, “Cobain often identified himself with women, racial and gender minorities because he felt alienated from the cultural expectation of masculinity.” The blog, The Individualist Feminist has a separate page devoted to Kurt. It calls him an “outspoken feminist” and quotes, by chapter and verse, every mention he made that supported women’s rights in the press. There were many.

Kurt was not the first—nor would he be the last—rock star to address social issues, but because he had the biggest pulpit in music in the early nineties, his words were heard and had an effect. He had also grown up in an environment where overt homosexuality was not tolerated, and where bias and violence toward sexual minorities were part of the fabric of life. Once he was famous, he often spoke out in support of gay rights. In 1992, he did an extensive interview with The Advocate simply because he knew that magazine had an audience of gay readers. Kurt made headlines around the world when he told the magazine he was “gay in spirit” and “probably could be bisexual.” He inflated parts of his own childhood history, claiming he was often beaten up around Aberdeen because some thought him gay (none of his friends confirm these beatings, and doubt they happened). Kurt also said he’d been arrested in Aberdeen for spray-painting homo sex rules on a wall (the police report of this arrest specifies it was actually the nonsensical slogan Ain’t Got No How Watchamacallit). His interview with The Advocate presented him as pro-gay from a much younger age than when he actually became politically aware. Kurt did this, at least in part, because he very much wanted to be embraced by the gay community, and because he felt a kinship to gays and lesbians as outcasts judged by society, which is how he viewed himself.

The Advocate story furthered the perception that Kurt was possibly bisexual (though no evidence of this exists). “His bisexuality caused a lot of discussion, and he made a point of it being public,” sexuality expert Dr. Pepper Schwartz told me. “I think the idea of incorporating that into his life, and still being married, made bisexuality seem like another flavor, or, if you will, a choice one could make.”

Kurt already had a large gay following, but his comments further cemented that connection. Kurt was a style icon not just in music but also in fashion—and particularly within gay culture. Several popular websites break down his most famous outfits so they can be emulated and copied exactly. Out magazine ran a piece in 2013 titled “Get the Look: Kurt Cobain,” which detailed where to shop for clothes to mimic Kurt’s look.

It would, oddly, be in fashion that the word “Grunge” would continue to survive in current culture, a life that the word has not had within music. It was the constant need for trend stories that created Grunge in the first place, and by the middle of the nineties, after Kurt’s death, that trend was declared dead by the same kingmakers who had flown out to Seattle and looked for patterns in every coffeehouse or concert stage. The Grunge movement, just as Kurt had predicted, had “phase[d] into nothing.” The headlines, at least in music, moved on to further stops, with hip-hop culture and electronica.

To many kids in Seattle today, Grunge means their parents’ music. It is often, however, thought of fondly and with nostalgia, not unlike how teenagers in the seventies looked back upon the sixties. To teens today, Grunge is a more meaningful era from back when rock music mattered, and when, or so they imagine, every street corner sported a future superstar dressed up just like Matt Dillon in Singles.

Excerpted From Here We Are Now: The Lasting Impact of Kurt Cobain by Charles R. Cross (It Books, $22.99).