by Q. Rick Delta
In which Nirvana’s downward spiral accelerates.
A number of mainstream publications, with the approval of the general public, have already given high grades to the death of Kurt Cobain. These critics claim that they do this out of respect for the sacrifices he apparently made to produce this spectacle, that he deserves some award for all the pain he suffered in bringing us his art. This is admirable but misguided. In fifty years people will look back at the work of a band like Nirvana, who had a great career up to now, and critically examine this band from a different perspective. I ask on their behalf: Yeah, but is it good entertainment?
For one thing I cannot find the slightest bit of drama in Cobain’s life story. Attempts to make narratives of the lives of characters like Kurt, or Srinavasa Ramanujan, or Jimi Hendrix have always run into the same problem – they end so early that they have absolutely no arc. We can all get invested in his early childhood, and feel pity as he navigates the cruel nowhereville of Aberdeen, Washington – bask in his success with the band in his twenties – cry at his suicide on the floor of a filthy smack house, sure, but in the end we will come away missing some sense that such a character faced down demons and briefly collapsed in the face of defeat before eventually winning and claiming his earnings with head held high. The resolution, like the worst sort of Hollywood generica, provokes cheap tears without providing closure. Cobain’s death feels senseless. It’s as though he wasn’t even attempting to send a message to his sizeable audience.
For another Nirvana ended things musically with a final insult to injury – their new album, In Utero, is a disappointing foray into Chicago-style “noise rock”, forsaking the usual tunes (their only attractive aspect) in favor of the pretense of indie-rock abrasiveness. I’m not sure if they realized how lousy it was and tried to divert our attention with their singer’s equally unsatisfying conclusion, but we can’t put anything past these people when they were clearly desperate to get back their punk cred. And anyway it still isn’t possible to fix this record’s egregious flaws with any amount of sympathy. I doubt I will listen to it again.
Which brings me to the biggest problem I have faced in writing this review. I speak not of the termination itself but of people’s collective reaction to it, because let’s face it – Nirvana fans are fucking crazy. Bob Christgau gave the death of Kurt Cobain an A, Mark Coleman at Rolling Stone gave it five stars and a glowing pseudo-philosophical review and the letters from readers of our very own magazine are pouring in, imploring me and my colleagues to join the orgy of appropriate bereavement (and cajoling us with ever-so-subtle threats of lost readership if we even think about playing the Loki to Kurt’s Balder). Everyone at the magazine agrees with me that this whole mess is a major letdown after Nirvana’s previous work, but none of them would be able to stomach all the hate mail this review is bound to incur; I took the job on because I knew I could be fair about the artistic quality of Kurt Cobain’s extinguishment, even when under pressure. And if I thought I could find a decent answer I would question these sad, angry people as to why they feel a need to live vicariously through the tragedy of a man who existed at an impenetrable emotional distance from them, why they act out the payment of homage to a dead celebrity for a brief instant and then resume their boring lives, pretending that they have anything novel or compelling to say about what he died for; I would ask why they act with such grotesque shallowness, “parachuting into other people’s tragedy” as the satirist Keith Spillett wrote. But I suspect that I would not learn a damned thing, and neither would you readers, many of whom probably decided at least a paragraph ago to join the coming boycott. And so with no friends left to lose I argue: Kurt Cobain’s death is not art. It just sucks.
The Death of Kurt Cobain: Final Score: 4/10