English W131 Section 1544
23 April 1997
Many of us who were listening to rock music in the early nineties
really had no idea in which direction musical trends were heading. When a
new (to us) group called Nirvana struck stardom with their first big hit,
"Smells Like Teen Spirit," in early 1992, we saw nothing different than
any other rock band of the time. Many of us accepted the 'Seattle Sound'
as being the new trend in rock music, replacing the Los Angeles-style
'heavy metal' sound of the late eighties, without even a slight
consideration of the political and cultural philosophy of the music that
came to be known as 'grunge.' As the popularity of grunge music soared,
and when, ironically, this anti-mainstream style of music became the norm,
an entire sub-culture, sometimes referred to as the 'grunge lifestyle,' (a
subset of the Generation X culture), began to be seen throughout North
America in the lives of white, middle-class teens. Grunge musicians, such
as the late Kurt Cobain of the band Nirvana, exemplified a nihilistic
lifestyle and glorified self-worthlessness. And their followers were
many. In this paper, I'd like to take a look at some of the aspects of
the grunge culture and the appeal of youthful nihilism, discuss the grunge
lifestyle by using Kurt Cobain as a representative of grunge as a whole,
and examine the manifestations of this grunge lifestyle by the youths of
Let's begin by taking a look at grunge, with its themes of perceived self-worthlessness and youthful nihilism. In her article entitled "The comfort of being sad," Sarah Ferguson of the Village Voice offers that grunge music has "made psychological damage - with all its concurrent themes of child abuse, drug addiction, suicide, and neglect - a basis for its social identity" (60). Acceptance of one's own perceived worthlessness, and the use of that perceived worthlessness to define one's character is what grunge is all about. White middle-class teens, unlike visible minorities and those living in severe poverty, had reached a point where they too, wanted to see themselves as victims. Nirvana's music, like all grunge, is a rage against the "commercial culture that promised [kids] Brady Bunch lives and gave them single-parent homes" (Ferguson 61). Many of today's teens feel that they have been cheated by life; thus, they identify with the feelings of despair and angst of being self-proclaimed losers. The appeal of grunge music is that it says that not only is it OK to feel good about being sad, but that one can indeed derive satisfaction in the shame of being a loser.
The feelings of angst and alienation experienced by most members of grunge culture fit comfortably into the pattern of nihilism. Given how much they feel they have been cheated by life, the 'system,' their families, or whatever, teens living in the grunge lifestyle are alienated and without any positive aspirations. National Review writer Rich Lowry offers that "the grunge solution is to revel in [the pain]" (75) of one's own inadequacies. The insurmountable self-inflicted perceived worthlessness creates a meaningless, nihilistic existence. The Encyclopedia of Philosophy explains nihilism in terms of the "meaninglessness of life," and continues to define it as "a sense of despair over the emptiness and triviality of life" (516). Those in the heart of the grunge culture do not merely exemplify this sentiment in their psychological alienation, but go on to manifest it by a blatant disregard for conformity which extends from a lack of faith in the political entities of the world to a lack of concern for personal appearance; this would explain their apathetic sentiments toward government as well as their characteristic baggy, dull-colored clothes, messy hair, and unshaven faces.
Most intriguingly (and perhaps the fault of those who invented our alphabet), The Encyclopedia of Philosophy, an 8-volume, more than 4200 page authority on several thousand philosophical terms and definitions, has the philosophical terms 'nihilism' and 'nirvana' in subsequent entries. This interesting coincidence could suggest a question along the lines of "just what is nirvana to a nihilist?" Maybe in looking at a nihilist, we can discover what his personal nirvana is all about. Kurt Cobain, the charismatic leader of the most popular grunge band, Nirvana, exemplified a nihilistic grunge lifestyle. His life allowed him to remark such things as " 'I'm a product of a spoiled America' " (Lowry 76), glorifying his own family experience of divorce, abuse, and neglect. His songs "let the listener sample and even enjoy his own perceived worthlessness, like pressing your tongue against a sore tooth" (Lowry 75). Kurt Cobain was a "reluctant spokesman" (Gogola 581) for Generation X, a generation which "is trying desperately to be unacknowledged" (Carver 129). He wanted more than anything to be able to be unacknowledged for his own bellyaching. Kurt Cobain, the nihilist, never wanted to be a hero. He was tormented by the irony that he had sold his angst and alienation, in the form of his music, back to the corporate culture which was, by means of its mistreatment (read cheating) of America's youth, part of the source of his pain. So who made Kurt Cobain into a hero, and a spokesman for Generation X, anyway? Perhaps it was the record companies, who saw a way to profit on the sentiment of a disparate youth, that sold Cobain's music to that wanting audience. In creating in Cobain a spokesman for youthful angst and alienation, the record companies, a part of the 'enemy' corporate culture to begin with, provided a way of voicing and legitimizing the youths' feelings of despair with the all the mainstream glory of commercialization. For all of his success as a musician, Kurt Cobain felt as though he had be used by the record companies, and that such use ruined his message.
Nonetheless, Cobain did not prove to be much of a musical hero, or rather, his nihilism seeped into his musical performance. He "steadfastly refused to play the role of the rock star, insulting his fans with sloppy chords and (apparently) drug-addled stupor" (Ferguson 62). His music rang of the themes of neglect, suicide, molestation, and the like, and his audience "stare[d] back sheepishly, or worse, reverently, at [his] rage" (Ferguson 62). Cobain never wanted the success that he attained; rather, his success seemed "to invalidate his rebellion" (Ferguson 62), and thus made his message even more worthless to himself. It killed him.
But it shouldn't have been any great surprise that Cobain committed suicide at age 27. Explains The Nation Magazine's Tom Gogola, "He said he wouldn't live to 30" (17). Cobain's suicide was what Gogola rightfully terms an "anti-climax" (17), clearly foreshadowed by lyrics that spoke of severe depression and suicide as an answer, and "publicity shots" of Cobain "with an assault rifle barrel in his mouth" (Gogola 17). Cobain's nihilism and the irony of his message allowed him to believe that "he was musically spent" (Gogola 17), and that his life had really become as meaningless as he prided himself on it being. One could say that Kurt Cobain succeeded in being a loser, living up to his own standards. So how does this translate to the North American youth? Well, for one, many continue to listen to the music of Nirvana and other bands like them, with their continuing message of hopelessness and despair. But many will argue that grunge died shortly after Cobain. What's left after Cobain's death is a culture of nihilists, who can't get out of the hole they've dug themselves into. They're runaways, drop-outs, druggies, etc., who have been forgotten by society, and since the fall of grunge, have succeeded in becoming truly unacknowledged.
An example of the powerfulness of the charismatic leadership of Kurt Cobain within the grunge culture are the copycat suicides that followed his death. The Maclean's article discusses the deaths of three Quebec City 18-year olds who killed themselves, together, in response to the death of Cobain. Steve Dallaire, one of the dead, wrote in his suicide journal " 'When Kurt Cobain died, I died' " (Came 14). The three teens own journal explained how they saw Cobain as their role model. He spoke for them, and he spoke to them. Cobain was "an angry voice that spoke directly to a disillusioned youth" (Came 14), and they listened to him as their savior. He preached, through his music, that the way to conclude or resolve a nihilistic lifestyle is to commit suicide. Dallaire's journal continues to include him writing that " 'I would have liked to have died… by a bullet in the head and with the same firearm that Kurt Cobain Used' " (Came 14).
Abstracting from the individual cases of copycat suicides related to Kurt Cobain's death, one visible effect of the nineteen-nineties' surge in youthful nihilism and despair is an increase in teen suicide rates. An article about teen suicide that ran in Maclean's Magazine in October 1994 cites statistics on teen suicide rates. They note that in 1962, the rate of suicide among 15- to 19-year olds (in Canada) was 3.2 per 100,000 youths, and that the same group showed a 4-fold increase by 1992. In the United States, the reported suicide rate for that same age group was 11.1 per 100,000 youths in 1992, the fourth-highest in the world. So why has our culture made heroes out of artists like Kurt Cobain who preach negativity to teens? If it is correct to acknowledge that the record industry that promotes such artists (using the term loosely) to voice the feelings of a nihilistic youth does so because they can profit on the very sentiments of that youth, then we can derive that the source of this negativity is the youth itself. If America's teens were positive and satisfied with their lot to begin with, they wouldn't care about some Seattle musician's bellyaching about a " 'spoiled America' " (Lowry 76), and would never have bought any of grunge's music, let alone the nihilistic lifestyle that came with the music.
The somewhat uneasy to accept explanation is that we cannot blame anyone in specific (i.e. Kurt Cobain) for the despair of the white, middle-class teenage population. In essence, that means that there is, indeed something terribly wrong with America's youth. Socio-analysts might argue that this is the effect of a disparity between the expectations of the youth and the perceived inability of their lives to meet those expectations. Regardless the precise cause, the symptoms this social disease called nihilism are more than a little unnerving.
To get back to where we started, we can look at this expression of angst and alienation and nihilism we call grunge, and perhaps say that the corporate culture, specifically the record industry, only managed to magnify a pre-existing social-ill.
Grunge musicians, like the late Kurt Cobain, merely expressed and promoted the pre-existing feelings of the youth by exemplifying a nihilistic lifestyle, and by preaching self-worthlessness. Kurt Cobain, and for that matter, all of the nameless grunge musicians, followers, and sympathizers that he represents do not stand alone in history. One can look at any generation and find the Hemingways and the Cobains, who lived as nihilists and expressed worthlessness, despair and angst. Although the reasons behind each one's depression have been vastly different, the result is the same greater philosophical questioning of their own raison d'ętre. To answer an earlier question, the nihilist's nirvana is to wallow in his own depression and nihilism. For those throughout history who could not determine a positive reason to exist, there was only one thing they could be certain of. As Hemingway's stories and Cobain's songs all show, and as the suicides of centuries of nihilists like Hemingway and Cobain have assured us, death is the end, and nothing continues past the end.
Came, Barry, and Mary Nemeth. "The last trip: three teens die in shocking
suicide." Maclean's. 31 October 1994/ v107 n44 p14(3).
Carver, Lisa. "Manifesto of Generation L: Roll over, Kurt Cobain." The Utne Reader. September-October 1994. n65 p129(2).
Edwards, Paul, editor in chief. The Encyclopedia of Philosophy. New York: The Macmillan Publishing Co., Inc. & The Free Press, 1967, Volume 5, p513(5).
Ferguson, Sarah. "The comfort of being sad: Kurt Cobain and the politics of damage." The Utne Reader. July-August 1994. n64 p60(3).
Gogola, Tom. "Generation why." The Nation. 2 May 1994. V258 n17 p581(1)
Lowry, Rich. "Our hero, heroin." National Review. 28 October 1996. v48 n20 p75(2).
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