The Unexpected Legacy Of Mr Kurt Cobain
Mr Kurt Cobain backstage in New York, 1990. Photograph by Mr Kevin Mazur/Getty Images
This week would have been Mr Kurt Cobain’s 50th birthday, were it not for his tragic death in 1994 at the age of 27. While it’s impossible and inappropriate to speculate about what might have been, what’s beyond dispute is that his life, art and passing continue to send shockwaves across popular culture two decades later.
There are very obvious, trite examples of this influence (the ubiquity of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” on The X Factor and American Idol, anyone?), but also numerous meaningful homages that you’re perhaps less familiar with. Below, we take a look at three from the latter camp, drawn from the worlds of music, film and fashion.
Mr Freddie Gibbs on stage in Toronto, 15 August 2015. Photograph by Ms Emma McIntyre/Getty Images
While they may not seem the most obvious of kindred spirits, plenty of rappers have explicitly channelled Mr Cobain when trying to make sense of their own nihilistic world views and the discovery that great wealth and fame don’t necessarily bring happiness. From Tyler, The Creator and A$AP Rocky to Messrs Freddie Gibbs and Talib Kweli, all have pondered the resonance of a man who made music that was stylistically far removed from their own.
None more so, perhaps, than Jay Z, whose earliest break came in the form of a Big Daddy Kane guest spot in 1994, the same year Mr Cobain died. More than a decade later and having achieved a similar (if not greater) level of celebrity, the Nirvana frontman was still playing on the rapper’s mind. A recently unearthed Hot 97 freestyle from 2006 name-checks Mr Cobain as one of the “kings […] driven so insane”, alongside Mr Jean-Michel Basquiat, Biggie, 2Pac, Mr Martin Luther King, Malcolm X and Mr Michael Jackson. In his 2010 autobiography Decoded, Jay Z expanded on those thoughts, quoting from Mr Cobain’s suicide note (“Why don’t you just enjoy it?”) and saying that “Cobain was like Basquiat […] it’s amazing how much of a mindfuck success can be”.
Jay Z’s most recent reference to Mr Cobain was in another meditation on the perils of fame and arguably the most high-profile to date: in the Mr Justin Timberlake-featuring 2013 single “Holy Grail”, the rapper quotes the most famous lyrics ever penned by Mr Cobain, breaking into a charged rendition of the chorus from “Smells Like Teen Spirit”: “And we all just entertainers/And we’re stupid, and contagious/Now we all just entertainers…”
Mr Michael Pitt as the Mr Kurt Cobain-inspired Blake in Last Days, 2005. Photograph by Allstar Picture Library
Last Days, Mr Gus Van Sant, 2005
Mr Cobain has featured in countless documentaries, each captivating to varying degrees (the best of the bunch is one in which he plays only a supporting role, the zeitgeist-capturing 1991: The Year That Punk Broke). When it comes to dramatisations, however, the rights to his legacy have understandably been much more closely guarded. Step forward Mr Gus Van Sant’s lawsuit-skirting Last Days, a film that focuses on the final moments in the life of a tortured rockstar with an uncanny resemblance to a certain plaid-wearing 1990s icon. Last Days was the follow-up to Elephant, arguably the director’s best movie. Like Elephant, Last Days is a hypnotic piece of slow-burning cinema, though one that divided critics far more than its predecessors. It’s worth seeing to make up your own mind. As Mr Steve O’Hagan said in his review for Empire, the movie’s “detached style has the power to alienate as much as enthral”. Alienation and enthralment: two qualities that seem as much in keeping with the real-life inspiration as Mr Michael Pitt’s long, lank fringe does.
Number (N)ine’s AW08 Paris show. Photographs by firstVIEW
My Own Private Portland, Mr Takahiro Miyashita, 2008
Before urban Japanese brand The SoloIst came Number (N)ine, Mr Takahiro Miyashita’s equally cult deconstruction of romanticised rock ’n’ roll aesthetics. Mr Cobain proved an enduring influence on the Japanese designer, and his AW08 collection, entitled My Own Private Portland, was perhaps the culmination of this (combined with nods to another muse of Mr Gus Van Sant, Mr River Phoenix, who prematurely lost his life a year before Mr Cobain). As Mr Tim Blanks pointed out in his Vogue review at the time, Japanese designers rarely do irony, and there is an earnest love for Mr Cobain that shines through the cavalcade of plaid shirts, grimy knits and repurposed Americana that came down the runway.
Quite what the stridently anti-consumerist Mr Cobain would have made of his impact on the fashion world we’ll never quite know. Thankfully, though, for those still looking to dress themselves in grungey, slyly subversive statements, Mr Miyashita continues to mine similar influences in his work as The SoloIst. Check out, for example, this season’s utterly Mr Cobain-worthy knitwear.