Kurt Cobain, 1994 And The Rise Of “Authenticity”


by Mindy Clegg

kurt mtv unplugged
A screenshot of the late Kurt Cobain and guitarist Pat Smear from MTV Unplugged in 1993.

In retrospect, the year 1994 seems a momentous one. That year: the genocidal war in Bosnia continued. NAFTA began and Mexico saw the Zapatista uprising emerge in rebellion against it. The Rwandan Genocide began and ended. The Republic of Ireland recognized Sinn Fein. Nelson Mandela was elected president of South Africa. Nicole Simpson and Ron Goldman were found murdered, kicking off the “case of the century” as OJ Simpson (a popular retired football player and actor and estranged husband of Nicole) was accused of the murder and later acquitted. President Clinton signed an assault weapons ban. And Kurt Cobain committed suicide on April 5th, with his body not being found for three days.

Perhaps we can see that year as indicating the direction the post-Cold War era was headed. As the Iron Curtain parted and the Berlin Wall fell, hope was palpable, at least in the US and in Europe. We in the west might have heeded the message of the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown in China.

By the year 1994, it was clear something other than just the emergence of a more peaceful, unified and democratic world was manifesting. Contrary to Francis Fukuyama’s celebratory missive in 1989, history had not ended but was marching merrily along. Neoliberalism was ushered in by western powers and authoritarianism was soon to follow. Strikingly, it was the Democratic party (US) and the Labour party (UK) who did much of that ushering once in power, under the auspices of President Bill Clinton and Prime Minister Tony Blair. Their third way ideology continued the Reagan-Thatcher revolutions of deregulation and government disinvestment, setting the stage for the current right wing challenge to liberalism around the world. While the shifts seem obvious in the political realm, can we see the neoliberal shift in the cultural production, too? I argue we can, and that the rise of Nirvana and subsequent death of Kurt Cobain offers us a vector to explore just that cultural shift.

The music industry firmly believed that they’d found the magic formula with neutralizing the threat from the musical underground. The old debates were pointless and the capitalist mode of organizing the world was victorious. But there was also a deepening of antagonism against institutionalism aimed at both the state and corporations. The language used by left-leaning counter-cultures came to feed the far right. The story of Nirvana and Cobain revealed divisions within the culture, and made critiques of the mass production of culture more common, something that continues today. But there was something else, too. The embrace of Nirvana showed how the recording industry has changed tactics to embrace what was once underground culture.

What change did the popularity of Nirvana represent in America’s culture? It drew out the struggle that had been happening for years prior to their appearance on MTV with “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” A previously underground set of scenes, influenced by punk rock and built via indie labels and record shops, college radio, and democratic zines suddenly emerged into the larger public consciousness. Corporations sought to soften or even eliminate the critique emanating from that musical underground. For years, the culture industries sought to discredit punk in the eyes of the American public. Punk panic was a common trope in the 1980s, found in TV dramas and on day time talk shows. Although easy to laugh off now, this anti-punk propaganda had real world consequences, such as the 1997 death of punk Brian Deneke in Amarillo Texas (which resulted in a slap on the wrist for the murderer, Dustin Camp). Even so, music from the underground bubbled up to the surface in the 1980s, prior to the success of Nirvana. We should keep in mind that the culture industries aren’t as top-down as we like to imagine but are made up of numerous people with a variety of views and positions (a web rather than a flow-chart). During the era of punk panic, there were certainly those within the culture industries interested in bringing underground music to the masses because they genuinely loved the music. In his book Sellout on how punk was brought into the mainstream in the 90s, Dan Ozzi discussed A&R men like Mark Kates (who signed Sonic Youth, Nirvana, and Jawbreaker to Geffen) often had real punk credentials.1 As those who embraced punk in the 80s started their professional lives working within those industries, they began to change the tone of how punk as a genre of music was perceived. There was a shift to embracing music that was seen as more authentic. MTV began to promote underground music via the late night show 120 Minutes, which began airing in 1986. Hip-hop in general, but especially the sub-genre of gangsta rap, too, was starting to get greater public attention during this period. MTV started airing Yo! MTV Raps in the late 1980s, bringing the genre to a whiter (and wider) audience. More authenticity in pop was also in vogue, with singer-songwriters like Sinead O’Connor, the Indigo Girls, Tracy Chapman, and Tori Amos having hits in the late 80s and early 90s. For rock, music with a harder edge was starting to see commercial success. The same year Nirvana’s Smell’s like Teen Spirit was released, Metallica’s “Enter Sandman” charted at no. 16 on Billboard. They had started out in the thrash metal scene. Rather than coming out of nowhere Nirvana was a beneficiary of changing tastes from the public and changing approaches to the marketing of popular music in general. The end of the Cold War saw an embrace of the concept of authenticity in cultural production. We can see how MTV played a an important role in this shift.

The underground music scenes became locales to find the new and authentic. The success of such bands changed the industry approach to the underground, from attack to embrace. Ozzi argued that the mainstream music industry came calling in punk scenes after Nirvana and that would reverberate throughout the early 90s on the music underground.2 When more music consumers, especially teenagers, embraced what was once underground, the weird music nerds felt like they lost special corner of the universe. Many turned on younger people who felt a kinship with the underground music scenes, slinging the term “poser” at anyone they didn’t like especially girls and women, queer people, and POC interested in the musical underground which historically was not even that white and male. See youtuber Lil Bill’s exploration of Black punk as one example of how diverse punk actually was in its origins. (FYI, embedded videos below likely have NSFW elements).

Even those who arguable benefited most had problems squaring the circle of the new-found corporate focus on the underground. Cobain struggled with his fame, likely contributing to his growing suicidal ideation and drug addiction. Unlike many reactionaries in the hardcore scenes, Cobain was less concerned with teens, women, and POC embracing his music, but instead with the violent reactionaries in his fanbase. One need only watch the unedited version of Nirvana’s MTV Unplugged to understand the tensions he felt with some of his audience and with the situation in which he found himself.

However, at the end of the performance, he still took the time to sign some autographs for some fans on the way out.3 Was Nirvana merely sellouts, as many in underground scenes branded them? Were they hoping to bring their values to the mainstream? Were they just a band who lucked out? I have little doubt that Nirvana was the real deal, not some corporate construct created to “destroy” the underground (which after all, from the point of view of the industry, functioned as the incubator for the next big thing). The experience of fame certainly did not help Cobain’s struggles. But the band also genuinely connected with many people around the world. So the sellout question is not nearly so clear cut as some would like it. Nirvana’s appeal rested on their authenticity, which young people often crave in the culture they consume (even if we can recognize the problematic aspects of a concept like authenticity). The industry certainly weaponizes “the real” for their own end, but it doesn’t make “the real” any less real. We can understand that the industry might try and weaponize a sense of authenticity for its own gain, and that people making art for sale are replicating their authentic selves, too.

We can gain some greater perspective here by looking at another genre of music that has since become one of the biggest cultural commodities from the US culture industries: hip-hop. In a recent video, Youtuber and intellectual influencer FD Signifier, discussed the question of corporate subversion in hip-hop. He zeros in on the 80s rap act Kid ‘n Play, exploring whether or not this act were “industry plants.”

He finds a more complicated picture that contradicts our ahistorical understanding of artists like Kid ‘n Play as merely being corporate cash grabs and the later gangsta rappers being auteurs recounting their real life struggles. Gangsta rap was coded as more authentic than the party music of artists like Kid ‘n Play by the industry itself. Signifier noted that with the exception of the late Eazy-E, none of the artists in the group had real world experience with being in a gang, despite the very street image they projected. Does that make NWA the “real” industry plants?

But there is little doubt that it was acts like NWA and the subgenre they represented that took hip-hop to the mainstream, nationally and internationally. Nor should we ignore the fact that the gangsta rap turn indeed gave people a cultural language to describe their own struggles. But that shouldn’t blind us to the import of other approaches to rap that existed and still exists today. Ironically, as Signifier notes, Chris Martin of Kid ‘n Play did in fact come from a background that included gang activity in his youth, even if the music he made with Chris Reid wasn’t about that kind of life. He argued that they came from an older understanding of hip-hop that was much more about partying. This was true of much early hip-hop such as Sugar Hill Gang or Afrika Bambaataa.

The origins of the genre started with DJ Kool Herc putting on parties for his community in the Bronx. Part of the goal of these parties was to provide a safe space for entertaining his friends. But the ultimate appeal of Gangsta raps rested in the notion of the authenticity of the street life portrayed by the artists. We should note the irony of that with regards to the Young Thug RICO trial in Fulton County, GA. Many have decried the use of lyrics as evidence of a criminal enterprise, and rightly so. But plenty of the artists who have reached a larger audience were drawing on their real life experiences. But not all of them. Yet they invoke that authenticity in part because it sells, especially the white consumers. Harshness and anger in music (punk, metal, harder edged hip-hop) have come to mean “authenticity” for listeners in the same way folk music might invoke an authentic exploration of the human experience. It highlights the way that consumers of culture were seeking a feeling of the real in their music as neoliberalism came to dominate the economy.

The rise of “alternative” music and hip-hop to prominence in the late 80s and early 90s provided an “authenticity” disruption. That might seem to contradict the ideology of the capitalistic spectacle, but I’d argue not at all. Two things we can consider here. First is the role of disruption in the neo-liberal economy that came to dominate the globe since the end of the Cold War. Disruption is an especially beloved concept among those who promote what is known as the California ideology. The internet was an apt avatar of that ideology and its impact on the world in general. Fred Turner described in his excellent book From Counterculture to Cyberculture just how this capitalist ideology captured the libertinism of the 60s youth counterculture, marrying it with the corporatism and pro-militarism of the defense contractors and thinktanks that had emerged in the early Cold War (think the Rand Corporation).4 The internet was built in part by the Defense department prior to morphing and taking over the world starting in the mid-90s, not too long after rise of the alternative scenes. The internet eventually gave us streaming, which would play havoc with the ability of artists to make a living, giving the recording industry an edge in their ongoing struggle with artists. But, second, the rise of alternative culture as a force in popular music was itself a kind of disruption, but channeled by corporate interests from within the industry. If “the spectacle”5 was the standard form of mainstream cultural production, meant to distract and alienate, then authenticity became a means of colonizing and exploiting the musical underground that sought to subvert the spectacle. The bands that came to be understood as alternative constituted a spectacle all of its own, rather than just a challenge to the spectacle. It was a spectacle of authenticity. The spectacle became a means of organizing modern entertainment to make it amenable to the needs of capital and that didn’t stop with the end of the Cold War. Some would love us to forget that the spectacle is made up of people, who have contradictory viewpoints. They contradict themselves, each other, the spectacle itself. The spectacle would love us to lose sight of that. But the rise of the alternatives in music demands we grasp that point.

Overall, Nirvana’s success signaled an already ongoing shift in how the recording industry sought to incorporate rather than obliterate or discredit music from the underground. MTVs ability to rupture the primacy of radio meant there was another pathway to be exploited. Pursuing authenticity and seeking out diversity (even if it was a shallow kind of diversity) allowed the industry to bring in new talent and new consumers. Streaming, another technology that would supposedly give artists greater control, has only cut into the bottom line of the artists. The wild success of Nirvana signaled a brave new world where the mainstream recording industry—an institution reviled by punks and post-punks in the 80s—was able to rebrand itself as a champion of diversity, hence authenticity. The sense of diversity was never very deep, but it merely commodified difference. A solid set of institutions still exist that offer true alternatives to the mainstream recording industry. People still take the criticisms offered by the underground of the 80s seriously enough to continue to pursue alternatives. The mainstream music industry attempted to strip the punk underground of their sound and direct their political arguments in a harmless direction. But they were not entirely successful in that. Criticisms of oppressive systems still exist today and in many ways are growing. Just look at the kids risking their degrees and well-being to oppose an ongoing genocide for example. One hopes that that will be enough for us to continue this ongoing process of decolonizing our culture and our minds. One also hopes, though, that Kurt Cobain himself is resting in peace. Despite his role in the neoliberal shift, he also brought great joy to many music fans and we should honor that gift.

Footnotes

1 Dan Ozzi, Sellout: The Major Label Feeding Frenzy That Swept Punk, Emo, and Hardcore, 1994 – 2007, (Boston: Mariner Books, 2021), 47.

2 Ozzi, Sellout, 1-34.

3 Nirvana, MTV Unplugged in New York, dir. By Beth McCarthy-Miller. 1993. 2007, Geffen, Santa Monica, CA, DVD.

4 Fred Turner, From Counterculture to Cyberculture: Stewart Brand, the Whole Earth Network, and the Rise of Digital Utopianism, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006).

5Guy Debord, The Society of the Spectacle, (Brooklyn, NYC: Zone Books, 1995).



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