What Kurt Cobain teaches us about the American way of failure
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A small logging town in Washington state unveiled a statue of its most famous son last month, 20 years after his death. The ceremony took place at the Aberdeen Museum of History, a former armoury. The colossal new concrete statue is a bearded figure with a guitar and ripped jeans, a large grey tear rolling down one cheek. Press reports weren’t complimentary. “Aberdeen honors ‘Kurt Cobain Day’ with bizarre crying statue,” the music website Pitchfork said. “Does anyone remember him this way? Crying or some bullshit,” a fan fulminated online.
I rang the museum hoping to get hold of the sculptor, a local part-time art teacher and business owner. “Oh,” said the man at the end of the line. There was a sigh and a long pause. I left my number but the sculptor didn’t call. I tried her automobile repair shop but the phone rang and rang. It appears the creator of the weeping Cobain memorial has had enough of the world’s gaze.
What would Kurt Cobain have made of his statue? The Nirvana singer loved kitsch, such as the Hello Kitty trinkets fans plied him with in Japan. He was also a keen artist, although his interests ran to more grotesque extremes – drawings of babies without arms and people with mutant genitalia, disfigured Victorian dolls. But he would surely have appreciated one aspect of his home town’s tribute: its imperfection.
Cobain was never at ease with his success. He emerged during a golden age of failure, a time when a swath of American youth embraced the unpatriotic vices of indolence and lack of motivation. By the time of his death in April 1994 the term “slacker”, popularised during first world war to describe someone shirking military service – “Are you a slacker? If not, enlist,” exhorted a recruiting poster – had come to stand for the idlers of Generation X, trying to forestall the dread day of corporate enrolment.
Grunge, the heavy metal and punk hybrid that emerged from the Pacific Northwest, led by Cobain’s band Nirvana, turned this cult of the loser into mass entertainment. The song that propelled Nirvana into the mainstream in 1991, “Smells Like Teen Spirit”, opens with Cobain intoning “It’s fun to lose” and hinges on a self-loathing snapshot of the entertainment industry, the fans out front a bunch of gibbering yahoos, the singer on stage an outsized germ: “Here we are now, entertain us/ I feel stupid and contagious.”
Cobain’s feelings of failure weren’t a performance. “I have never failed to fail,” he sang in Nirvana’s final song, “You Know You’re Right”, recorded two months before he shot himself at home in Seattle aged 27. Heroin addiction, pain from an undiagnosed stomach condition, depression and a truncated life that left behind a widow and a 20-month-old daughter are the ingredients of his tragedy – one that has attracted much attention from moralists and conspiracy theorists over the years.
The real question is how such an alienated individual came to strike such a powerful chord in a nation founded on abhorrence of failure. And why, 20 years later – when themes of social, economic and political failure are growing increasingly clamorous in the US – has the cult of the loser dwindled away to Beavis and Butthead repeats on television and Nirvana cover bands playing “Smells Like Teen Spirit” to middle-aged Gen Xers?
Scott Sandage is an expert on failure. The historian is the author of the prizewinning book Born Losers: A History of Failure in America (2005) in which he argues that the perception of failure underwent a decisive shift in the US during the 19th century. “In the United States,” he explains, speaking from Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, “failure went from being mainly defined by someone being too ambitious to someone who is not ambitious enough. Two hundred years or so ago, if someone failed in business, the causes were generally attributed to borrowing too much money or trying to expand the business too quickly. But nowadays people talk about people who fail as being ‘risk averse’, not ambitious enough.”
The change he traces came about during the volatile booms and busts of the 19th century. It has been estimated that as many as two-thirds of merchants in San Francisco failed in the 1850s. The economic uncertainty of the period led to the invention of credit rating agencies, the first appearing in New York in 1841.
In order to advise moneylenders, the agencies collected data on many thousands of people across the nation. A new vocabulary of striving emerged. Men were commended for their “go-ahead spirit”. “Good for nothing” was the note made against a person whom creditors should avoid. Perceived character flaws or immorality (drunkenness, adultery), sometimes invented or inaccurate, were used to gauge a person’s creditworthiness.
An 1857 revision to Webster’s dictionary introduced a new definition for failure, as “some weakness in a man’s character, disposition, or habit”. It became coded as a personality defect, no longer something that happened to you but something you were: a loser.
“Failure went from something that was seen as an event – certainly a bad thing to have happened but, nevertheless, only one episode in your life – to it being perceived as an identity,” says Sandage. “In America the word ‘loser’ is very popular as an insult. To call someone a loser is to say they have no personal value, they have no financial value, they are of no value to society.”
The figure of the loser occupies a crucial position in US culture. He – and it is usually a man – haunts self-help books and rags-to-riches stories. He turns up in blues and country songs, so lonesome he could cry, born under a bad sign. There are the loveable losers of Buster Keaton films and the harrowing losers of Eugene O’Neill plays. Then there is Arthur Miller’s creation of the most emblematic loser of all, Death of a Salesman’s Willy Loman, the travelling salesman tormented by the “American dream” – a term coined during the Depression.
During the 1960s an odd thing happened to the loser. He began to acquire a certain cachet, an aura of rebel cool. In 1967 Born Losers, about a biker gang of that name, became the highest-grossing independent film in history with a take of $36m. The same year brought Dustin Hoffman’s aimless protagonist in The Graduate, blank recipient of Mr McGuire’s laconic career advice (“Just one word. Plastics”). It was also the year of the Doors’ “People Are Strange”, which found a chemically refreshed Jim Morrison attaining a hallucinogenic state of loserdom: “No one remembers your name/ When you’re strange.” If failure was a character defect according to corporate America then the “freaks” of the counter-culture were happy to embrace their failings. It was time to turn on, tune in and drop out. So were laid the underground foundations of slacker culture and grunge 20 years later. But by then the optimism of the earlier era had drained away. There was no turning on or tuning in this time round. It was all about the dropping out now. The cult of the loser had been distilled to its purest form.
Viewed from one angle, Kurt Cobain’s life resembles a classic rags-to-riches story. His parents, high-school sweethearts, split up when he was nine. A dysfunctional upbringing saw him shuttling between different homes. Money was scarce: even when Nirvana’s second album Nevermind reached number one in the US charts, Cobain was living in a car. Yet when he died two years later he left a multimillion dollar estate.
He had formed Nirvana in 1987 with Krist Novoselic; a series of drummers came and went until Dave Grohl joined three years later. By then the band was signed to Seattle independent record label Sub Pop, one of several labels to which they sent a demo tape and the only one to respond.
Sub Pop co-founder Bruce Pavitt recalls encountering Nirvana for the first time, casting an ear over the demo with fellow label boss Jonathan Poneman. “What we heard was a band that was very rough around the edges with an amazing singer,” he tells me, on the phone from Seattle. “We heard the voice. The material was weak and, when they came to Seattle to do their first showcase for Jon and I, they were incredibly lacklustre, but the voice came through.”
Seattle, a 110-mile drive from Aberdeen, was a remote and provincial city in those days. “Back in the mid- to-late 1980s it was very working class, it was Boeing as opposed to Microsoft,” says Pavitt. “If you were a careerist, you’d move to Los Angeles because there was no way you could make a career out of music living in Seattle. So the people that stayed in the scene did it for fun, for a laugh.”
Grunge advertised its deprivation. “The whole aesthetic – work clothes, thriftstore truckers’ hats, pawnshop guitars – all of that came out of a culture that was very poor,” Pavitt says. Getting ahead was decried as “selling out”. In 1989 Nirvana marked the release of their debut album Bleach by playing Sub Pop’s annual “LameFest” concert with other grunge bands. At the merchandise stall fans could buy T-shirts reading “Loser”: the label sold almost as many of them as it did records.
In a 1991 interview Cobain claimed his ambition was “to at least sell enough records to be able to eat macaroni and cheese, so I didn’t have to get a job.” But behind the slacker persona he was ambitious, chafing at Sub Pop’s lack of resources and agitating for a move to a major label for Nirvana’s second album. They signed to a subsidiary of Geffen Records in 1990. After Nevermind, he demanded a greater share of the band’s revenues as principal songwriter.
Bleak but supremely catchy, “Smells Like Teen Spirit” owed its success partly to corporate patronage: it became a hit after MTV put its video on regular daytime rotation. But no one expected Nevermind to take off as it did. Geffen printed only 46,000 copies initially; it went on to sell 30m.
Yet the desired fame brought no happiness. “We weren’t the same old band,” Novoselic told Cobain’s biographer Charles R Cross, author of Heavier Than Heaven. “Kurt, he just kind of withdrew.” Wealth allowed Cobain to escalate his heroin use into a voracious daily habit. With it escalated his life-long feelings of self-loathing. In his journals he imagined himself as “faulty” and “diseased”. “Teenage angst has paid off well/ Now I’m bored and old” were the opening words of the band’s last album, 1993’s In Utero.
In his suicide note he compared his enervation unfavourably with his rock star wife Courtney Love’s “ambition” and said he couldn’t “stand the thought” of his daughter Frances “becoming the miserable self-destructive death rocker that I’ve become”. His feelings of hopelessness were suffocating – yet they also chimed with the public. Some 7,000 people attended an impromptu vigil in Seattle after he died. The unshaven face peeking out from a bedraggled mop of hair was recycled on millions of T-shirts and posters. He was celebrated not in spite of his failings but because of them.
Had Cobain not killed himself he would be 47. If Nirvana were still going, like their old rivals Pearl Jam, they would find themselves in a technologically transformed music industry. “We’re blessed to live in a world where we have access to the world’s libraries at our fingertips but we’re also drowning in information,” Pavitt says. “So for any act to step in and grab the world’s attention is almost impossible.”
The culture has changed, too. Anxieties about failure have rocketed in the US in the wake of financial crisis, failed wars and a deadlocked political system. The scope not to succeed has rarely been greater – yet how failure is perceived has grown harsher. The cultural space that Cobain occupied as the nation’s most famous misfit has shrunk. There are no prizes for being a loser these days – unless it’s as the winner of NBC’s television competition The Biggest Loser in which obese contestants compete to win $250,000 by losing weight.
Rappers are the US’s favourite interpreters of success and failure today. Drawn from the section of US society most forcibly denied access to success, rappers are fascinated by Cobain: he ranks among the most namechecked white people in rap’s history, a trend that reached its apogee last year on Jay-Z’s “ Holy Grail”, a collaboration with Justin Timberlake that samples “Smells Like Teen Spirit”. The song is an ambivalent ode to the “holy grail” of fame in which Jay-Z delivers verses about black misery and entrepreneurial heroism, all bound up in the message that he, the rapper, is the sole agent of his destiny. “I know nobody to blame, Kurt Cobain, I did it to myself,” he raps. In the background, Timberlake sums up the song’s ultimately celebratory attitude to fame: “I still don’t know why, why I love you so much.”
To hear Cobain sampled in this song, a ghostly presence complaining of being “stupid and contagious”, is to see his failure reduced to a backdrop for Jay-Z and Timberlake’s success. Thus a great American loser finds himself reincorporated into the ruling doctrine of advancement and ascent. The crying statue in the Aberdeen Museum of History is truer to life than its detractors realise.
Ludovic Hunter-Tilney is the FT’s pop critic
Main picture and slideshow photographs taken from ‘Experiencing Nirvana: Grunge in Europe, 1989’, by Bruce Pavitt (published by Bazillion Points)
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