It has been 21 years since the world learned that one of music’s most important voices was no more. Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain took his own life on April 5, 1994, and the troubled and gifted artist became the fallen voice for an angsty generation of teens and young adults who’d come of age in the ‘80s and ‘90s. As the world rushed to eulogize and then deify him, his baby girl, little Frances Bean, was left to grow up with only documented and sentimental reminders of who her dad was. Frances Bean, now a 22-year-old visual artist, spoke at length about her father to Rolling Stone this month, and her frankness about his legacy and death may rub some fans the wrong way.
Kurt Cobain is a tragic figure whose struggles with addiction and depression warrant our empathy and compassion; but in taking those struggles seriously, we can’t reduce them to just a footnote to who he was as an icon. His difficulty with being Kurt Cobain directly affected those around him, both before and after he took his own life. We shouldn’t have to pretend our greatest artists aren’t also, very often, damaged people.
With so many of our fallen legends, we not only take great interest in canonizing even the most mundane fragments in their respective bodies of work, but also in elevating them from dysfunctional-but-creative individuals to simply flawed cultural avatars. Frances Bean doesn’t seem to be all that invested in either. Obviously, Kurt’s significance is cemented without her giving Incesticide her stamp of approval or knowing every riff on In Utero. She doesn’t seem to be preoccupied with insincere cheerleading in regards to her father’s legacy.
On the subject of Nirvana, Frances Bean told RS:
“I don't really like Nirvana that much [grins]. Sorry, promotional people, Universal. I'm more into Mercury Rev, Oasis, Brian Jonestown Massacre [laughs]. The grunge scene is not what I'm interested in. But ‘Territorial Pissings’ [on Nevermind] is a fucking great song. And ‘Dumb’ [on In Utero]—I cry every time I hear that song. It's a stripped-down version of Kurt's perception of himself—of himself on drugs, off drugs, feeling inadequate to be titled the voice of a generation.”
Those “voices” are turned into pop culture martyrs. They become simplified or sanitized. Because they created compelling art, we refuse to acknowledge or rush to downplay just how broken many of these artists were. John Lennon was abusive and an absentee father; Marvin Gaye began dating a 17-year-old while married to his first wife; Miles Davis was an unapologetic woman beater. Being great artists doesn’t make them saints; being tortured souls doesn’t make them heroes. Frances Bean doesn’t romanticize her father’s troubled emotional state or the pain his suicide caused—even as he’s become heralded as one of the most iconic artists of the late 20th century.
“I was around 15 when I realized he was inescapable. Even if I was in a car and had the radio on, there’s my dad. He's larger than life and our culture is obsessed with dead musicians. We love to put them on a pedestal. If Kurt had just been another guy who abandoned his family in the most awful way possible… But he wasn't. He inspired people to put him on a pedestal, to become St. Kurt. He became even bigger after he died than he was when he was alive. You don't think it could have gotten any bigger. But it did.”
There can be a reverence for an artist’s body of work without romanticizing the destructive elements in that artist’s personality or their emotional problems. In recognizing that these artists can be deeply flawed people, one is far less likely to believe that a singer-songwriter or rapper will be the sage that leads the public to some new plateau of enlightenment. A guy wrote a song that asked some questions, but it doesn’t mean anyone should believe he has the answers.
Since the February release of To Pimp A Butterfly, Compton rapper Kendrick Lamar is currently a popular artist that the public believes has a certain kind of cultural significance—like some of the aforementioned names whose music resonated deeply with their times. This week, Reebok debuted a new commercial featuring Lamar promoting “revolution” by way of designer sneakers. If the idea that revolution and corporate commercialism can ever comfortably coexist is naïve, the marketing of that notion is ridiculous. But it doesn’t feel like the public is outraged—and it’s probably because the public doesn’t believe in Kendrick Lamar. Or anyone else topping the charts or scoring goals or breaking box office records. Social media and the searing glare of the post-gossip blog spotlight have eroded the notion that any artist or celebrity can ever mean so much as to be anointed the “Voice of A Generation” today. That cultural cynicism has actually created a much more clear-eyed generation as it pertains to idol worship.
They love your album. They like your style. But they don’t think you’re a “leader” of anything but trends. Because they’ve seen too many get this wrong, and with so much at stake in American society right now, the people can’t afford to look to entertainers for much of anything but background music.
Maybe it’s better this way. Maybe we shouldn’t have been so quick to think of Kurt Cobain as anything more than a popular artist whose art resonated with his fans. An artist dying young doesn’t require post-mortem sanctification. John Lennon once said, “What they want is dead heroes, like Sid Vicious and James Dean. I'm not interested in being a dead fucking hero.” Given three days before his death, that quote is sadly prophetic and adequately sums up what we do to those who die young and leave a good-looking corpse. And we throw tomatoes of scorn at those artists who dare to keep releasing albums and going on tour after some imaginary expiration date of “coolness” has passed. We’d rather you get shot than get old. We’d rather only remember you as the idealistic young rebel. Like Kurt Cobain. And we’d rather not think about the reality of that young woman who grew up to be smart and creative without her amazing dad in her life. We just want to focus on Kurt Cobain—our dead hero.
And if he was alive—who knows? He’d probably be doing Reebok commercials.