Publications Index | Encyclopedia of Trotskyism | Marxists’s Internet Archive

Socialist Review Index (1993–1996) | Socialist Review 175 Contents

Socialist Review, May 1994

Ian Bosworth & Ashlea Harris


Spokesman for Generation X

Obituary: Kurt Cobain


From Socialist Review, No. 175, May 1994.
Copyright © Socialist Review.
Copied with thanks from the Socialist Review Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


When Kurt Cobain committed suicide sometime during the first week of April he became, as his mother put it, ‘another member of that stupid club’ of dead rock stars; as if such tragedies are inevitable in the ‘rock ‘n’ roll world’. Unsurprising, maybe: inevitable, they are not.

Kurt Cobain and his band Nirvana have been a dominant force in popular music, inspiring imitators and influencing other styles of music, for example by Credit to the Nation in their song Call It What You Want.

Nirvana has been seen as the leading exponent of what the media have styled ‘grunge’. Developed in the music scene around Seattle in the northwest of the US, the music is characterised by blasts of raw guitar noise and muted but angry lyrics, full of suppressed anger and bitterness. This music reflected the disillusionment with the American Dream of a dispossessed generation the so-called ‘Generation X’. These are 20-somethings drifting through a series of poorly paid jobs, seeing no hope in the future.

Cobain grew up in Aberdeen, a small logging town deep in redneck country, somewhere near Seattle. He hated the ‘American macho male’ culture in the isolated working class community and retreated into music and art. School offered nothing, and low-paid jobs even less. He worked for a while as a cleaner in a hotel until sacked for falling asleep. Music was one of the few things that Kurt valued and forming a band with a friend provided an outlet for his creative talent.

As part of the newly thriving music scene in the northwest, Nirvana was soon noticed for its brooding intensity which often resulted in trashed equipment onstage. Despite the harshness of the sound, Cobain’s songs were always distinctive and well structured, even melodic at times.

Big business soon noticed that something was going on in Seattle that they could make money from. ‘Grunge fashion’ was adopted by that most insipid of worlds: the fashion catwalks of Paris, New York, Milan and London, and Nirvana was adopted as the flagship of grunge by the record and media companies.

Soon MTV sponsored bands like 4 non-Blondes, and the Spin Doctors were taking ‘grunge’ into a safer, anaesthetised arena and removing any real anger. But it was Nirvana, not a manufactured band, which struck a chord with the alienated youth.

As Nirvana became more and more famous, Cobain found it harder and harder to subvert the plans of the record companies and media.

The media, always hungry for stories, seized on Cobain’s nonconformist stance – he publicly supported causes such as ‘Rock the Vote’ and the pro-choice campaign – and began to hound him and his wife, Courtney Love, with the usual rock star stories of drug taking and alcoholism. The culmination was an article in Vanity Fair magazine which implied that Courtney was taking heroin while pregnant with their child, Frances. This led to the state taking the baby away from them.

The British music press has been trying desperately to explain the circumstances of Cobain’s death, but has failed to point out who is really to blame. An article in the Melody Maker said ‘It’s beyond politics. Even in an ecologically balanced, perfect socialist state, with a nice house, nice car, nice food and nice family for everybody, rock ‘n’ roll will fuck up, kick over the traces.’

But it’s not rock music that pushes people to the edge, it’s the media and music industry that turns individuals into icons and that takes control of the music from its creators and turns it into a commodity. Cobain saw this, and any enthusiasm he had for writing and performing was drained by this commoditisation of his art. As his suicide note stated, ‘Sometimes I feel as if I should have to punch a time clock before I walk out on stage’.

Socialist Review Index   |   ETOL Main Page

Last updated: 15 April 2017