Kurt Cobain is one of the most influential songwriters of all time. The de facto voice of Generation X, his lyrics about sexuality, drugs, inner demons and mashed potatoes were everything that his generation wanted and needed to hear. Seemingly overnight, after the release of ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ in September 1991, Cobain was universally hailed as the voice of a generation.
His surreal and often challenging lyrics appealed directly to the angst and frustration that his generation felt, politically, socially and economically. Without Cobain’s stunning songwriting, modern alternative music would be without many of its essential facets. Whether it be the quiet-loud-quiet dynamics that Cobain appropriated from Pixies, his emotive but straightforward guitar playing style or challenging lyrical themes, many of Cobain’s signature artistic tools can be found permeating music today.
It’s strange to think that without him, contemporary culture would be without some of its most outspoken characters such as Machine Gun Kelly, Yungblud and countless others. Although considerable criticism can be weighted against them, particularly in terms of artistic density, the point remains the same. It’s a testament to Kurt Cobain’s musical work that we still see and hear his spirit living on inside the work of an innumerable amount of artists.
Even though we could spend hours discussing the pioneering nature of Kurt Cobain’s artistry and the way that it continues to influence music and culture today, there’s another reason why he continues to be lauded: his attitude. Off-stage, the consistently righteous sentiment he espoused in his songs was supported by Cobain’s comments in interviews.
One of the most complex characters music has ever seen, Cobain had a perception that was like no other, and his candid thoughts on the world were crucial. Possessing an outsider’s perspective, a lot of what Cobain had to say on everything from feminism to music remains as pertinent as it was 30 years ago.
One instance that he really set the collective imagination into motion was during a 1993 interview with Jon Savage. Discussing identity and the problems he had fitting in at school, it was one of the most revealing insights into the Nirvana frontman that we ever got. Kicking off the interview, Savage wasted no time in asking Cobain if he had “problems in High School?”.
The ever-honest rocker responded: “Yeah. You know, I felt so different and so crazy that people just left me alone. I always felt that they’d vote me ‘most likely to kill everyone at a High School dance’, you know?”.
Cobain then explained how his mother always tried to “keep a little bit of English culture” in their family by drinking tea “all the time”, although he didn’t know until that same year that the name Cobain was actually Irish. Wanting to dig deeper into the origins of his family name, Cobain said that he’d looked through phonebooks and couldn’t find any Cobains.
Instead, he started ringing up people with the surname Coburn to find out more. He eventually came into contact with a lady in San Francisco who’d been researching the provenance of the name. She found that it came from County Cork, Ireland. Cobain declared that this was “a weird coincidence”, because the band had once played in Cork, and “the entire day, I walked around in a daze, I’d never felt more spiritual in my life. I was almost in tears the whole day. It was the weirdest thing”.
Elsewhere, Cobain discussed how his struggles started as a teenager. He said: “I had a really good childhood until the divorce, then all of a sudden, my whole world changed. I couldn’t face some of my friends at school. I desperately wanted to have the classic, typical family, mother, father”.
Later in the conversation, Cobain explained why he hung out with the girls in school. He said: “Because I couldn’t find any friends, male friends, that I felt compatible with, I ended up hanging out with the girls a lot. I just always felt that they weren’t treated with respect, especially because women are totally oppressed. I mean, the word ‘Bitch’ and ‘C***’ are totally common”.
He continued: “Although I listened to Aerosmith and Led Zeppelin, and I really did enjoy some of the melodies that they’d written, it took me so many years to realise that a lot of it had to do with sexism, and the way that they just wrote about their c*** and having sex. I was just starting to understand what really was pissing me off so much, those last couple of years of High School. And then punk rock… and then it all came together, it just fit together like a puzzle. It expressed the way I felt socially and politically, just everything. It was the anger that I felt, the alienation.”
Savage then asked Cobain If people thought he was gay in High School. To which he responded: “Yeah. I even thought that I was gay. I thought that might be the solution to my problem. Although I never experimented with it, I had a gay friend, and then my mother wouldn’t allow me to be friends with him anymore because, erm, she’s homophobic.”
Of this momentous time in his development, Cobain said: “It was real devastating because finally, I found a male friend who I actually hugged and was affectionate to, and we talked about a lot of things… I couldn’t hang out with him anymore.”
Cobain was a complex figure, who was the product of the upbringing he had. Listening to Cobain’s interview with Jon Savage accounts for a lot of the thematic angles he carried in his work. He was an outsider, who was dealt a bad hand, and although things might have been much different for Cobain had his parents not divorced, in the future, it allowed him to develop a perception that we can still learn so much from today.
Listen to Kurt Cobain speak about identity below.