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Saturday, September 25, 2010

Cobain as artist

I was riding in a van today and "Smells Like Teen Spirit" by Nirvana came on the radio, and as I was listening to it in a detached way, I was taking the song apart in my mind to try to figure out what it was all about. What made it so influential? Was it just a coincidence, or was there rhyme or reason to it?

This got me to thinking, and so I did a little bit of research on Cobain. In reading about his life, a picture begins to form. He was born in an extremely small town in Washington, a town of 16,000 according to the 1990 census, about 2 hours outside of Seattle. His mother was a waitress and his father was an auto mechanic. They divorced when he was eight years old.

When you think of the huge, phenomenal, influence of "Smells like teen spirit", the song that (thankfully, in my opinion) caused hair metal to go away, you think that perhaps it was some sort of fluke. It's just a song by someone that somehow ignited a cultural phenomenon. But, when you look into it, you see that this is not the case at all. Cobain was an artist, plain and simple, from the time that he was a child, to the time that he comitted suicide at 27. His art expressed itself in numerous forms, and one site divides his work into the following categories: paintings, drawings, collages, sculptures, film, sound collages, and these are all in addition to Cobain's music. Family members said that when he was young his room at home resembled an artist's studio. I would describe a lot of the imagery in his visual art as dark, morbid, gruesome, in some ways reminiscent of the art of Francis Bacon. Some of it reminds me of the artwork of the schizophrenic musician Daniel Johnston. In reading about his life and looking into it, I feel a facination mixed with a tinge of jealousy over Cobain's uncontestable coolness. But, one can also see in Cobain's artwork that he was a troubled soul, and, one would assume, in a great deal of emotional and psychological pain. I find similarities here between Bacon, Johnston, and Cobain.

One way of relating the three would be to view them each through the lens of spirituality. Bacon had atheistic tendencies and once likened the world to "a piece of dog shit." Johnston had fundamentalist Christian tendencies, and, in schizophrenic episodes, Christian religious ideology comes up again and again. After a brief stint as a Pentacostal, Cobain apparently turned his back on the Christian relgions, and was later drawn to Janism and Buddhism.

Another lens by which we may view the three is that of sexuality. Bacon: homosexual who claimed that he had been in love with his own father. Johnston: heterosexual who idealized his first love and as an adult did not seem to have very many active heterosexual relations. Cobain: heterosexual who once claimed to be "gay in spirit" and have the potential to be "bisexual".

The following are two paintings by Cobain.

Not all of Cobain's work is "dark". Cobain's strong, rebellious personality shines through in many pieces, such as the following.

This is telling, considering that Cobain's father was an auto mechanic.

This was done for a class in school. The teacher would not allow it to be put up, so he drew a picture of Ronald Regan instead. Cobain's cleverness shows through in both of these pieces.

What does all this tell me about "Smells like teen spirit"? A few interesting facts about the song. Cobain himself claimed that the song was an attempt to "rip off" the Pixies. A girlfriend of Kurt's had spraypainted on his wall: "Kurt smells like teen spirit", "teen spirit" refering to her brand of deoderant. But, in general, what I gather is that "Smells like teen spirit" is a work of art that is the product of a mature artist who had deliberately honed his craft over years in various media, an artist who was born in a shitty little town called Aberdeen, Washington. To pull it all together: the "smells like teen spirit" scrawled on his wall, the influence of the Pixies, the lyrics of the song, it becomes an undeniable fact: this is the work of an artist.