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A Reflection on the Life of Kurt Cobain

March 29, 2017

Kurt Cobain would have been 50 years old on February 20 this year. His impact on music is nearly impossible to ignore over twenty years after his death. However, as fondly as we might remember his birthday, such remembrance is short lived since the anniversary of his death is just a little over a month later on April 8, his impact forever balanced with the tragic circumstances of his last days. He is simultaneously exemplar and cautionary tale, with many obvious takeaways from his story, both positive and negative. But beyond the obvious, there are two elements that I think are worth our reflection. Both concern this quote:

 "I'm a spokesman for myself,'' he says. "It just so happens that there's a bunch of people that are concerned with what I have to say. I find that frightening at times because I'm just as confused as most people. I don't have the answers for anything. I don't want to be a ******* spokesperson.''*

By 1992, Nirvana had reached Rolling Stone magazine darling status, and their cover story featured a lengthy interview with Kurt that deals mainly with their rise to fame and the struggles that came with it. His response above is both illuminating and damning for a culture that so often idolizes its artists. Most artists have the courage to say, “I don’t have the answers for anything,” which means that most of us looking at an artist’s art should be okay with unanswered questions. As C.S. Lewis said in his excellent work An Experiment in Criticism, our appreciation of a work begins with surrender: “We sit down before the picture in order to have something done to us, not that we may do things with it.” The more we look to an artist’s work to confirm or deny our beliefs, the greater the risk we run of misusing that work.

Secondly, he says explicitly, “I don’t want to be a spokesperson.” Christians are knocked for this all the time (see Shai Lynn’s recent post concerning Chance the Rapper as a perfect example), but the response to Kurt Cobain’s life and death demonstrate that this is a problem common to everyone. Whether spokesperson or savior, elevating an artist to this point is not only unwarranted (in this case by his own request), it is ultimately devaluing to the art and dehumanizing to the artist. We have all encountered art that affects us deeply, even to the point of feeling as though that work speaks for us. But as Kurt Cobain shows, this may well be a coincidence, or at the very least an unintended consequence. The more we look to an artist to represent us, the greater the risk we run of abusing that person.

Kurt Cobain’s legacy is ultimately a tragic one, but his daughter, Frances Bean Cobain, summarized it best**:

“My dad was exceptionally ambitious. But he had a lot thrown on him, exceeding his ambition. He wanted his band to be successful. But he didn’t want to be the ******* voice of a generation.”

His life, work, and death should push us to treat both art and artist with hospitality and respect.