Friday, December 4, 2009

Kurt Cobain versus David Foster Wallace

Something you may or may not know about me – maybe because it is one of my more strongly-held pop opinions, maybe not because I try not to be a drag about it by holding forth on it at length (this post excepted, obviously) – is that I do not particularly care for the band Nirvana. Like every other seventeen-year-old in America in early 1992 I thought “Smells Like Teen Spirit” was a hell of a track (which I’m pretty sure I bought in cassingle form and which I’m absolutely certain I put on mix-tapes that summer) and had a groovy video. But the rest of Nevermind didn’t really do a ton for me, musically, so I wasn’t looking forward to In Utero as much as some of the other guys on my freshman hall (who worked at the campus radio station, so take that for what it’s worth). I liked “Smells Like Teen Spirit” for its energetic aggression, but it seemed to me like every single after that was sludgier and dirgier, which has never really been my cup of aural tea. I concede that there can be both really well-done funereal heavy-distortion songs and really poorly done examples of same, and I further concede that I am not the best person to judge whether or not, for example, “All Apologies” is a good dirge or a bad dirge, because I don’t as a rule like dirges.

However, as a rule I do like anarchy cheerleaders.
Still, all of the above is extremely trivial in the grand scheme of things. There are lots of bands I like and lots of bands I don’t like for purely personal aesthetic reasons that can’t be logically defended. I don’t have to convince anyone who does like those bands that they really shouldn’t. I just won’t buy the albums of bands I don’t like and I will change the station if they come on the radio (assuming I’m driving alone – if you’re riding shotgun and you really like that band, I can sit through a song on the radio). But a couple of things put Nirvana in their own special distasteful category.

One is that they were so beloved across so many strata from rock dinosaur critics to MTV execs to guys on my freshman hall that people tend to assume (a) everyone (especially every Gen Xer) loved Nirvana because (b) Nirvana was not good-if-you-like-that-sort-of-thing but inarguably, empirically, transcendently superior. (I may be bitterly projecting a bit here, but go with me.) It was annoying to constantly receive the message in the mid-90’s that Kurt Cobain spoke for my generation, spoke for me, when I didn’t find that to be the case at all. He didn’t reach me musically or lyrically, and that’s fine because no artist is required to appeal to me personally in order to justify their existence. But as liking Nirvana came to seem more and more mandatory itself, I got progressively more turned off.

And then Kurt Cobain killed himself. There’s a quasi-running joke that Gen Xer’s can answer the question where they were when they heard Kurt Cobain died the same way Baby Boomers can answer it for JFK. It’s not particularly funny, but it is probably true. I don’t remember where I was but I remember my reaction. It wasn’t any kind of sadness that I would never get to see Nirvana live and they would never release another album or anything like that, obviously, because I was beyond weary of the grungier-than-grunge plod-riffs and monotone disaffected vocals a lot of other people couldn’t get enough of. My reaction was, and you have no good reason to trust my claim of eidetic recall here but I’m gonna claim this is pretty much verbatim: “Holy shit he has a wife and a baby girl what the fuck?!”

See, in 1994, I had no idea where my life was headed or what I wanted to be when I grew up but I knew I wanted a family because that was a lifelong constant. You may correctly assume that as a privileged, pop-culture obsessed liberal arts student slacker coming of age in humanity’s most ironic era I didn’t take much of anything seriously, but family was always the exception to that rule. I loved my family fiercely and would do anything for them. I thought marriage vows were sacred and serious. I thought bringing a child into the world was the single greatest responsibility a person could undertake. (I still think all these things, of course, but the past tense is to emphasize it was as true when I was 19 as it is now.) And Kurt Cobain abnegated his responsibilities and it disgusted me, which I know sounds adolescently overwrought but I can’t deny that those are the words that fit.

I’m pretty strongly anti-suicide. Not zero tolerance, because there’s not a single thing in the universe that is simple black-and-white, but pretty strongly. Everybody fantasizes about ending it all in their angsty awkward years, but my daydreams were fleeting and non-alluring. Suicide just doesn’t fit into any of my half-baked notions of what life is supposed to be all about, for a lot of reasons, one of the most significant being that it is so blatantly hurtfully selfish. It places the end of your own suffering above the cause of suffering in others. Which means if I were to rank the inherent awfulness of people’s suicides, those who were basically loners correctly perceiving that no one would miss them if they were gone would be the least awful (but, please note, still awful) and the most execratingly inexcusable would be people who abandon their own small children. The fact that Kurt Cobain chose to leave Frances Bean to be raised without a father (and, rimshot-but-not-really, to be raised by single mother Courtney Love) is despicable. I feel bad that he found himself in such an ugly place at the end, I do. But my conviction is that he made the wrong choice.

And yet Kurt Cobain has been CANONIZED. Oh, poor, fragile, sensitive, wounded Kurt Cobain. He hated being famous and it was all too much for him. Please. That storyline has never worked for me, as if I’m supposed to swallow that he was some primitive who wasn’t savvy enough to realize that once the audiences started showing up and the records started selling that it might not be all good times and easy living. How could The Voice Of Generation X not have known that the lives of rock stars are just as fucked up as everyone else’s? I’m pretty sure my generation knew that fact well before Kurt Cobain blew his own brains out to escape. And yet. Whenever people talk of Kurt Cobain it is in reverent and hallowed tones. As you can imagine, this really does not endear Nirvana’s music to me.

And the thing is, no matter how many times I listen to Nirvana, it still sounds like the most coherent theme you can tease out of Kurt Cobain’s lyrics is “My parents got divorced; therefore life is shit.” It’s elementary why that should resonate with my generation, but it’s just so stunted and simplistic (not to mention solipsistic). It would not be a slogan that got much traction with me if there were an election for The Voice Of My Generation, which of course there wasn’t.

But if there had been, you know who I would have voted for? (Perhaps you have forgotten the title of this post.) David Foster Wallace is in many ways the diametric opposite of Nirvana’s frontman, everything that Kurt Cobain is not, and it’s kind of unfair to compare the output of an essayist and novelist to a pop songwriter’s, but maybe that’s part of my (unconscionably elitist) point. I’m the kind of person who’s going to find more resonant philosophy in a sprawling novel than in verse-chorus-verse. And David Foster Wallace’s theme (or election slogan), grossly oversimplified, is “Life is really complicated.” Kurt Cobain would scream “Rape Me” over and over again and leave it at that. David Foster Wallace would introduce the idea that someone mistreating him felt like a kind of rape, then back away from that idea and acknowledge that ‘rape’ is one of the most loaded words in the English language and using it for anything other than violent non-consensual sex is fraught with perils of desensitization, then approach the idea again to see if maybe, perils notwithstanding, there is some merit in at least making the analogy, then try to break down what it really meant in the first place to put it in such terms. All of this within the context of talking about something altogether different in the first place, like why Jetsons-style video-phones never have caught on and never will. David Foster Wallace could talk himself in circles, but meaningful, insightful, revelatory circles. He was also enamored of parentheses and footnotes and all the various sub-species of tangents. If you have not yet seen why the man is, in my eyes, the superior choice for Generational Voice, then welcome to my blog! Check out some of the archives.

It occurs to me at this point that it’s much easier to talk about everything I don’t like about Kurt Cobain than everything I do like about David Foster Wallace. Partly that’s because Kurt Cobain is close to universally known – the fact that it drives me crazy does not change the inherent reality of it. For better or worse, Kurt Cobain is a million times more mainstream than David Foster Wallace. Another part is that Kurt Cobain’s songs are intentionally blunt, while David Foster Wallace’s writings are intentionally labyrinthine, and thus the former is easier to comment on than the latter. It’s hard to put what reading David Foster Wallace is like into words (because he writes about and demonstrates along the way how hard it is to truly put anything meaningful into words) but suffice it to say that days or weeks or months can go by where I never think about Nirvana, but rarely does a day go I by where I don’t have at least a fleeting recollection of something I read in Infinite Jest or Everything and More. David Foster Wallace matters to me in a way that Kurt Cobain emphatically does not.

And yet.

Last year, David Foster Wallace killed himself. Just like Kurt Cobain. And like Cobain, this was not an accidental overdose in an attempt to self-medicate, it was a deliberate choice, a violent act of self-abnegation, a hanging as opposed to a shooting but otherwise indistinguishable. And also like Cobain, David Foster Wallace left behind a wife (but no children). I could split hairs all day about how Cobain was self-destructively taking illegal drugs to ameliorate physical medical problems whereas Wallace was diagnosed with depression and trying various options under a doctor’s supervision, but in the end both got to that same heartbreaking ugly place and both made the wrong choice.


I should hate David Foster Wallace with every joule of burning fury that I hate Kurt Cobain, but of course I don’t, because life is complicated and the hypocrisy at the heart of the human experience is only one facet of that. I love to read Wallace’s work and when the day comes that I’ve read it all I will be sad that there will never be any more in this world. I see in his writings all the glorious and galling thought-processes of my own information-overloaded experience, and maybe my whole generation. That makes it awfully hard to hate the man. And if I’m totally honest with myself, I don’t really hate Kurt Cobain. I hate being told that he was the poetic soul of Generation X, and I hate that his suicide has been rolled into the legend of his persona as an act of tragic nobility instead of cowardly betrayal, but obviously Cobain himself has no control over either of those aspects of his legacy. For the man himself I just feel pity and disappointment. Oddly enough that’s very similar to what I feel for David Foster Wallace, the human being as opposed to the author, which just goes to show the contradictory ways I (maybe everyone) can perceive the same thing based on circumstance. Books I love versus music I could take or leave; a suicide that pisses me off versus a suicide that pisses me off for completely different reasons.


  1. What's sad to consider is that the suicides of both men were very similar. Both were huge depressives with longstanding mental health problems and (at least in Cobain's case, not sure about Wallace) a family history of suicides. Cobain very likely would have killed himself, fame or no. Wallace had problems created by switching antidepressants and the side effects they had on him. A great article on his life, work, and the end of his days was published by the New Yorker ("The Unfinished," by D.T. Max, 3/9/09 -- I'd link to it, but your comment section doesn't want to let me.)

    The best piece I've ever heard about Cobain's death was on the Bruce McCullough (one of the "Kids in the Hall") album "Shame-Based Man," an unjustly ignored comedy album. McCullough had a strange, touching bit called "The Vigil," about his visit to Seattle that happened to coincide with Cobain's death.

    I do love Nirvana, but they lost a little bit of meaning to me when I learned about one of their songs. In high school, I saw the ad campaign for "Teen Spirit," a deodorant aimed at young teenage girls, and felt disgusted. Consumerism in a nutshell -- a stupid, pointless product repackaged to cater to a niche, creating insecurities, needs, and a sense of identity that were wholly unnecessary. I wanted to punch somebody. (Ah, adolescence.) A year or two later, "Smells Like Teen Spirit" came out, and I thought at last, someone who felt exactly what I did. Even if he sang in gibberish.

    Turns out that no, that's not what inspired the song. Cobain, when starting out, was dating a girl much younger than he was. A female friend, mocking him, wrote on a club's "graffiti wall" the phrase "Kurt smells like Teen Spirit." He liked the sound of the phrase, but didn't know where it came from until much later. Dammit!

  2. Nobody who commits suicide does so from a place of selfishness. It's an ignorant myth. Those who are victims to suicide are suffering from a mental illness, and regarldess if you dislike Nirvana's music or not, your dismissal of his death as 'boo-hoo, woe is me, get over it' is deeply troubling. Clearly you've never been in that situation yourself. And I'm glad, because it's an awful place to be. Don't let your petty elitisms cloud your emotional judgement. The man was unwell. Show a little respect.

    1. I see your point. I will concede two things: one, you are correct in assuming that I have never really been in a place in my life where I have felt suicidal, so on a fundamental level if I express any opinions about suicide at all, I don't know firsthand what I'm talking about. And two, it's an extremely complicated issue, and oversimplifying it to a singular label like "selfish" is unfair, full stop.

      I wrote this post seven years ago and I hope my thinking on the subject has evolved over time, and will continue to do so. I will not perpetuate the idea that suicide equates to selfishness. Thanks for the perspective.