It’s inescapable. Anytime some music documentary takes a look back on the 1990s, there’s bound to be THAT SEGMENT. You know, that point where some rock musician or rock journalist extols the unending virtues of Kurt Cobain and Nirvana. His obvious gifts and talents, their seismic impact on the music industry, and (most importantly) how there’s a desperate need for a new Nirvana now that nu-metal and modern-day pre-fabricated pop music has assumed the same position in the social landscape that hair metal bands and, um, modern-day pre-fabricated pop music once occupied. And it’s never just one person, oh no – this topic finds folks like Gwen Stefani, POD, and Tom Petty offering their praise in unison, a resounding chorus of Hallelujahs, wistfully ruminating on what once was and what could have been. Every time they say the word “genius”, the myth becomes more unwieldy, and yet another overpriced copy of Nevermind gets scanned & sold at Sam Goody.

And, of course, ten years after Nirvana dropped Nevermind on the great unwashed, there are a good number of people understandably hesitant to anoint Kurt Cobain a savior and place him in the pantheon. Their voices aren’t as loud as the folks touting his greatness, but what these people say is just as powerful, and just as damaging. The most recent stone thrown at this cultural Goliath is, not surprisingly, the latest biography to be published about Kurt Cobain, Heavier Than Heaven. Written by Charles Cross (a long time editor of the Seattle music paper The Rocket, and a friend of both Cobain and Courtney Love), this book offers readers a truer portrait of Kurt than previous books were able to portray, delving deep into the psyche of one of rock’s most enigmatic superstars, giving fans a better understanding of this tragic figure, this disenfranchised voice of a disenfranchised generation. Of course, I’m just quoting articles and press clippings – I’m not in any hurry to run out and actually spend money on a work so invasive & willfully slanderous. The excerpts published earlier this year by Spin (with squalid depictions of Kurt’s upbringing and his pre-Nevermind life) were more than enough. Kurt’s story is one that most people can, unfortunately, identify with – the tale of a child from a broken home struggling desperately to find somewhere to belong. It’s a sad story. It’s a painful story. Perhaps, as a counterbalance to all the unabashed praise being offered, it’s also a necessary story – a way to humanize the myth, to bring this person and his works back down to Earth, to remind people that he was just as fallible as the rest of us (songwriting skills notwithstanding).

In a review of this book, Robert Christgau calls Cobain “the first class-crossing idol of substance since Springsteen discovered barbells”. Cobain was “a geek you could get wasted with, a shy guy whose cuteness cried out for mothering, an arty weirdo with a common touch.” He was, according to common knowledge, a rock star that didn’t want to be a rock star, an upstanding example of the punk rock ethos made manifest, a true artist. Cross’ book tells a different story, of course – “Everything I do,” according to an excerpt from Cobain’s journals (given to Cross by Love for use in this book), “is an overly conscious and neurotic attempt at trying to prove to others that I am at least more intelligent and cool than they think.” Kurt struggles to stay valid in the eyes of his peers, saying the right thing to the right people, always stuck in this never-ending battle to be simultaneously accepted and embraced while being revered from a distance. He shuns rock stardom while fabricating answers to imaginary press conferences; he scoffs at the mainstream while constantly working to make his music more palatable. Again, from Cross, on Cobain’s exposure to the fierce feminist stances espoused by Tobi Vail & Kathleen Hanna – “The same man who read bizarre European pornography now used words like ‘misogyny’ and talked about the politics of oppression”.

In other words, (or in the words of Green Day, one of the only bands to truly benefit from Nirvana’s success), Kurt Cobain was a walking contradiction, and (in the eyes of the media) he ain’t got no right. He sold out by signing to a major label; he didn’t sell enough, releasing a bunch of trash after Nevermind. He pissed on his fans by releasing the unlistenable In Utero; he cowed to the mainstreams’ whims by sanding the sharp edges off of Nevermind. He’s a tortured artist that can pinpoint precarious emotions with just a short phrase; he’s a tortured fuck-up whose mumbled nonsense is passed off as poetic brilliance by self-absorbed idiots. Somewhere in the middle of all that contention is the boring old middle ground that no one wants to bother finding (since it clearly isn’t as invigorating or exciting as taking sides). And, of course, it’s that middle ground that’s the truest of all – fight as hard as you want on either side of this debate, but to take one side is to only accept half the story.

It’s no different than all those musicians and critics stating matter-of-factly that Nirvana’s coup d’etat of the Billboard charts in 1991 changed EVERYTHING about music, as if things could be so simple. Of course, it takes an understanding of what most folks visualize when discussing popular music’s landscape around this time. Here’s a short summary:

1) Pop music and pop (hair) metal rule the charts; nothing of substance sells; boo
2) Nirvana & alt-rock / grunge kick those soulless bastards in the nuts with true ART; yay
3) Nirvana is gone; alt-rock & grunge follow suit; oh no
4) Pop music and pop (rap/nu) metal rule the charts; nothing of substance sells; boo

Nirvana was able to seek refuge in two camps, with one foot tenuously dipped in the waters of grunge, and one grimy boot firmly set in the world of punk rock. Of course, most folks remember that, following Nirvana’s success, other bands from their area of Washington realized success as well. Since the majority of these groups shared vaguely similar physical and sonic characteristics, major media outlets were more than happy to group them all into one big happy family – hence, “grunge”. As a result, other bands, either through shrewd calculated maneuvers or through sheer dumb luck, were able to ride these groups’ coattails and achieve similar types of success. Even those that came from Nirvana’s neck of the woods found themselves measured against Nirvana, wrongfully tagged as trend-hoppers; the criticism primarily focused only on one group, though – Pearl Jam. Anyone that’s given those two groups a cursory listen knows there isn’t much to compare, other than the equipment and the flannel. Pearl Jam (and Soundgarden, and possibly even Alice in Chains) belonged in the canon of Classic Rock (where their first album proudly reigns, swapping squid with Led Zeppelin & Aerosmith) even as they flew the self-righteous flag of “grunge”. These folks were as bombastic and metallic and (most importantly) expressive as any arena rock act – when played at a loud enough volume, thoughtful self-castigation doesn’t sound much different than good old fashioned thoughtless rock and roll. Nirvana was always a pricklier beast, despite their success, despite the melodies, despite the crowd-pleasing sheen fashioned by Andy Wallace & Butch Vig for Nevermind – I’ll get to that, though.

Regardless of these self-evident differences, Pearl Jam was jumping on the bandwagon, said the critics. Poseurs, they were. Fuck ’em where it hurts, those thieving shits. Then came the 1st wave of imitators – folks like Candlebox and Stone Temple Pilots, bands clearly borrowing their moves and sounds from the Seattle stable. Definite poseurs, said the critics. String ’em up and let ’em hang – God, they’re so FAKE; they’ll get what’s coming to them (that being multi-platinum records and that ever-popular quarter-hour, of course). And now, ten years after the fact, there are groups crawling out of every possible nook and cranny in your stereo speakers, groups copying the copiers, with the integrity of the copy weakening with each drop of toner. Now, the original poseurs have tenure and credibility. Now, the originators are now producing Greatest Hits packages and box sets. Now, one of the most popular groups in this particular style of music actually began as a group covering songs from the groups they shamelessly emulate. Once upon a time, a visit to some seedy bar somewhere in New England (probably around the Western Massachusetts area) would give you a chance to witness a group called Stain, a group offering faithful renditions of any number of tracks off of Ten or Dirt. Now, this group (after adding a D to the end of their name) is everywhere, a fixture on the Billboard charts, sharing space with like-minded folks such as Creed and Godsmack and Tantric and Puddle of Mudd. In some ways, music of the past 10 years hasn’t changed much at all.