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The Commodification of Kurt Cobain

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Over the weekend, Nirvana fans and friends remembered Kurt Cobain on the twentieth anniversary of his death. They wrote remembrances in the local press. They visited a park near where he died, to leave flowers, notes, and beers. Thoughtful think pieces were penned, and the New York Times Travel section even joined in with a tour of Cobain’s old digs, in Aberdeen, Olympia, and Seattle. Nirvana will be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in a ceremony later this week.

As much influence as Cobain’s music had on his listeners and fellow musicians, it also had an undeniably huge influence on the music industry—and in the pop-culture industry writ large. Nirvana’s wild success in the early 1990s forced music executives and producers to rethink what types of bands they should be paying attention to. That success made the industry decision-makers hungry to try to replicate it, by mining whatever hip new thing they could find. Their shift in thinking played a big role in the commercial packaging of Generation X and “alternative” culture—something that we now likely take for granted.

We thought now would be a good time to revisit Thomas Frank’s 1993 essay on this topic, written while he was seeing this trend start to play out. Here’s an excerpt of “Alternative to What?” from Issue 5 of The Baffler:

Out went the call for an “alternative” from a thousand executive suites, and overnight everyone even remotely associated with independent rock in Seattle—and Minneapolis, Chapel Hill, Champaign, Lawrence, and finally Chicago—found themselves the recipients of unsolicited corporate attention. Only small adjustments were required to bring the whole universe of corporate-sponsored rebellion up to date, to give us Blind Melon instead of Frankie Goes to Hollywood; 10,000 Maniacs instead of Sigue Sigue Sputnik. And suddenly we were propelled into an entirely new hip paradigm, a new universe of cool, with all new stars and all new relationships between the consumer, his celebrities, and his hair. [. . .]

Not only did the invention of “alternative” provide capital with a new and more convincing generation of rebels, but in one stroke it has obsoleted all the rebellions of the past ten years, rendered our acid-washed jeans, our Nikes, our DKNYs meaningless. Are you vaguely pissed off at the world? Well, now you get to start proving it all over again, with flannel shirts, a different brand of jeans, and big clunky boots. And in a year or two there will be an “alternative” to that as well, and you’ll get to do it yet again.

It’s not only the lure of another big Nirvana-like lucre-glut that brings label execs out in droves to places like Seattle, or hopes of uncovering the new slang that prompts admen to buy journals like The Baffler. The culture industry is drawn to “alternative” by the more general promise of finding the eternal new, of tapping the very source of the fuel that powers the great machine. As Interview affirms, “What still makes the genre so cool is not its cash potential or hype factor but the attendant drive and freedom to create and discover fresh, new music.” Fresh new music, fresh new cars, fresh new haircuts, fresh new imagery.

Also discussed in this essay: Rolling Stone Magazine, Pearl Jam, The Gap, Madonna, Pepsi, Michael Jackson, and much more. Read the whole thing, now online for the first time, here. It’s also featured in The Baffler’s first anthology, Commodify Your Dissent: The Business of Culture in the New Gilded Age.