Cobain and Generation Numb

Even the best Hollywood hype and New York marketing have never been able to trick me into believing any claims about the products they promote. In my rejection of media, it took until a chance listen to the radio last month for me to hear a Nirvana song and take it seriously. This led me to purchase one of their CDs and begin to find out more about guitarist and vocalist Kurt Cobain.

In my study of Nirvana's music I have been most impressed that Cobain was a very rare type: an artist among popular musicians. While most professional musicians are proficient with their instruments, it is extremely rare that they have artistic sensitivity in either their musical composition or lyrics. Cobain had both. That he was a combination of both artist and popular musician necessitated that he be misunderstood. Consequently, as Generation X turned him into a product and piece of disposable entertainment they also succeeded in killing his spirit and will to live.

Now that the trend sheep have wandered away or been led to whatever popular style MTV or "alternative" radio stations are pushing today, there is finally an opening of space in which to objectively evaluate Cobain and Generation X, both of which have passed into fatality. Though many members of Generation X treated Cobain as an icon, the link between the two was far from reciprocal because most who claimed Cobain as an inspiration fundamentally misunderstood him and his message. As he became popularized, the weight of having a flock of lost and hopeless fans became his despair, leaving suicide as both his salvation from vapid fans and a highly expressive final artistic statement, though it too went misunderstood.

Did Generation Numb Feel Anything?

There are few tributes more pathetic than maudlin gestures performed by people who do not understand what they salute. What Generation X fans seem to least understand is that Cobain was not so much a mouthpiece of Generation X as he was one who openly spoke and mocked its confusion, lack of focus, nihilism, indecisiveness, and self-chosen helplessness. He despised the weak and stupid; and now they appeared as his fans and proclaimed him a genius. He hated the compromisers and squanderers; and now they descended unto him which meant they were preparing to compromise and squander him.

The lack of possibility for getting through to Generation X became apparent with the widespread popularity of the hit single Smells Like Teen Spirit. In poking fun of Generation X's evasion, denial, and broken attention spans, the song overtly uses the refrain "Here we are now/Entertain us" to express the youth's passive relation to life, while offering a variety of scattered and confused lyrics to represent the inability to focus on coherent thought. Similar mockery appeared in Heart-Shaped Box where the chorus offers "Hey/Wait/I've got a new complaint". In Frances Farmer Will Have Her Revenge on Seattle he addresses the longing for comfort and complacent nothingness with the lyrics "I miss the comfort of being sad". That his audience identified with these lyrics rather than waking up to their collective resignation best demonstrates the unbridgeable gap that only became wider as fans proclaimed his deep insight and cogent articulation but continued to live without change.

Lyrical Exegesis

While the song Heart-Shaped Box speaks fairly simply about one's self-hate for compulsive attraction to female sexuality, more complex is Something in the Way which can be interpreted in three levels. On the surface the simplest and consequently least correct explanation is as a jumble of stream of consciousness ramblings or a hallucinogenic drug trip.

The second level of interpretation reveals the lyrics to be a mockery of liberal justifications in general, expressing the errors and contradictions inherent in any set of justifications. Lyrics such as "And the animals I've trapped/Have all become my pets" seem to speak of the transparent justifications from the perspective of animal rights supporters who own pets yet vociferously declare that all animals should be free of human exploitation. Later the lyrics mock the justification of vegetarians who eat fish with "But it's ok to eat fish/Cause they don't have any feelings". There lyrics here take the voice of a pretentious teen who is explaining his incoherence to others without any awareness of what he is admitting.

Finally, the third and most interesting level of interpretation is that of using liberalism as pure metaphor. Here "And the animals I've trapped/Have all become my pets" refers to mutually needy relationships ("trapped") between mostly thoughtless, directionless, unrefined humans ("animals") in which the attention and care required to shield them from life means they live in a sheltered reality much like pets. Similarly abstract, the interpretation of "And I'm living off of grass/ And the drippings from the ceiling/But it's ok to eat fish/Cause they don't have any feelings" becomes a general unconscious confession of how a person's needs can cause them to justify anything that compromises reason and integrity.

Ignorance is not Bliss

The distance between Cobain and his audience is best exemplified by the degree to which his fans did not understand the intent of his expression.

When art died about a century ago as it was gradually replaced with entertainment, it ensured a tragic situation for any artist who appeared afterwards and attempted to express himself. Audiences today lack all ability to comprehend anything artistic. Having no grasp of metaphor, subtlety, or allusion they want instead everything direct, predictable, and simplistic. Cobain's hope that he could get through on an artistic level can be interpreted as either optimistic innocence or ignorance.

The artist is a rare and sensitive type of thinker. His awareness is more intense than that which others experience. That he feels more than others becomes both his bliss and burden. He sees connections between things that others treat as disparate. He has an urge to express what he sees to others, as it seems to him at least a partial solution to the ignorance that dominates society.

In general an artist sees more than do others, as if he has a special gift of vision, a proverbial third eye that offers him an insight beyond conventional sight. When this world view and approach to thought is conveyed to others but neither understood nor appreciated, the artist often despairs at the frustration of incommunicability. To see life so vividly but to be unable to share it with others becomes a torturous confinement on reality.

Cobain's contempt for the hopeless and unaware seem to have been unknown to most of those who called themselves his fans. Though Cobain hated the idea of entertainment, in the end he became little more than an entertainer for a flock of inappreciative and bored youth. His message could neither be heard nor understood. Thus he was transformed by the capitalistic force of the crowd into the same thing that he wanted to destroy. His hope of freeing the self-imprisoned human spirits that fed the machine of entertainment was stifled by the power of the crowd.

Suicide Solution

The more a person sees others acting against the potential of life, the more their view of life is devalued. If they cannot come to accept that people love wasting potential then they are likely to see human behavior as hopeless self-hate or insanity. If they can't get through to the players of the monkey game then whatever self-worth they may have once had is lost as the result of their fruitless effort to share themselves with others. Thus suicide may be preferable to living once this awareness has overtaken their societal programming of supposed duty to others.

Most of Cobain's fans were unable to digest the autobiographical introspection that his suicide note offered. Instead they sought denial of his final writing and slandered his drug use, claiming it made him confused. This assertion is ludicrous to anyone who has used opiates, in particular when they are used for artistic or reflective purposes under which direction they bring clarity and increased focus.

His suicide note fits into the same pattern of being misunderstood that plagued his public life. He attempted to share tender parts of himself, but when the whole is rejected by his fans even his most open efforts were dismissed so that others could maintain the image of him as a superficial entertainer. Among the notable things he says about himself are:

  • I haven't felt the excitement of listening to as well as creating music along with reading and writing for too many years now
  • I'm too sensitive
  • I still can't get over the frustration, the guilt and empathy I have for everyone
  • I think I simply love people too much, so much that it makes me feel too fucking sad
  • I have it good, very good, and I'm grateful, but since the age of seven, I've become hateful towards all humans in general
  • I love and feel sorry for people too much

The Roots of a Generation

The children of Generation X became lost as a reflection of the climate in which they grew. They watched their parents try to fake answers and a path as the first truly lost generation who had to face growing up in the cultural decimation of the post-World War 2 era. The American triumph ushered in the era of egalitarianism which meant there could be no longer be any cultural connection between individuals or any collective goal. Any desire for rational ideology or meaning had been effectively destroyed, leaving only economic power and forced equality as acceptable methods. Taking the place of rationality were "feel good" values that effectively stalled all cultural momentum and robbed all potential from the effort of civilization. Though these cultural implications are seemingly unmentioned in mainstream analysis of history, World War 2 had a far more destructive impact for both sides than the mere loss of the 50 million men who died fighting it.

After an entire generation faked their way through life, first with directionless experimenting and rebellion in the 60s, then leisurely resting and posing in the 70s, and finally becoming materialist whores in the 80s, the children of these people could sense the emptiness despite whatever facades were presented. The result of growing up in a climate where no one trusts or believes anything, least of all meaning and hope, made Generation X the logical result. Worst of all, there is no obvious path out. People have a knack for adapting to almost anything and considering it to be "normal", so when it seems easier to submit to life rather than to act with purpose most will choose the easy and meaningless path of obligation, apathy, denial, resignation, and servitude.

When it comes to faking answers, politicians have traditionally offered the most exaggerated example of this behavior, invoking law, God, morality or some other intangible whenever they are lacking real solutions. They don't want an answer, only a distraction, so they play a game of juggling borrowed time with assertions that can never be touched or measured. If the crowd becomes mesmerized by the show then according to all post-industrial age pragmatic valuation the approach is considered effective. We have come to accept this illusion so they happily offer it to us when we become restless for answers.

Generation Numb

The way Generation X interacts with the world, or rather avoids interaction with it, is worthy of study. Even their parents who faked it conceded that there was an underlying reality to accept. In contrast, the children they raised are so numb that they fail to acknowledge reality just as they have lost sight of any dreams or hopes they might have had in their youthful years. This makes it nearly impossible to get through to them at any level. Though words will be heard and maybe even praised, anything offered will be for all practical purposes ignored so that their reality remains safely unchanged. This was the cause of Cobain's increasing frustration; many praised him, but few or none demonstrated any positive change in behavior that would indicate that his words meant anything more to them than entertainment. Instead of trying to understand his message they sought security in inertia.

This will be the legacy of Generation X. They know how to fake all the right words and gestures while keeping a safe distance from anything meaningful and real. They especially keep away from that which might bring the weight of having something of value in their lives. Even when they find their saviors, they might recognize a great potential but react with only passive adoration that suggests disbelief. They will not help themselves and they push away any help they are offered.

These traits make it difficult to get through to anybody who has given up on honesty and hope. They are skeptical and afraid of anything real, which requires giving assurances of reality when attempting to communicate with them. They disbelieve in taking action, preferring instead to watch, comment, or complain. They are only willing to get close to habit, where they find a comfortable safety. When habit fails, they find solace in apathy and the culture that conforms to hopelessness.

In a way, all of this is quintessentially definitive of their approach to life. It seems the only dreams that they will bring themselves will come from their victory in winning their vision of an empty, hopeless world.

September 10, 2000