I’ve had three great obsessions in my life; Star Wars, Baseball, and Nirvana. From 1994 to 2000 they nearly consumed my every thought, and all I wanted was more and more Nirvana. More albums, more videos, more t-shirts, posters, books and anything else you could slap their logo on. I spent countless hours and dollars searching for and buying Nirvana merchandise, I dressed like Kurt Cobain, I wrote the lyrics to their songs on my bedroom wall. On a trip to England I spent 20 pounds (about $35 at the time) on the European version of In Utero to get one song not on the American release. As my obsession faded the deluge of Nirvana commercialization has grown to a point where it’s become complete over-commercialization.
My obsession began in 1994, which will forever be remembered by Nirvana fans as the year Kurt Cobain took his own life. From 1994 to 2001 two live albums were released (Unplugged and From the Muddy Banks of the Wishkah) beyond there was a virtual drought of Nirvana anything. It became a habit that whenever I walked into any record store I would immediately go to the Nirvana section just to see if there was anything that I didn’t already own. It had been rumored for years that there was a rarities box set in the works, but it was a constant source of disagreements about who owned the rights and seemed that it would never get released.
Then in 2002 the rain came down and flooded the land with Nirvana everything. It began with a best of titled Nirvana, which cleverly featured one “new” song and thirteen songs any music fan already had. I saw right past this obvious ploy and it wasn’t until five years later that I bought that “new” song on itunes.
That same year I was disgusted when a collection of letters and journal entries were compiled and released in a book titled Journals. I won’t pretend that I knew anything about Kurt Cobain the man, this whole thing just seemed like a major invasion of the mans privacy, a man who valued his privacy. In fact this was a man who chose to kill himself rather than to become a sellout (he had other issues too).
It was 2004 when the rarities box set was finally released, the first non-live or best of record in ten years. In 2005 Sliver: the best of the box was released. This was little more than “the best” songs from the rarities box set with two previously unreleased tracks. 2009 saw two Nirvana releases; the twenty year anniversary rerelease of Bleach, which included eleven additional live tracks. The other was a live album titled Live at Reading (more live songs) how many different ways can you hear Smells Like Teen Spirit live before you understand that, yes this was an influential song.
This past week we celebrated the twentieth anniversary of Nevermind, how did you celebrate? You could have celebrated by buying the Super deluxe rerelease of the album, where for just $40 on itunes you could listen to seventy different versions of the same thirteen songs.
Fifteen years ago I was begging for all of this and got nothing. Now, it’s everywhere and I want nothing to do with it. Maybe it’s because of my age that I feel this way, they just seem to be popping up in completely inappropriate places. From Guitar Hero, to t-shirts at H&M, to the worst injustice of Cobain related merchandising, a Kurt Cobain action figure. I found it at a comic book and memorabilia store, and at first I thought I was seeing things. There was no way I was actually looking at a Kurt Cobain doll. I picked it up inspecting its mere existence and commented to the store clerk, “This just feels wrong.”
It is wrong, Kurt Cobain is not an action figure, Kiss are action figures. Nirvana was always about music first, marketing was just a byproduct and commercialization was considered a sin. This was how I explained the lack of merchandise available in the mid ‘90s, I didn’t like it but there was a small part of me that understood it. What disgusted me the most about the action figure was the thought that had it come out in ’97 I probably would have bought it. The same goes for the journal, the H&M t-shirt and the $40 Nevermind reissue.
How did this happen? How could there have been a drought for nearly ten years followed by a monsoon? I have only conjectures and no real answers. The first and least likely explanation could be that the remaining members of Nirvana were hard up for cash. This just doesn’t seem likely, after all Dave Grohl started the Foo Fighters and Kris Novoselic has… okay maybe Kris needs the money.
My second thought is that seventeen years after Cobain’s death there is a whole new generation discovering Nirvana for the first time. They don’t know what Nirvana stood for or that any of this marketing might be wrong. These are kids who have a lot of money and are willing to spend it on anything.
Lastly, I suspect that Kurt Cobain’s widow, Courtney Love has had a lack of cash flow. Selling off his image has been an easy way to grow her bank account. Publicly she put up a fight with Activision about the Guitar Hero thing, where she claimed never to have authorized Cobain’s likeness. The funny thing about crack Courtney, is that sometimes you don’t remember the things you did while using it.
I know that Kurt Cobain is not the first artist to have his image mass marketed after their death in ways they never would have approved. Having been such a big fan, it stings just a bit more to see it happen with Nirvana. I hope that others can see that they’re being played by marketing teams across all mediums. If you have money burning a hole in your pocket, let me suggest a Nirvana related item you should buy.
About a Son is a beautifully crafted documentary featuring audio tapes of Kurt Cobain recorded during interviews with biographer Michael Azzerrad. This movie contains no archival footage, or lost artifacts, instead it features fantastically shot settings from Cobain’s life. Spanning from Aberdeen to Seattle, you get a feel for the environment that shaped one of the most influential bands of the 90’s. The interviews are especially candid and very telling of who Cobain was as a person.
Don’t help Courtney get her next fix, buy something worthwhile. By the way, I am fully aware of the irony of me writing this article having previously written an article titled an argument for buying star wars again. Deal with it.