It happens every few years: Nirvana starts trending due to an anniversary and subsequent celebratory re-master/Nirvana product you never knew you needed. The latest buzz is the 20th anniversary of In Utero, being commemorated by a giant re-issue and DVD release. The 20th anniversary of everyone's favorite haunting hour - MTV Unplugged - is coming up in November, as is the two-decade mark of Cobain's death in April. For the next few months we have multiple excuses to publicly obsess over Nirvana...again. Because despite Kurt Cobain's fame-loathing and the band's collectively flippant attitude, Nirvana demanded everyone to become mind-bendingly obsessed with them.
I can safely say that I have never been as obsessed with anything as I was with Nirvana. Being an loathsome millenial, In Utero's 20th birthday coincides with my 10th anniversary of becoming a ridiculous, borderline disturbing Nirvana fan. My hardcore fanship eventually faded into calm appreciation, but here are some examples that illustrate the depths of my embarrassing-but-formative life experience idolizing Kurt Cobain:
- In 2004, I wore black and held a death day vigil for Kurt in my basement with the lights out*, lit candles, and listened to Unplugged. At one point the candle flames all started flickering rapidly and I actually believed it was a sign from the great beyond, something akin to Kurt being like "Hey kid, hang in there." (FYI, I just cringed while typing that statement.)
- Following the band's example, I stopped combing my hair for a period of time - a time in which my Mom was horrified - not because she wanted me to be girly, but because I was being a fucking weirdo.
- I listened to Nevermind once a day for an entire year after discovering it.
- I made sure to wear my Kurt Cobain t-shirt - which was awkwardly way too big on me because Hot Topic didn't stock sizes for 8th grade girls - at least once a week, because it was really important to me that every person I encountered knew that I loved Nirvana. I also wore it on every holiday to ensure that my family knew that the definition of Diane Szulecki was literally "Fan Of Kurt Cobain."
- My LiveJournal username was skin_the_sun and the subject line of 95% of my posts was a Nirvana lyric for a period of about 500 days.
- And finally, the most mortifying fact: I got into the "Kurt Cobain was murdered" conspiracy for a while and posted on a forum called Justice for Kurt that encouraged people to write letters to talk show hosts to bring publicity to the issue. ("Issue.") I actually e-mailed Larry King about this and I'm sure he was riveted by my explanation of why Kurt Cobain NEEDED JUSTICE. I also placed a Justice for Kurt sticker in a prominent position on my messenger bag. I had to spread the word, guys.
None of the above is much different than the fanatical albeit prettier crap One Direction or Justin Bieber fans do today. There's a universal teenage zest for identity development via fan culture.
The difference is that Kurt Cobain was an explicitly adult artist making very adult music. Music that wasn't manufactured for tweens and arena tours. Art that captivated teens with a shocking, grown-up allure. (While we're on the topic of In Utero, I have to note that the lyric "I own my own pet virus / I get to pet and name her / Her milk is my shit / My shit is her milk" still really makes me uncomfortable.) I've often wondered what it was about Cobain that settled so deep in my 13-year-old soul - and I'm sure he wondered the same about the hoards of kids who adored him. As a nerdy Honor Roll student from the suburbs who didn't come from a broken home and still slept with stuffed animals, why did I identify so strongly with a horrendously tormented and not-remarkably-nice member of the 27 Club?
The answer has something to do with Cobain's knack for artfully embracing the anxiety of feeling like an outsider. Despite fitting in with my group of friends, I always had a looming, dread-inducing awareness that I was different, exacerbated by peers who frequently reminded me that I deviated too far from their perceived norms. By the time I got to eighth grade my self-esteem hardly existed. I didn't see how it could ever improve so I just got more and more depressed. (I know this is the life story of a billion and one teens, and I am grateful I've since grown up relatively unscathed. BONUS: I'm now a corporate cog!)
Soon after getting into Nirvana I read a biography about Kurt Cobain that sealed the deal on my idolatry. He got made fun of too! He was often moody and depressed! He saw himself as an outsider! The solace this brought me was huge, but the major gift Cobain gave me was not the imaginary camaraderie of a fellow outcast - it was the realization that not being like everyone else is actually a cool thing. Nirvana's brutally honest, take-no-shit attitude convinced me that I could own my quirks instead of fighting them to conform. When I struggled to find the confidence to not care, I thought of Cobain and suddenly found myself capable. The second I stopped caring what other people thought of me was the second my life got drastically better. And it hasn't stopped.
A decade on, I now possess an adult brain that no longer treats Cobain as a mythical greasy-maned unicorn who came to deliver me from my sad feels. I recognize that he was a brilliant but fucked-up dude who struggled with epic demons. But the punk lifeblood of Nirvana - doing your thing, not caring about norms - is my core identity. (Cobain's feminist and anti-bigotry tendencies planted a first round of progressive seeds in my brain, too, but that's a whole separate essay.) Though I regrettably deleted my account in an attempt to never think about my teen years again, a little part of me will always be LiveJournal user skin_the_sun with a Heart Shaped Box .gif avatar.
Streetlight Manifesto said it best: "K.D.C you were much too young / and you changed my life / but I draw the line at suicide/ so here's to life."