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Sounding it out

Kurt Cobain and the search for a sincere rock star

An icon of authenticity to some, and not to others … Yui Mok/PA

The noise around the 20th anniversary of Kurt Cobain’s death is a reminder of the importance still granted to iconic dead rock stars. Cobain, it seems, is as important to current teenagers as he is to those who have kept his memory alive since the heyday of grunge.

Just as people of my generation inherited the posthumous fame of long-dead icons such as Jim Morrison or Jimi Hendrix, so current teens grow into a musical understanding in which figures such as Cobain or Jeff Buckley are as real as any contemporary star. Recordings, photographs, videos, celebrity and mythology all ensure that icons live on for subsequent generations. Those same young fans also get Morrison and Hendrix, of course, along with Joplin, Vicious, Smith and the rest of the canon of the doomed.

Cobain stands out, too, as an icon of authenticity, the kind of artist who fans and critics like to crown as the last true rock star. Rock mythology loves ends as much as beginnings, the retrospective as much as the revolution. There’s nothing more satisfying for a certain train of thought than to emphasise the notion that something has definitely ended, that things can never be the same again.

What goes between the beginning and the end is what messes us up, something Cobain was painfully aware of. His interviews, song lyrics and messages to audience members were haunted by the impossibility of achieving truth and sincerity, of always being in danger of selling out, falling short, being uncovered as a fraud.

Fame and wealth didn’t help, of course. As Jonathan Freedland observed in the days following Cobain’s suicide, in a piece recently republished by The Guardian:

Generation X-ers are meant to be the slacker generation, yet here was the slacker-in-chief living the yuppie dream: married, padding around a $1.1 million luxury mansion with a garden for his baby daughter to play in, and Microsoft and Boeing executives for neighbours.

In other recently collected memories of Cobain, we find Neil Young voicing anguish that he couldn’t reach out to the troubled star to show him how to live with the doubts, play the game and survive. Young has had his fair share of dealings with the anxieties of authenticity over a long career, veering from commercial success to seeming career suicide, while still persevering.

It is not surprising to find both Cobain and Young taking starring roles in Hugh Barker and Yuval Taylor’s 2007 book Faking It: The Quest for Authenticity in Popular Music. By placing Cobain at the start of the book alongside the blues artist Lead Belly – one of whose songs Cobain performed during Nirvana’s famed MTV Unplugged show – the authors seek not to strip Cobain of his claims to sincerity, but rather to show just how impossible it is to live up to them. There’s nothing like public exposure to drain the possibility of being true.

Impassioned claims to truth have long been prime components of popular music, though they take a number of different forms. It may involve truth to some kind of established template or ideal: the authentic blues guitarist or folk singer. Or it could be truth to oneself, to an artistic vision that breaks from all templates in pursuit of individual style.

What binds these quests for truth is the sense of conviction; the musician must be seen and heard to be “real”. Artists such as David Bowie and Bryan Ferry made this clear in different ways with pastiches of the rock star image, adopting poses, masks and aliases. They were still convincing, though. In showing their audience that artifice is ultimately a way of unveiling the artifice of others, they may be the most honest of all.

“Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask and he’ll tell you the truth.” These words of Oscar Wilde’s were appropriated by Todd Haynes for his film Velvet Goldmine, in which a harsh spotlight is trained on the superficialities of the glam rock era and a Bowie-like figure is sacrificed on the altars of fame and wealth. Being oneself, being the one that others want to see, or see themselves being: these tensions remain at the heart of the popular music’s politics of authenticity a century after Wilde, 40 years after Ziggy Stardust and 20 after Kurt Cobain.

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