Why Is Hip Hop (And the Rest of Pop Culture) Still So Obsessed With Kurt Cobain?

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In further proof that 2013 is the year of the shameless publicity stunt, Jay-Z has spent the last week or so drip-feeding the world lyrics for his upcoming album Magna Carta Holy Grail. He’s released three to date, of which the most fascinating is “Holy Grail,” a somber meditation on fame and love that borrows the chorus from Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” (The second lyric released from the record, “Heaven,” references R.E.M’s “Losing My Religion” — sadly, however, “Oceans” does not contain any lyrics from Pearl Jam’s “Oceans,” which surely represents a missed opportunity to keep the ’90s alt-rock streak going.)

There’s been plenty of interest in the idea of Jay-Z using Nirvana lyrics, not least because the ever-voluble Courtney Love has been talking about it (“Frances would freak [if she knew about it]!”) At least one commentator has whacked up some pretty impressive strawman outrage around the idea that “white blog nerds” will be upset about a rapper jacking “their” culture, but really, there’s been very little such anger, perhaps because the rap/rock divide these days is less a chasm and more a modest little fissure over which one can hop back and forth with minimal effort.

In fact, there’s a fairly long history of hip-hop types referencing Cobain in their lyrics and/or public statements. In one respect, he’s just a convenient reference for suicide — The Game’s “Take me away like a bullet from Kurt Cobain,” for instance, or 2Pac’s 1994 proclamation that he wasn’t going to “blow my brains out like Kurt Cobain.”

But the connection goes deeper than that — Jay-Z himself has spoken about his admiration for Cobain in the past, and he’s not the only one. (And, from the sublime to the ridiculous, there’s also Tyler, the Creator, who in the process of bitching about having to do a Rolling Stone interview a couple of years back threatened to “do what Kurt did… I’m going,” and later had to get back on Twitter to clarify that he meant “not kill myself, wear a shirt that says ‘Fuck your magazine.'” Good job, Tyler.)

Really, though, this isn’t just a hip hop phenomenon — it’s a manifestation of an ongoing wider cultural obsession. So why is pop culture still so fascinated with Cobain, nearly 20 years after he shot himself?

The easy answer is that, well, he’s dead. If he were still alive today, he’d be in his mid-40s, and in god knows what sort of state. Maybe he’d have cleaned up and become some sort of Stipean alt-rock elder statesman, or maybe he’d be as compelling an ongoing drama as his wife has proven. No one will ever know. Instead, he’s forever the tortured, long-haired avatar of the early ’90s, the last great rock star, the poster boy for what risible music writers insist on calling the 27 Club.

Cobain’s role in culture today is perhaps the best example of the way death also represents a transition from personality into mythology. In death, he has become less a three-dimensional character and more a two-dimensional symbol for any number of aspects of rock ‘n’ roll mythology. He’s a cautionary embodiment of the price of fame, the archetypal romantic tortured artist, the perpetual teenage rebel. In death, he’s become a brand that can be plastered onto a T-shirt or a tote and sold, an image that denotes a certain way of approaching the world, a prepackaged cultural experience.

One suspects that Cobain would have hated the idea of himself as a rock ‘n’ roll martyr as much as he hated the idea of himself as a global megastar. But that’s beside the point, because he doesn’t have a say in it any more.

He’s hardly the first dead rock star to be rearticulated back into popular culture as a cardboard cutout of what he was in life, of course — pretty much every other sufficiently famous musician who died young has become a sort of cipher for a certain aspect of rock ‘n’ roll mythology. There’s Jeff Buckley, for instance (unabashed romantic, cheekbones, too tragically sensitive for this world). Or Jim Morrison (Jesus Christ pose, psychedelics, the ’60s, Paris cemetery). Hip hop has its own versions, too — Tupac and Biggie, obviously, but also TLC’s Left Eye, NWA’s Eazy-E, and the immortal Ol’ Dirty Bastard, and sadly far too many others.

It’s difficult to see any sort of celebrity as an entirely three-dimensional figure, and indeed, the conflict between perception and reality — and the attempts of both the celebrity in question and the public who are essentially consumers of that person’s image to manipulate both sides of the equation — are among the most complicated aspects of our celebrity-obsessed culture. But in life, the celebrity’s actions influence both perception and reality. In death, they’re what T.S. Eliot called “a heap of broken images.”

All this means that, as a culture, we’re not so much fascinated with the reality of Cobain as we are with the mythology of Cobain. Look at the way Jay-Z references him in “Holy Grail”: “I know… nobody to blame/ Kurt Cobain/ I did it to myself.” He doesn’t even have to say “like Kurt Cobain” — just a simple evocation of the man’s name is enough to provide a whole lot of explanation as to how Jay-Z’s feeling. It’s a triumph of semiotics. If you had no idea who Kurt Cobain was, of course, the line would mean nothing, but that’s the point — everyone knows who Kurt Cobain was.

And everyone knows what Kurt Cobain means. The question of whether what Kurt Cobain means in death has anything to do with what he meant in life is really only of interest to the minority of people who actually think about such things — music bloggers who have too much time on their hands, academics teaching pop-cultural history, and the people who dictate the fate of his legacy. For everyone else, he’s the gaunt face staring out from behind his lank blond hair, the guy in the white sunglasses sticking his middle finger up at the camera, the forlorn figure with the cardigan on MTV Unplugged. He’s a shared cultural experience. An image. A symbol.