Nickelodeon gave me my first taste of Nirvana.
Back in the early 90s I wasn’t allowed to watch MTV because the content wasn’t deemed appropriate by my parents. Lucky for me, we were allowed to watch Nickelodeon and they happened to run a show that counted down the top 10 music videos of the week. I was 9 or 10, probably in 4th grade, and waiting for a Paula Abdul video to be shown. She was hot stuff back then, you know.
Sometime after the perfectly coifed and perfectly choreographed Laker Girl did her thing, Kurt Cobain and his band of dirty, snarled haired, punksters graced my tv.
For the first time, I heard music that made me feel.
These were the type of guys my parents would have made me cross the street to avoid.They had long hair, they looked dirty, and were probably in need of the deodorant that shared a name with their song. There was no choreography, no perfectly executed performance. It felt real and dangerous and so far beyond the understanding that I had of the world. My existence was suddenly smaller and the world bigger. There was an emotion that I’ve never been able to define. That you-know-it-when-you-hear-it feeling you get when you hear a truly amazing piece of music.
It has been 20 years since Kurt Cobain died. His death has colored his music and his legacy to the extent that they aren’t comprehensible outside the context of his suicide. I hear so many people express the sentiment that he was just a strung out junkie who wasted his life. They’re missing the pain and emotion he breathed into his music. They’re missing the way he transformed hurt into art.
He was a drug addict who committed suicide. But to say he’s just that, you’re missing what he means.
I didn’t become a crazed fan after hearing the song and I didn’t especially like their music until I started listening more intently several years after Kurt’s death. I always felt a sort of self-consciousness about my Nirvana posthumous fandom. To be a Nirvana fan felt like embracing the cliche of the disafected teeenager and the grownup who wouldn’t grow up. I had to separate the legacy from the music to embrace what the band meant to me.
At the beginning of my musical awakening, I clearly remember hearing Smells Like Teen Spirit for the first time. I can still feel exactly what I felt. I loved the emotion and wordplay lyrics, the things that defined Nirvana to me, and the things I seek out in music. Nirvana and Kurt Cobain are the prism through which I judge all the music I’ve heard since.
Kurt isn’t just anything to me. Not a drug addict, not a suicide victim, not even an internationally known rock star.
He is the emotion I felt at 9 or 10 years, waiting for a Paula Abdul video to air on Nickelodeon.
There’s no just about it.