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Nation of Rebels: Why Counterculture Became Consumer Cultureby Joseph Heath and Andrew Potter
Early on the morning of April 8, 1994, the electrician arrived to start work on a new security system being installed at an upscale home overlooking Lake Washington, just north of Seattle. In the greenhouse, he found the owner of the cottage, Kurt Cobain, lying dead on the floor in a pool of blood. Cobain had taken a lethal overdose of heroin, but, for good measure, had decided to finish the job by blowing off the left side of his head with a Remington 20-gauge shotgun.
When the news of Cobain's death spread, very few were surprised. This was the man, after all, who had recorded a song called "I Hate Myself and Want to Die." As frontman of Nirvana, arguably the most important band of the 1990s, his every move was followed by the media. His previous suicide attempts were a matter of public record. The note lying beside his body didn't leave much room for interpretation: "Better to burn out than fade away," he wrote. Nevertheless, his death generated a small cottage industry of conspiracy theories. Who killed Kurt Cobain?
In one sense, the answer is obvious. Kurt Cobain killed Kurt Cobain. Yet he was also a victim. He was the victim of a false idea — the idea of counterculture. While he thought of himself as a punk rocker, a man in the business of making "alternative" music, his records sold in the millions. Thanks in large part to Cobain, the music that used to be called "hardcore" was rebranded and sold to the masses as "grunge." But rather than serving as a source of pride to him, this popularity was a constant embarrassment. It fed the nagging doubts in the back of his mind, which suggested that he had "sold out" the scene, gone "mainstream."
After Nirvana's breakthrough album, Nevermind, began to outsell Michael Jackson, the band made a concerted effort to lose fans. Their follow-up album, In Utero, was obviously intended to be difficult, inaccessible music. But the effort failed. The album went on to reach number one in the Billboard charts.
Cobain was never able to reconcile his commitment to alternative music with the popular success of Nirvana. In the end, his suicide was a way out of the impasse. Better to stop it now, before the last scrap of integrity is gone, and avoid the total sellout. That way he could hold fast to his conviction that "punk rock is freedom." What he failed to consider was the possibility that it was all an illusion; that there is no alternative, no mainstream, no relationship between music and freedom, and no such thing as selling out. There are just people who make music, and people who listen to music. And if you make great music, people will want to listen to it.
So where did the idea of "alternative" come from? The idea that you had to be unpopular in order to be authentic?
Cobain was a graduate of what he called the "Punk Rock 101" school of life. Much of the punk ethos was based on a rejection of what the hippies had stood for. If they listened to the Lovin' Spoonful, we punks would listen to Grievous Bodily Harm. They had the Rolling Stones, we had the Violent Femmes, the Circle Jerks and Dead On Arrival. If they had longhair, we would have mohawks. If they wore sandals, we would wear army boots. If they were into satyagraha, we were into direct action. We were the "un-hippies."
Why this animus toward hippies? It wasn't because they were too radical. It was because they were not radical enough. They had sold out. They were, as Cobain put it, the "hippiecrits." The Big Chill told you everything you needed to know. The hippies had become yuppies. "The only way I would wear a tie-dyed T-shirt," Cobain liked to say, "would be if it were soaked in the blood of Jerry Garcia."
By the beginning of the '80s, rock and roll had been transformed into a bloated, pale imitation of its former self. It had become arena rock. Rolling Stone magazine had become a complacent corporate sales rag, dedicated to flogging crappy albums. Given his attitude, one can only imagine Cobain's embarrassment when he was asked to appear on the cover of Rolling Stone. His compromise: to do the shoot in a T-shirt that read "Corporate rock magazines still suck." Cobain persuaded himself that, in so doing, he was not selling out, he was simply going undercover: "We can pose as the enemy to infiltrate the mechanics of the system to start its rot from the inside. Sabotage the empire by pretending to play their game, compromise just enough to call their bluff. And the hairy, sweaty, macho, sexist dickheads will soon drown in a pool of razorblades and semen, stemmed from the uprising of theft children, the armed and deprogrammed crusade, littering the floors of Wall Street with revolutionary debris."
One can see here quite clearly that, while Cobain and the rest of us punks may have rejected most of the ideas that came out of the hippie counterculture, there is one element of the movement that we swallowed hook, line and sinker. This was the idea of counterculture itself. In other words, we saw ourselves as doing exactly the same thing that the hippies saw themselves doing. The difference, we assumed, is that, unlike them, we would never sell out. We would do it right.
Some myths die hard. One can see the same cycle repeating itself in hip-hop. The countercultural idea here takes the form of a romantic view of ghetto life and gang culture. Successful rappers must fight hard to retain their street cred, to "keep it real." They'll pack guns, do time, even get shot up, just to prove that they're not just "studio gangstas." So instead of just dead punks and hippies, we now also have a steadily growing pantheon of dead rappers. People talk about the "assassination" of Tupac Shakur, as though he actually posed a threat to the system...
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