Kurt Cobain: The Breaking of a Fragile Idol (Mar – Aug 1994)

By Matt Dabbs

by Milton Jones
March – August, 1994

Flags were flying at half-mast when we attended the Pepperdine Lectures earlier this year. At first, they were flying because of the death of Mrs. Frank Seaver, the generous benefactor of the university. Later, they were flying because of the death of President Nixon. However, a local paper had talked to some young people who thought the flags were lowered because of the death of Kurt Cobain.

Kurt Cobain? You must be kidding. Why would young people think that flags would be affected because of him? Don’t they listen to the media? Yes, they do and this is exactly why they thought the flags were because of him. In the media that penetrates their world whether it is MTV or The Rolling Stone, no death had caused such media attention in their lifetime. But I have to admit, it wasn’t just their media that was affected. In my daily newspaper there has been much more about the death of Kurt Cobain than the death of Richard Nixon.

But then again, I live in Seattle. I was reading an article the other day that mentioned my city. It said, “Are Seattleites the ancestors of the Incas or maybe the last of Socrates’ alleged highly advanced Atlanteans? They must be, for it is they who have found the secret to eternal life.” What’s the secret to eternal life? The paper wasn’t talking about anything religious. No, the article was about grunge rock. Seattle is now the world’s capital of music, at least if you are talking about rock music. Recently, Big Brother, of the band that played with Janis Joplin, said there has been nothing like the music scene in Seattle since the ‘60s in San Francisco.

And, as a result of this grunge music explosion, we are becoming the mecca of what has been called Generation X (those born between 1965 and 1983). Seattle has become the place where the Baby Busters gather and find a unique brand of rock and roll. We have even had to get the Seattle Times to publish dress codes in the paper for restaurants so people like me will know how to dress or what places to avoid. Some restaurants prefer people with orange hair and nose rings.

And the event that has most recently focused the attention of the whole world on our city is the death of one of the two most recognizable figures of this generation. Kurt Cobain took a shotgun and killed himself. If you still don’t know who he was, he was the lead singer of Nirvana. He was a tragic figure who had been a hoodlum as a youth, was doing cocaine and heroin, was bisexual, and had been singing about suicide for years.

Why would a generation look to him as a hero? Jessica Scharer said, “I don’t think that our generation has speakers, or leaders. Who would they be? That woman on MTV? Or Winona Ryder? Come on. I think maybe we’re too cynical to follow people like that.” And so they turn to musicians like Kurt Cobain or Eddie Vedder of Pearl Jam who is probably a little more responsible than Cobain but whose biggest hit was “Jeremy.” In fact, “Jeremy” was song of the year last year on MTV. The video is about a school-age kid whom everyone ridicules. His response is to go to school and blow out his brains. Many have called the anthem of Generation X Eddie Vedder’s “I’m Still Alive.” In this song, being alive after all of the anxieties of life seems like quite an accomplishment if not the goal of life. So Vedder belts out “I… I… I’m Still Alive” as if existence sums up meaning. But on the other hand, the song does mark the difference in him and Cobain.

Not since the ‘60s when I let my hair grow have I seen anything that has prompted more of a generation gap than Kurt Cobain’s death. It has divided our city and divided our generations. The very Baby Boomers who heralded The Who’s “My Generation” which cried out “I hope I die before I get old!” Andy Rooney blows up on television to ask how could anyone with any sense consider this guy a hero. His editorial incensed and infuriated Generation X. This generation tells me they now know how my generation felt at the death of John Kennedy. Letters to the editor in the Seattle Times from people my age have been belittling Cobain and trying to prove that he was no hero. I had been amening most of them until I read one from a mother. She said that maybe we should quit putting him down so much and listen to our kids to find out why they think he was a hero. I think that mom had some valid advice.

What made the kids listen to Cobain? Why was he a hero? Primarily, it was not because of his lifestyle or even that his message was so “right.” No, he was a hero because his songs boldly spoke out and told how a generation was feeling. He was a hero because he sang what was in many young people’s hearts. His was a voice that spoke for the Generation Xers, who are killing themselves at higher rates than any comparable age group in all preceding generations. And even for those who are not suicidal, he voiced the despair that comes from living in the shadow of AIDS, being squeezed out of the job market, no support from a traditional family unit, no basis for ethics from a Judeo-Christian belief, firearms everyplace, and a world totally in upheaval from the turmoils of change. And even for the Busters who could break through and get a bigger piece of the pie, they end up echoing Cobain’s words, “I do not want what I have got. What’s wrong with me?”

As I have reflected on the death of Kurt Cobain and seen the plight of this new generation, two things have pierced me as a Christian.

First of all, it is the hopelessness of Generation X. This is the first American generation who will not have it as good as the previous one economically. That, coupled with all of the atrocities and diseases of our society, have uprooted any hope from a group of people who are all around us every day.

Traig Holtz of Notre Dame stated on the death of Kurt Cobain, “This blank generation has lost a very important part and now we must deal with ourselves. We must come to grips with the fact that our generation has grown up to be more confused and angry than any previous generation. Kurt was a precious person and an incredible songwriter. We should have seen it coming. He is missed. A huge vacuum has been created.”

The vacuum that is in this generation, I believe, is a vacuum that only Jesus can fill. If a lack of hope is the problem and the main heartfelt concern of a generation of Americans today, don’t we have something to offer? Isn’t hope still one of our “:Big Three?”

It may take some listening and bridge building to patch up this generation gap, but with some sensitive communication there is hope. I saw the church become irrelevant and insensitive in approaching the generation gap of a few decades ago. The cost was that we lost a large portion of a generation in the church. I don’t want that to happen again.

The second striking realization of this whole scenario has been to see the power of music in creating a world view.

The way Baby Boomers and Busters view music is different from previous generations. Pre-Baby Boomers associated music primarily with entertainment. But for those after them, music became more than simply entertainment but a way to grasp a world view. We saw in the ‘60s how the “music people” led the thinking that forged a world view of the Boomers much more than the statesmen who were speaking in traditional political power circles. Today, from a generation who more than ever feels powerless, musicians have once again become the heralds of the popular world view. Therefore, when Generation X turns on the music, it is not only entertaining them, but it is also teaching them how to think.

Jeff Gilbert, Senior Editor for The Rocket and Guitar World, stated, “You look to the music for salvation; and if the music isn’t there, you have nothing.”

Doug Murren, the author of Baby Boomerang, states that with this generation music is around seven times more effective in communication than our traditional verbal speeches or sermons. As a result, how this generation evaluates a gathering may be different from another generation. One generation may leave church saying, “I learned a lot,” and they are thinking of the sermon. Generation X may leave saying, “I was really moved to Jesus,” and they are thinking about the music.

Generation X is going to listen to music whether we like it or not. The question is not whether they are going to listen to music, it is what kind of music are they going to listen to? As I reflect on this whole situation, I have never been more convinced of the power and the need for contemporary Christian music. It can perhaps be the best way to communicate and evangelize a generation that hasn’t been listening to the gospel. It can be more than entertainment, it can shape a whole world view toward the gospel.

Have you listened to what your kids are listening to? Instead of condemning it in the beginning, why not listen and then talk? If there is a voice of despair in the hearts of our kids, it’s better to know it than to avoid it. And there is plenty of hope with Jesus. And instead of simply trying to get them to quit listening to something, why not try giving them a better alternative? I still think we can overcome with good.Wineskins Magazine

Milton Jones

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Profile photo of Matt DabbsThis author published 1577 posts in this site.
Matt is the preaching minister at the Auburn Church of Christ in Auburn, Alabama. He and Missy have been married 12 years and are raising two wonderful boys, Jonah and Elijah. Matt is passionate about reaching and discipling young adults, small groups, and teaching. Matt is currently the editor and co-owner of Wineskins.org.

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