Commentary: Cobain's Place in 2014
Cobain's Place in 2014

Mary DeCamp

“homage or Ripoff? I dont care. uh. I dont know. Seems like finally the appreciation of things are in order. There are a lot of things & bands to be thankful for, yes, and everything sucks. Too many compilations of present day bands paying homage to old influential bands. Either there are no good ones left to look forward to or finally the undergrounds p-rock admittance, to appreciation instead of everything sucks.” –Kurt Cobain

It has now been twenty years since Kurt Cobain died, and on Thursday, Nirvana was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Maybe now we can finally appreciate Kurt’s legacy in a manner befitting his actual life. He will always be a musical and cultural icon, but his persona has been reduced to a hollow symbol. His likeness has taken on the semiotics of angst and self-destruction, akin to that of James Dean, and the famous Nirvana lettering serves as a type of codifier for drugs and plaid. Together, they are all packaged as surface-level, apathetic critiques of establishment. These are the cultural vestiges of Kurt Cobain, which resurfaced strongly in the late summer of 2013. While they inhabit the cultural sphere under the guise of homage, it’s time to acknowledge them as ripoffs and misappropriations.

Last summer, Jay Z released his twelfth studio album, Magna Carta Holy Grail. The song “Holy Grail,” featuring Justin Timberlake, reached number 5 on the Billboard Hot 100. Heading into the fall, the song was still very popular. Timberlake’s chorus makes it read as a soulful love song about a difficult relationship, but Jay Z’s verses clarify that the song depicts not a tragic love, but the two-sided nature of fame, whereby the star has a love-hate relationship with the public-eye, but ultimately continues to live in the spotlight.

In an interview with Bill Maher, Jay Z explained:

“‘Holy Grail’- it’s about acknowledging that you’re dancing with this drug, you know that people have lost their lives behind it. You know, this fame thing and where to draw the line and how to maintain a sense of yourself, you know, within it. You look at all the people that came before us that are no longer here with us you know, having this dance with fame and really just thinking out loud and vocalizing it and hopefully dealing with it in some way is sort of like my therapy.”

It would appear that Jay Z believes Kurt Cobain was one of these people who lost his life because of fame. “Kurt Cobain, I did it to myself,” he raps, “And we’re all just entertainers, and we’re stupid, and contagious, yea we all just entertainers,” paraphrasing the famous lyrics of Nirvana’s frontman from their song “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” In what might be an intentional ambiguity, it sounds a bit like he’s saying “Kurt Cobain, I’m gonna kill myself.”
Either way, it conjures up the same image of the man’s suicide, which has become perceived as stemming from fame and is a lasting piece of his legacy.

In high school, Kurt Cobain described himself as “manically depressed” and even tried to kill himself, writing in his journal, “on a Saturday night I got high & drunk & walked down to the train tracks & lay down & waited for the 11:00 train & I put 2 big pieces of cement on my chest & legs & the train came closer & closer. And it went on the next track beside me instead of over me.” Kurt also carried with him a family history of suicide. His great-grandfather committed suicide before Kurt was born and at the age of 12, one of his uncles killed himself with a pistol. When he was in eighth grade, Kurt also happened to be with two friends when they discovered the corpse of one of the other boy’s brothers, who had hung himself outside of an elementary school. In 1982, Kurt made a film which depicted himself committing suicide and called it “Kurt Commits Bloody Suicide.” Sadly, his journals and notes written to others also contain references to self-harm and suicide. This point isn’t intended to place blame on anyone, but merely to indicate the presence of clues that point toward some type of mental instability which could have influenced Cobain’s suicide. Coupled with the relentless physical pain he suffered from a mysterious stomach condition for years, it’s not particularly surprising. In fact, during an interview with MTV on December 13, 1993, while discussing his apparently recovering stomach ailment Kurt said:

“I was in pain…I mean I was in pain for so long that I didn’t care if I was in a band, I didn’t care if I was alive, you know… and it just so happened that I came to that conclusion at a time when my band became really popular, you know. I mean it’d be going on and building up for so many years that I was, you know, suicidal, I mean I just didn’t want to live, so... I just thought, ‘If I’m gunna die, if I’m gunna kill myself, I should take some drugs,’ you know, may as well become a junkie because I felt like a junkie every day, you know. You know, waking up starving, forcing myself to eat, you know, barfing it back up. Just like, you know, just imagine trying to eat your three meals a day and just concentrating and just crying at times. I’m in pain all the time. And being on tour was a lot worse, too, you know it made it even worse, so…”

Given these circumstances in Kurt Cobain’s life, as well as the present-day dearth of treatment options and outlets for those with mental illness, it’s time that we collectively drop the sick cultural saga of Kurt Cobain, the tortured young musician, unable to cope with fame, who killed himself. Fame was not the primary nor the sole influencer of the act. Doing so further contributes to the mystification of mental illness while also ignoring what should be the more lasting pieces of Kurt Cobain’s life.

To accurately depict what should be understood about Cobain, it’s helpful to pursue the comparison between him and Jay Z because the two men share important similarities which accentuate their differences.

They are members of the same generation, born just slightly less than two years apart. They both married famous musicians with whom each had one daughter. Most importantly, they are both musical icons, especially to younger generations.

This last point Jay Z understood well and decided to write about in “Holy Grail.” However, his use of Cobain in the song pinpoints the source of my disappointment with the Kurt Cobain legacy; that his death precedes his life. By examining his life and work in comparison to Jay Z’s, we can begin to craft a new, more fitting legacy. Although Jay Z released his debut album in 1996, two years after Cobain’s death, his music and his place in the music industry did not follow in Cobain’s footsteps.

“Holy Grail” isn’t the only time Jay Z has referenced Cobain as a cautionary tale of success and fame. In his book, “Decoded,” lyrics for an unreleased song called “Most Kings” contain more lyrics about Kurt: “So it’s best for those to not overdose on being famous/ Most kings get driven so insane/ That they try to hit the same vein that Kurt Cobain did.” Earlier in the song, “suicide” is repeated several times. Jay Z chose to decode this verse in a footnote, explaining,
“Kurt Cobain OD’d on heroin before committing suicide, but he also OD’d on fame. Cobain was like Basquiat: They both wanted to be famous, and were brilliant enough to make it happen. But then what? Drug addicts kill themselves trying to get that feeling they got from their first high, looking for an experience they’ll never get again. In his suicide note, Cobain asked himself, “Why don’t you just enjoy it?” and then answered, “I don’t know!” It’s amazing how much of a mindfuck success can be.”

Quite simply, Jay Z takes that quote out of context. In his suicide note, Cobain asks himself why he doesn’t enjoy writing or playing music anymore and describes feeling guilty that he still has audiences who are so excited to hear him play. It’s not a question of enjoying fame, but rather enjoying playing music.

For as Cobain wrote, “And this little pit-stop we call life, that we so seriously worry about is nothing but a small over the weekend jail sentence, compared to what will come with death. Life isn’t nearly as sacred as the appreciation of passion.”

Kurt’s journals depict a sincere love for music above most other things. He described playing live as a “primal form of energy release,” enjoyed reading and writing music zines, and also frequently wrote out lists of his favorite bands and songs. He valued music for the sake of music. In a letter he and Krist Novoselic wrote to Dave Foster, Nirvana’s second drummer who was no longer attending rehearsals or otherwise fulfilling his duties as a bandmate, Kurt declared,

“Getting a name on a record isn’t shit. Anybody can do it, but theres a big difference between credentials & notoriety, and self respect through music.”

To Kurt, music was such a compelling force that he worked extremely low-paying custodial jobs, paid for his own CDs to be made, and arranged his own tours while ignoring the advice of loved ones who told him to seek out other careers. While Nirvana did perhaps have the bit of luck which seems to have graced most performers who have reached their goals, the band was not a fluke nor was it an accidental garage band- turned professional rock band. It was the product of dedicated time and energy, and success and fame did not so much as spontaneously arrive at Cobain’s door, as his steadfast actions created it.

Eventually Kurt grew tired of the media and speculation surrounding him, and one of his complaints in particular was the notion that he felt guilty about Nirvana’s success and fame. In an essay entitled “OH THE GUILT THE GUILT,” he sarcastically debunks this claim:

"I kind of feel like a dork writing about the band and myself like this as if I were an American pop-rock icon, demi god or a self confessed product of pre packaged, corporate rebellion. But ive heard so many insanely exaggerated wise tales and reports from my friends, and ive read so many pathetic, second rate, Freudian evaluations from interviews, regarding our personalities and especially how im a notoriously fucked up heroine addict, alcoholic, self destructive, yet overly sensitive, frail, meek, fragile, compassionate, soft spoken, narcoleptic, NEUROTIC, little, piss ant who at any time is going to O.D, jump off a roof and wig out, blow my head off or all three at once because I CANT HANDLE THE SUCCESS! OH THE SUCCESS! THE GUILT! THE GUILT! OH, I FEEL SO INCREDIBLY GUILTY! …but honestly, I didn’t want all this attention, but im not FREAKED OUT!which is something a lot of people might like to see. Its entertaining to watch A rock figure whos become public domain mentally self destruct. But im sorry ill have to decline….Sometimes it feels as if weve pulled a minor rock and roll swindle because im not nearly as concerned with or about myself, the band or anyone as much as the media would like us to believe. "

This wasn’t the only time he rejected the notion that he was afraid or tired of fame. In his own iconoclastic way, Kurt also made fun of the traditional mechanisms in place to evaluate music:

“3 time Granny award winners,
No. 1 on billbored top 100
For 36 consecutive weaks
in a row. 2 times on
the cover of Bowling Stoned,
Hailed as the most original,
thought provoking and important band
of our decade by Thyme & Newsweak.”

For Kurt it wasn’t the fame that he disliked, but rather the music business. Early on in his career he disliked the conflicting messages he received from those in the industry and didn’t like the process of getting his music into circulation via corporations. He did appreciate, however, that he could use music as a way to gain financial security, but disliked the way in which executives controlled how his art was packaged:

“Art is expression. In expression you need 100% full freedom and our freedom to express our art is seriously being fucked with….and im far beyond the point of sitting down and casually complaining about this problem.”

This desire to create his own art on his own terms became a consuming mission for Cobain and Nirvana, serving as an oppositional force. In a type of band manifesto he wrote, “Cynical of the music industries machinery Nirvana still sees the necessity to drive their musical crusade.”

It wasn’t just the music industry that Kurt took issue with, but with what he perceived as society’s obsession with materialism and consumption. He called television “the most evil thing on the planet,” viewing it as a wasteful distraction. When writing the liner notes for Nirvana’s second album, Nevermind, Cobain said, “Thanks to political figures and those in the entertainment industry who are the representatives of gluttony.” “Gluttony,” like the need for creative control became an important fixture to the Nirvana psyche. Cobain wrote in his journal,

“Oh yeah, Gluttony. I almost forgot Gluttony, The band now has an image: the (a)nti-gluttony, materialism & consumerism image which we plan to incorporate into all of our videos. The first one: smells like teen spirit. Will have us walking through a mall throwing thousands of dollars into the air as mall-goers scramble like vulchers to collect as much as they can get their hands on, then we walk into a jewelry store & smash it up in anti-materialist fueled, punk rock violence.”

While this did not end up being the concept for the “Smells Like Teen Spirit” video, the rejection of material goods was a major ideology for Kurt and his band. Just as their band name meant “freedom from pain and suffering in the external world,” their music sought to transcend the gluttony consuming the earth. This rejection of the material was a founding premise of the grunge genre, which took issue with the decadence of the preceding decade. As Kurt wrote,

“The late 1980’s.
This is a subliminal example of
a society that has sucked & fucked
itself into a Rehashing value
of greed.

Instead you get the overall feeling that
You paid way too much for
Literally nothing stimulating”

Like Kurt, Jay-Z rose to success in music by working extremely hard. Initially he sold his own CDs out of his car. The two grew up on opposite sides of the country, Cobain hailing from Aberdeen, Washington and Jay-Z from Brooklyn, but their backgrounds have commonalities. Jay Z was raised in the Marcy Houses, a dangerous housing project. After his father left, his mother was his sole guardian. While not necessarily dangerous, Aberdeen was an economically bereft town and Cobain’s living situation was unstable following his parent’s divorce, switching between their homes, while primarily living with his father in a trailer park and sometimes staying with his grandparents. Neither had much as a child. Kurt’s father only made $6,000 a year. But while the anti-materialism ideology that Kurt possessed was an important component of his music and life, Jay Z’s music embodies what Kurt so zealously disdained. It was Kurt’s wish to combat “gluttony” through his art and through his position in the music industry. He dreamt of overthrowing the proponents of such lifestyles.

It could be said that Jay Z idealizes gluttony in his music and the attached music videos. Because Jay Z started with nothing and made it to the top of his business in an institutionally racist world, his songs about money probably have less to do with the money itself, but rather the obstacles he has overcome to achieve incredible personal success despite all odds. And in this way, he’s rather inspirational. For this reason, I don’t fault him for rapping about his material success, but I do question the impact these lyrics have had on our culture.

In Jay Z’s songs and music videos, what is perceived is the end result more so than the importance of it. Part of it has to do with the presentation, the other being with our culture’s surface-level reading of it. The music video for “On to the Next One” is a good example of this phenomenon. What becomes important is the gluttony instead of his hard work. Not only is Jay Z not the only rapper to laud excess, but he’s also not the only musician, or high-profile one for that matter. Before Cobain and Jay Z, The Beatles proclaimed, “Money (That’s What I Want),” Willie Nelson sang “If You’ve Got the Money, I’ve Got the Time,” and Madonna was a “Material Girl.” “I enjoy the gifts and the trips to the islands, It’s good to live expensive,” sang Lady Gaga in “Money Honey” a few years ago. However, Jay Z has acknowledged that the gap between the haves and have-nots is growing bigger, and described it as a form of “oppression.” Why then does he continue to extol wealth so often in his music? If not to stop perpetuating this materialist culture, it would be nice to hear something more original added to popular music.

Instead of remaining focused on his music, Jay Z also became a major executive in the music business, taking on a role which Cobain despised. Furthermore, his business grew so that it was not just focused on music, but also several disparate ventures, in turn creating his own brand. It is not that Kurt lacked the talent or success to do so as well. His music sold far more than those in the business ever thought it would. Rather, he wanted the music to stand alone instead of being used to build spinoff business opportunities. A “60 Minutes” interview with Jay Z conducted in 2002 had Bob Simon similarly noting the entrepreneurial spirit of his endeavors. Simon described how a Jay Z concert read in many ways like an advertisement, promoting all elements of his company, Roc-a-fella, now rebranded as the conglomerate Roc Nation. The concerts would feature other artists from Jay Z’s label as the opening acts to promote them, would include his clothing line, showed previews of movies he produced, and also advertised new lines of alcohol he was selling. At this point, Jay Z had released a new album every eight months for the last six years. For Magna Carta Holy Grail, Jay Z teamed up with the multinational corporation Samsung to give listeners the chance to download the album early, simultaneously promoting both parties. In his journal years earlier, Cobain had expressed his disdain for these very things. He wrote “Kill the Rockefellers,” the name-sake of Jay Z’s brand, when espousing upon the dangers of gluttony. Of music as a commodity, Kurt wrote,

“You could shit upon the stage they’ll be fans
If you Brand if you Brand if you Brand.”

Some of these lines later appeared in “Aero Zeppelin,” a song about the lack of new ideas in commercial music. Of the desire to keep the attention of a mass, he wrote, “The conspiracy towards success in America is immediacy. To expose in great repetition to the minds of small attention spans.” And of artists who produced records quickly, he wrote, “There are some who have severely large amounts of enthusiasm who are prolific as Hell, spewing out a million products a year. Yeah products. They are ones who usually give 10% good and 90% crap.” Jay Z said it himself, “I’m not a businessman, I’m a business, man.”

Here, it’s easy to see the distinction between the two in regard to their demonstrated actions about art and fame and art and commerce, but aside from Kurt’s rejection of material wealth and corporate “art,” the two men’s individual styles reveal more about their dissimilitude. “I rock Tom Ford,” raps Jay Z in “Tom Ford” from Magna Carta Holy Grail. He often wears fine designer clothing and lavish jewelry. “I like to make people feel happy and superior in their reaction towards my appearance,” Cobain wrote. He famously helped usher in the grunge style of simplistic clothing, “granddad” sweaters, flannel shirts, plain t-shirts, and baggy and ripped jeans. Their fashion choices and public images substantiate their personal views on wealth, but as far as public persona and appearance, Kurt also had a decidedly less-macho public image. With his pared-down clothes, he often wore flashy women’s sunglasses. A set of famous portraits of Kurt, the last formal photo shoot ever done, by Jesse Frohman show him with fingernails painted red wearing a leopard print robe and a purse. He sometimes wore dresses while performing. During an interview on the MTV show “Headbangers Ball” with Riki Rachtman on October 25, 1991, he wore a big yellow dress, and when asked why, replied nonchalantly, “It’s the Banger’s Ball so I thought I’d wear a gown.” In many band portraits, he does not appear powerful or confident, which is a rarity among frontmen in rock bands. “He didn’t have one atom of rock star ego and he needed it,” said his wife, Courtney Love, also a famous musician. When with her the two shared the spotlight, like Jay Z and Beyonce, but with Cobain often almost hiding behind Love, their relationship perhaps followed less of a gender binary. In the liner notes to Incesticide, Cobain wrote about Love, “she chooses not to function the way the white corporate man insists” and saw it to be the reason she was criticized by the media. Kurt’s nonconformity since his youth was both a product of and a reason for his feelings regarding sex and gender.

He timidly inhabited the sphere of what it meant to be a man for most of his life. In a love letter to Courtney, he wrote, “Cement holds no other minerals. You cant even find fools gold in it. Its strictly man made and youve taught me it’s OK to be a man and in the classic mans world I parade you around proudly like the ring on my finger which also holds no mineral.
Love kurt” This reluctance started years earlier, at least in high school. He had a hard time making friends with other guys and mainly hung out with girls. In an interview with Jon Savage he explained, “I just always felt that they weren’t treated with respect. Especially because women are totally oppressed, I mean the word bitch and cunt are totally common.” Going through Nirvana’s studio albums beginning with Bleach, continuing to Nevermind, Incesticide, and through In Utero, Kurt never once used any derogatory words toward women in his lyrics. The closest thing is the line, “nature is a whore” from “In Bloom.” During the John Savage interview, he also explained how he became disillusioned by bands he once liked upon realizing the sexism the music contained:

“Although I listened to Aerosmith and Led Zeppelin and I really did enjoy some of the melodies that they’d written, it took me so many years to realize that it was just… a lot of it had to do with sexism. And the way that they just wrote about their [dicks] and having sex. And I was just starting to understand what really was pissing me off so much those last couple years of high school and then punk rock was exposed and then it all came together, it just fit together like a puzzle. It expressed the way I felt socially and politically and, just everything. It was the anger that I felt, the alienation.”

Eventually, even the punk music he initially sought refuge in became too chauvinistic for Kurt to handle: “I never really liked hardcore, mainly because it was too macho and there were so many intimidating rules.” Kurt was aware of the power music held in influencing the continuation of misogyny. He worried that entertainment was the most effective tool in enforcing gender norms on teenage boys in teaching them to become macho men. In his journal he wrote,

“For Boys
Step # one:
Remember that your older brothers cousins, uncles, and your fathers are not your role models. This means you do not do what they do, you do not do what they say. They come from a time when their role models told their sons to be mean to girls, to think of yourself as better and stronger and smarter than them. They also taught things like: you will grow up strong if you act tough and fight the boys who are known as nerds or geeks.”

Kurt’s music, perhaps pedagogical, referenced the problematic treatment of women in varied ways. “Been a Son,” straightforwardly utilizes female infanticide as a lens for viewing the misogynistic disdain of women and the variety of challenges women face from birth merely because of their sex. Kurt Cobain wrote in his journal that women are “oppressed from chance since beginning.” He sings, “She should have died when she was born…She should have been a son.” A talented visual artist as well, his journal features some of his artwork, including a cartoon he made in which a sexist, racist and homophobic dad talks about his unborn child, who upon declaring that it “better be a male” is kicked in the face by a leg coming out of the woman’s stomach. Kurt described rape as “one of the most terrible crimes on earth” and also saw the irony that girls are more frequently taught how to prepare themselves for rape instead of teaching boys not to rape. One of Nirvana’s famous songs, “Rape Me,” puts this irony on display. A few other songs by Nirvana also deal with rape. “Floyd the Barber” depicts a rape and murder while getting a shave at a barbershop and “Polly” tells the story of a teenage girl who was kidnapped, raped, and tortured in the Seattle area, but managed to escape from her attacker. In 1993 he performed with Love in the Rock Against Rape benefit in Los Angeles.
Kurt’s respect for women was apparent in other songs as well. When initially writing the liner notes for “Frances Farmer Will Have Her Revenge on Seattle,” about the actress who was deemed hysterical and institutionalized in a mental facility and never regained her career, he penned, “God is a woman.” “Territorial Pissings” includes the line “Never met a wise man, if so it’s a woman.” In a sort of poem called “Nirvana,” he wrote, “may women rule the world.” Women, he thought, were also the “only future in rock and roll.” His bandmates Dave Grohl and Krist Novoselic, along with sometimes-collaborator Pat Smear, honored these sentiments when they performed four of their songs during Nirvana’s Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony. They invited four women to sing in Kurt’s place: Joan Jett, Kim Gordon, St. Vincent, and Lorde. Cobain also had an interest in the human body and life, especially as it related to women, themes of which dominated the artistic direction of the In Utero album, the title of which means, “in the womb.” Similarly, he took an interest to seahorses because the males bear the young.

While Kurt’s music most clearly denounced sexism, he also stood in opposition to other forms of social oppression. Part of Cobain’s social convictions extended to the inequalities experienced by people who were gay. In high school, he thought that he might have been gay because he had a hard time making friends with other guys. Eventually he did make one good male friend, who was gay, but because his mother was homophobic, he was forbidden to be friends with him anymore. Explained Kurt, “It was real devastating because finally I found a male friend who I actually hugged and was affectionate to and we talked about a lot of things…I couldn’t hang out with him anymore.” In “All Apologies,” he sang, “What else should I say? Everyone is gay,” and in “Stay Away,” he sang “God is gay.” He also wrote in his journal, “I am not gay, although I wish I were, just to piss off homophobes.” Kurt also disdained the white macho American male for the mistreatment of people of color. In his journal he wrote anti-KKK sentiments and deemed the disregard for minorities as a form of “ethnic cleansing.” He credited African Americans with inventing rock and roll and acknowledged that they were not fairly recognized for this contribution. He also credited African Americans as being “once again… the only race that has brought a new form of original music to this decade ie hiphop/rap.” He hated the hypocrisy that cowboys in westerns were treated as though they were heroes when in reality, all they did was kill non-white people.
In conclusion, he wrote, “I am in absolute and total support of: homosexuality...Anti oppression, ie: (religion, racism, sexism, censorship and patriotism) creativity thru music, art, journalism…”

The music video for “In Bloom” is a culmination of Kurt’s abhorrence and rejection of patriarchy. The video portrays Nirvana as a 1950s or 1960s band playing on a program similar to “The Ed Sullivan Show.” Like The Beatles’ first appearance on American television, the video shows screaming girls in the audience and the band is clean-cut and wearing matching suits. The corny host introduces the Nirvana members as “thoroughly alright and decent fellows,” but about half-way through their robotic and constrained performance, the camera begins cutting to footage of the three men performing in dresses. Soon, the three are not only in dresses, but also destroying the set. At the end, the host congratulates the three, now back in their suits, but standing with the wreckage of the stage, exclaiming, “Alright everybody lets hear it for these three nice, decent, clean-cut young men!” The video examines the idea of what it means to be a man – is it being rowdy and destructive? Is it being neat and clean-cut? Wearing a suit? Playing in a band? These questions all relate to the chorus of the song, which serves to define the relationship between Nirvana and their listeners: “He’s the one/Who likes all our pretty songs/And he likes to sing along/And he likes to shoot his gun/But he knows not what it means.” Kurt iterated his distaste for these regressive listeners multiple times. In an interview with Spin Magazine in December 1992, Kurt declared, “I would like to get rid of the homophobes, sexists, and racists in our audience. I know they’re out there and it really bothers me.” Reaching his audience more directly, in the liner notes for Insecticide, he wrote, “At this point I have a request for our fans. If any of you in any way hate homosexuals, people of different color, or women, please do this one favor for us - leave us the fuck alone! Don't come to our shows and don't buy our records.”

It must be said that as a white man, Kurt had privileges that Jay Z doesn’t have as a black man. In “F.U.T.W.” from Magna Carta Holy Grail, Jay Z raps about the systemic oppression of black men by whites through emasculating them. Taking this history into account, I will not harangue Jay Z for not wearing dresses. However, in contrast to Kurt Cobain’s lyrics, Jay Z’s lyrics frequently use the words “bitch” and “hoe.”

He even wrote songs called “Bitches & Sisters,” “2 Many Hoes” and “Money, Cash, Hoes.” Not only does he use derogatory words for women, but the music videos associated with many of his songs further objectify women’s bodies. Jay Z’s music includes the very sexist dialogue Cobain had taken issue with in regard to some of his once-favorite rock music.
In “Drunk in Love,” a new song by Beyoncé featuring Jay Z, the sexist nature of his work makes a more troubling development, especially considering that it is a duet with his wife. Jay Z raps, “I’m Ike, Turner, turn up, baby no don’t play/ now eat the cake, Anna Mae, said eat the cake Anna Mae.” This year they performed it at the Grammys together and those were the first lyrics of Jay Z’s that Beyoncé sang along with him. In the music video for the song, she mouths the words behind him. The lyrics are a direct reference to the film “What’s Love Got to Do With It?,” based on the life of Anna Mae, also known as Tina Turner.

Why Jay Z would reference a scene from a movie in which the famously abusive Ike Turner forces Tina Turner to eat cake and hits Tina’s friend who tries to defend her in a duet with his wife is completely lost on me. In a song describing the behavior of a couple in love in a positive light, there should be no casual reference to domestic violence.

As far as his views on homosexuality, two years ago, Jay Z voiced support for gay marriage after Obama did the same, saying it was discrimination not to allow it. While admirable, a number of Jay Z’s songs use the word “faggot,” “fag,” or the word “gay” as an insult. During an interview with Bill Maher, after Maher used a popular term to attribute Jay Z writing the song "Tom Ford" to a sexual relationship between Jay Z and the gay designer, Jay Z laughed uncomfortably but found it to be no joking matter and said, “False.” When Maher tried to move the conversation onward, Jay Z interrupted, saying, “Let me clarify that, I am not.” Maher responded, “I meant that metaphorically,” to which Jay Z said, “Of course.” Although he has voiced support for the gay rights movement at a time when it has become quite accepted, Jay Z’s actions are less straightforward.

This isn’t really about Jay Z and it's not about Beyoncé. It's about what has become accepted and relevant in musical lives and pop culture, resulting from those we have deemed to be important celebrities and musicians. But today Jay Z and Beyoncé are in possession of a particular and elusive currency. They are two of the biggest tastemakers in modern music and together as a couple they have a huge cultural power.

During the time since Kurt Cobain died, they have developed their own influence in popular music, and now, they are contemporary rock stars in the same way that Kurt Cobain was in the early ‘90s. We don’t necessarily need rock stars who are social reformers; however, we don’t need ones who reinforce bigotry either.

I first noticed the resurgence of “grunge,” or at least the attempt to invoke Kurt Cobain when Jay Z sang his name last summer. Then in the fall, designers like Saint Laurent, 3.1 Phillip Lim, Elizabeth and James, Stella McCartney, Rebecca Minkoff, and even Chanel channeled grunge in their collections. Grunge is being recycled by people who have little awareness of its origins.

It was a shame that Kurt died too young. And yes, he left us with some great and influential music. But if anyone’s looking to pay homage to him, or reference him in modern music or other outlets, let’s make sure to include the elements which made him and his music important, rather than his suicide or perceived struggles with fame. If we’re going to remember his suicide, then let’s remember the suicides today of children who struggle with mental illness, or do not fit in at school and are bullied because of their interests, appearance, or sexuality. Instead of just remembering him as an angry young man, let’s remember what caused some of the anger. Let’s remember the sexism and misogyny that perpetuates rape and the truly sub-human treatment of women around the world. Let’s remember that it’s 2014 and slavery still exists. Let’s remember the racism which still pervades our society. To pay homage to Kurt, let’s stop consuming cultural goods that are racist, sexist, homophobic, or discriminatory in any way. Let’s remember that grunge music as a genre is not about laziness or apathy, but rather that its sound developed out of the social frustrations of punk. When Kurt died twenty years ago, the world lost a man who could have continued to make an influence on a generation and change the world. Instead of remembering him as a modern day Icarus, let’s try to continue where he left off. Twenty years has been far too long to leave so much undone.