Was Kurt Cobain the last true rock star?

Illustration by Bobby Miller

Quentin Rice, Staff Writer

On April 8, 1994, Seattle electrician Gary Smith discovered Kurt Cobain’s lifeless body on the floor of Cobain’s greenhouse. Hours later, Kurt Loder announced Cobain’s death on MTV, and the music world had a new wound that will never heal entirely.

Not much can be said about Cobain that hasn’t been said a thousand times already. And even pointing that out has become a cliche. Debate and questions about him persist a quarter of a century later. Did he really die by his own hand? Were his reported stomach pains an excuse to keep using heroin? What would a fourth Nirvana album have sounded like?

Was Cobain the last true rock star?

In the age of internet, no band or artist is as recognized or ubiquitous as Nirvana. The top is too crowded. There are universally recognized names like Drake, Kanye and Beyoncé, or even Justin Bieber. But these artists did not carve out such a new and pervasive sound and culture like Nirvana did. They do not speak to an entire generation of frustrated and disenfranchised kids. If rock stars exist today, the internet has fundamentally changed them.

The internet has reinvented the way we consume and discover music. YouTube algorithms lead listeners to unknown bedroom producers and forgotten legends of the past. Spotify playlists are curated to create certain “vibes,” whether they be “chill,” “workout” or “party.” Pandora likens artists as big as the Red Hot Chili Peppers to your cousin’s funk rock band with 200 likes on Facebook. If there’s a certain sound you’re after, no matter what it is, you can find it.

This change has given the underground such a seat at the table that the term “underground” is tough to define. With so many artists throwing ideas into the pool, the rate of innovation and fusion happening in the music world is so fast that sea changes like the one Nirvana ushered in are rare, if not dead altogether. This is not to say there are not still innovators. The opposite is true, and that is why I don’t think there will ever be an act that changes everything as much as Nirvana did.

Cobain and Nirvana occupied a space anyone could have, and that somebody had to eventually. There was an enormous demographic of kids sick of listening to their fathers’ music. Glam and hair metal were as deplorable as disco. It only took somebody hungry enough to inject the perfect amount of pop into the punk formula to rise to the top. If that same demographic existed today, there are certainly artists who would have filled that niche.

Artists like Twenty One Pilots and Billie Eilish could have occupied that space if they were around in Nirvana’s time. These artists emit a certain genuineness that this early ‘90s crowd craved. They speak openly about their anxieties in a way that clearly resonates with scores of young people. Tyler, the Creator in particular reminds me so much of Cobain. His honest lyrics and experimental music, his enormous impact on fashion and the splash of nihilism in his presentation all echo Cobain’s essence. Don’t forget, Cobain made plaid cool.

This also goes the other way. If Cobain were born in 1995 instead of 1967, he would not be the gargantuan cultural icon he is. He’d probably be doing the same thing he was in the ‘80s — making punk music and avant garde recordings in his Aberdeen bedroom, just for a substantially smaller audience.

With all the changes the internet has brought to the music industry, I think it’s also created a greater divide in musical preferences from one generation to the next. My father was not in Nirvana’s key demographic, but he loves a lot of grunge music. Spin some Lil Pump or Kendrick Lamar, and he loses interest pretty fast. I think Nirvana’s accessibility also aided their worldwide recognition and adoration.

On that front, Cobain’s death impacted people in a way that musician’s early deaths today do not. Part of it is frequency; it seems like there’s a new dead rapper every other month. It’s hard not to get numb to these untimely deaths.  Bigger than that, some people write off hip-hop for being strictly about sex, drugs and money. Cobain spoke more frankly and transparently about real life struggles that people can relate to.

Mac Miller’s death broke this mold a bit. Many of his fans grew up with his music and are about the same age he would be now. Combined with the sensationalism surrounding his relationship with Ariana Grande and the more honest nature of his lyrics, his legacy is a bit closer to Cobain’s.

There are certainly rappers — even the sex-drugs-money ones — who rap about the same pain Cobain wrote about. Lamar, Tyler, the Creator, Mac Miller and Danny Brown are all masters of turning pain into rhymes. But the combination of Cobain’s lyrics and how sensationalized his suicide was shocked and touched so many people on a level that is rarely reached these days.

Perhaps rock stars are not dead. The rock ’n’ roll lifestyle most definitely is not. But rock stars of the 21st century are not cherished and hailed on such a wide scale anymore. Elvis Presley, Jimi Hendrix, Michael Jackson, Cobain: All had their fair share of adversaries, but these names conjure a similar image and attitude in most people’s minds. Great music, hard life. It’s sad they had to go the way they did. I just don’t think that the internet will allow as many people to think the same way about Lil Peep, Mac Miller or XXXTentacion.

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