YAY OR NAY: Smells like baby spirit?
If you were in an unknown band in the late 1980’s, you’d probably sell your own CDs and T-shirts at the venue where you were lucky enough to have a gig. And, if you were artistically gifted – or didn’t give a crap –, you’d probably do all the artwork yourself.
Besides being a musician, Kurt Cobain was also a visual artist. He created the cover for Nirvana’s compilation album Incesticide (1992) and was responsible for the concept behind the famous In Utero (1993) cover. Although he didn’t design it himself, Cobain came up with the image of the transparent anatomical manikin with wings. However, he did in fact create the back cover with his own hands – a collage of model fetuses and body parts lying in a bed of orchids and lilies.
Cobain is also credited with the smiley face with crossed-out eyes and drooling mouth that ended up becoming a symbol for Nirvana. The drawing made its first public appearance on the flyer for the release party for the band’s Nevermind album (1991) on September 13 and ended up becoming one of the most recognizable logos of the 1990’s.
Many have tried to come up with a meaning for Cobain’s smiley face - the attempts go from stating that it’s a portrait of Axel Rose to saying that it was inspired by the marquee sign at The Lusty Lady, a strip club in Seattle – but it is impossible to be sure. However, for posterity it serves as a flag for grunge culture, the decade in which it was created and the band that put it on the map of music history.
In 2015, a documentary - Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck - and a docudrama - Soaked in Bleach - revealed just how fascinated we still are with the king of grunge. On the runway for the Saint Laurent SS16 men’s collection, young men with bleached unruly hair and oversized oval sunglasses brought him back to memory – has he ever left? But the real question is: where to draw the limit to our collective obsession?
The true meaning of band t-shirts got lost somewhere in the process of dying subcultures. When rock t-shirts became fashion items the high street jumped immediately in. Teenagers now buy cheap Nirvana t-shirts from Primark and Topshop without knowing anything about the group or their music. In the 1990’s, if you wore a Nirvana tee you were showing your love for the band and that you felt as much of an outsider as Kurt Cobain. In the Noughties, the band t-shirt that once legions of fans wore proudly as a uniform has lost its meaning. The biggest bands are brands. Funnily enough, the famous black t-shirt with Cobain’s smile drawing in yellow is called “Corporate Rock Whores” - the back of the original tee says: “Flower Sniffin/Kitty Pettin/Baby Kissin/Corporate Rock Whores”. Quoting another 90’s star, Alanis Morissette, isn’t it ironic?
Nirvana LLC, the business entity founded in 1997, three years after Cobain’s death, to manage the band’s estate, includes founding band members Dave Grohl and Chris Novoselic as well as the frontman’s widow, Courtney Love. Having made several headlines due to the internal disputes over the late frontman’s publicity rights, the company has allowed the perversion of what Cobain stood for.
The newest addition to weird Nirvana merchandise is baby shoes. Besides pink models with shiny bows and others with rabbit ears, Melissa, the Brazilian shoe brand known for its use of plastic, has two pairs of baby shoes with Nirvana’s logo on it. And so Cobain has gone from the man that originally wanted to name the band’s third and final album “I hate myself and I want to die” to becoming an inspiration for toddler fashion. The record label wouldn’t have the title – it was In Utero instead – and he ended up killing himself. However, he undoubtedly left a strong mark into the pop culture that he so ungracefully disdained.
Hungry for more?
Watch the documentary: Montage of Heck (2015) by Brett Morgen on Youtube bit.ly/1NTIRkG
Listen to the music: In Utero (1993) by Nirvana on Youtube
Buy the shoes: Mini Melissa Rockstar shoes, Melissa, £70 at shopmelissa.uk