This past Friday marked 19-years since the passing of Kurt Cobain. While many remember him for his contributions to music and his tragic death, many of those mourning Cobain might not realize that there was more to him than just his music. Kurt Cobain was against sexism, against racism, and against homophobia; Kurt Cobain was a feminist activist.
He once told an audience,
Kurt Cobain was more than just a musician but also an activist. Many know that Kurt was involved with feminists such as Bikini Kill’s Kathleen Hanna, Go Team’s Toby Vail, and his widow, Courtney Love. But Kurt in his own right was a feminist. Kurt Cobain tackled many subjects such as homosexuality, masculinity, and rape. The blog, Gender Across Borders wrote “In his lyrics and journals, Cobain often identified himself with women, racial and gender minorities because he felt alienated from the cultural expectation of masculinity.”
Kurt and Homosexuality/Masculinity
When watching the Nick Broomfield documentary Kurt & Courtney, it’s told that Kurt was good friends with an openly gay student while he was in high school. While being friends with this student, Kurt was taunted and called homophobic slurs but even with this constant bullying, Kurt once said he was, “gay in spirit,” and that he was probably bisexual. Kurt is even quoted as saying that he wishes he were gay “just to piss off homophobes.”
But Kurt didn’t just condemn homophobia; he also questioned the notion of masculinity. “I’ve always had a problem with the average macho man – they’ve always been a threat to me.” There are multiple depictions of Kurt as feminine, including in the music video for, “In Bloom,” and in variousliveperformances where he wears a dress. When talking about wearing dresses, Kurt responded, “Wearing a dress shows I can be as feminine as I want.” In the song “Been a Son”, Kurt addresses the topic of masculinity by singing about a girl that should have been born a son, critiquing the idea that male children are valued more than female children or even the idea that Kurt maybe was too feminine for his parents. In another song “Sappy,” Kurt sings about a girl that is in a controlling relationship, yet she thinks she’s happy. Throughout the song he explains how she think she’s happy by making her boyfriend happy, but comes to the conclusion that she’s not where she needs to be. “Sappy” is a critique on how our society tells women that their path to happiness to by pleasing and serving a man.
Kurt’s views on masculinity and sexism led to his feud with Guns N’ Roses’ lead singer Axel Rose. Kurt refused to go on tour with Guns N’ Roses because he thought that was Axel was racist, homophobic, and sexist, referring to Guns N’ Roses’ songs, “It’s Easy,” and, “One in a Million,” as examples; he condemned the fact that they marginalized and objectified women. Specifically in “One In A Million” he criticized the lyrics that include the n-word and the line “immigrants and f*ggots, they make no sense to me; they come to our country and think they’ll do as they please.”
Kurt and Rape
Another topic that Kurt focused on was rape. Kurt once said,
Rape is one of the most terrible crimes on earth and it happens every few minutes. The problem with groups who deal with rape is that they try to educate women about how to defend themselves. What really needs to be done is teaching men not to rape. Go to the source and start there.
Nirvana’s “Floyd the Barber,”“Polly,” and the well-known song, “Rape Me,” all approach the subject of rape, but from three different angles. In “Floyd the Barber,” Kurt sings about being violently assaulted and murdered. Yet, this song went beyond just a story of rape and into a critique on the traditional representations of race, class, and gender in American television. What other way to do that than to use the famous 1960s sitcom The Andy Griffith Show, and to use the characters of the show as villains who assault and murder Kurt. I’m going to assume that Kurt is making a connection between all these oppressive systems and showing how they cause destruction in one form or another.
The song “Polly” is about the 1987 rape of a 14-year-old girl named Polly. Kurt wrote it, retelling the story of Polly’s escape from her abductor. Polly was coming out of a concert and Gerald Arthur Friend kidnapped her. Gerald Friend then tied her up in his mobile home, raped, and tortured her. Polly was able to gain Friend’s trust by telling him that the torture was boring her and he then untied her. While Friend stopped for gas, Polly was able to get out of the vehicle. In the song, the speaker is Friend and it goes through how Polly got away. Even Kurt writes the song to praise what Polly did: “Polly says her back hurts; She's just as bored as me; She caught me off my guard; Amazes me the will of instinct”.
The well-known song, “Rape Me,” is as Kurt says, “an anti-, let me repeat that, anti-rape song,” that presents rape as a crime of violence and power, not one of sexual desire. Kurt said, “It’s like she’s saying, ‘Rape me, go ahead, rape me, beat me. You’ll never kill me. I’ll survive this’.”. Despite this, these songs have been misinterpreted to be pro-rape, and both songs, “Polly”, and, “Rape Me”, have been used by assailants during reported assaults. Kurt once heard there was a group of boys that raped a girl while singing “Polly”, spurring Kurt to fight back in the liner notes of Incesticide, saying that the boys were, “a waste of sperm and eggs”, and that he, “has a hard time carrying on knowing that plankton like that were in his audience.” I bet Kurt would have the same response to the guy from Steubenville who posted a tweet saying that, “Song of the night is definitely Rape Me by Nirvana.”
There are multiple quotes about Kurt’s distaste of bigotry saying that,
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.
Continuing on into the liner notes of Incesticide, Kurt wrote,
If you’re a racist, a sexist, a homophobe, we don’t want you to buy our records.
Kurt’s writings, lyrics, and even the way he carried himself sent the message that he was devoted to the feminist movement. Kurt’s time in the spotlight gave him a platform to challenge cultural notions of masculinity, to be an advocate for the LGBT community and target important feminist concerns such as rape. On the 19th anniversary of Kurt’s death, he should be remembered for more than just being the front man for Nirvana, but for being an outspoken activists and fellow feminist.