Jeff Perera looks at one of his first male role models for speaking up against gender inequality: Kurt Cobain.
“Never met a wise man, if so it’s a woman”
– Kurt Cobain , Territorial Pissings
In the midst of a 1991 audio swamp of conservative, manufactured pop music and ‘cock’ rock, a new sound shot out of the water. A sound that rose up from the Northwest, born of Riot Grrl feminist punk rock, and the broken home of a waitress and mechanic.
Nirvana was a return to music coming from a raw, primal and pure place. With songs like Negative Creep expressing his disdain, Kurt Cobain lived life as a middle finger to macho-jock culture.
One can only image his torment to end up performing in front of ravenous mosh-pits infected with the very jocks, jerks, macho creeps and toxic masculinity that his music rejected.
‘In Utero’ is my favourite album of all-time. Kurt’s music and the way he approached his work and life, was an example of breaking the choke-chain that was limiting ideas of manhood. In embracing rock back in 1992, I was drawn to artists like Kurt and Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder, who wrote from masculine and feminine perspectives with songs like Been a Son. Their music challenged and bended the rules of Gender, refusing the jock-bro-hyper-macho infestation of rock culture.
Cobain told Metal Express “I have nothing against heavy metal, except that some of it is pretty sexist”.
Interviewer: “What is your favorite track on the album?”
Kurt Cobain: “I think I like ‘Territorial Pissings’ the best. It’s just an ode to women and my appreciation of them …as a whole, as people. I think they deserve a lot more credit than they get.”
Kurt was a male ally in utero, trying to get it right. While working to support women and girls experiencing violence is key, Kurt understood the need to also address the toxic mosh-pit that is harmful masculinity, and his words haunt from the grave:
I can only imagine the disgust Kurt would have felt, had he heard about the tweet infamously sent out by a former Steubenville football player on a night of pure horror, declaring “Song of the night is definitely ‘Rape Me’ by Nirvana“.
” Kurt clarified bluntly, “It’s an anti-, let me repeat that, anti-rape song…It’s like she’s saying ‘You’ll never kill me. I’ll survive this…’ Tori Amos, an open rape survivor, defended him on this point saying that the songs shocking effect was done on purpose, “It’s a defiant song… you realize he’s turning it back on people.” (Kurt) and Courtney Love preformed at the Rock Against Rape benefit in Los Angeles in 1993. ‘Rape Me’ was not the only song that Kurt wrote to give light to the issue of rape.
‘Polly’ from Nirvana’s Nevermind album… retells a story he had read in the newspaper of a 14 year old girl named Polly who had been kidnapped by Gerald Arthur Friend in 1987 after a rock concert and tortured with a propane torch, then raped. He wrote it in homage to ‘Polly’ and re-imagines her daring escape from her captor. When he heard that there had been a group of boys that had raped a girl whilst singing the song ‘Polly’… said he “has a hard time carrying on knowing that plankton like that” were in his audience.”
As men/male-identified people, many of us are raised to seek resolution with violence or aggression. When it comes to a problem we are facing, the depression and rage is turned either outward or inward. The conversation of men and suicide is a large one that needs to be discussed more. Whatever demons Kurt battled (his past, his health, struggles with fame and the other factors we will never know), his response ultimately was to direct destruction inward and end his life.
Unfortunately, for some men who try rebel, reject and tear down narrow ideas of being a man, that energy can also become self-destructive or destructive external behaviour. Either way, the trail of hurt ends up impacting everyone.
We need to fight for the freedom for everyone to embrace the ideal and healthiest version of themselves. We need to show, teach, and help men to find permission to express the wide and diverse spectrum of their humanity…
…so that we may all find nirvana.