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Long Shadows in the Musical Landscape

Kurt Cobain, Los Angeles, May 23, 1991. Copyright Michael Lavine.

When people think of Seattle, they inevitably start with the same handful of icons and stereotypes: coffee, the Space Needle, rain, and grunge. For many, that last item begins and ends with the ‘90s band Nirvana and its frontman, Kurt Cobain. Of course, there were many creators and artists behind the rise of grunge, but the singular legacy of Kurt Cobain has, for better or worse, largely come to represent them all.

This April 5th marks thirty years since Kurt Cobain’s death, which was first reported three days later on April 8th, 1994. He was 27.

I grew up in Seattle, and happened to be walking by the Seattle Center fountain on April 10th in time to witness the beginning of an impromptu memorial gathering that would grow to an estimated 5-10,000-strong. I had just turned twelve, and wasn’t sure how to feel as I watched the fifty or so flannel-clad kids climb the half-dome fountain, wailing. I wasn’t quite listening to Nirvana yet, but grunge music was a tangible part of the city’s fabric, and the idea that its brightest stars could just vanish from one day to the next was incomprehensible. That memorial gathered its own legend—stories say those who stayed to the end were presented with pieces of Kurt’s clothing by Courtney Love—and became the very public symbol of Seattle’s grief.

With the loss of any icon, there is the question of who to mourn: the actual person or the image we fell in love with. (This question is currently being explored in depth at MoPOP with Guest Curator Nabilah Ahmed’s Gone Too Soon exhibition.) Would Kurt have appreciated the intensity and style of the public reaction to his death? Would he have believed the outpouring of grief from musicians around the globe? Would he recognize the version of himself and his band most listeners today have in their heads?

We can find some clues in this selection from The Amplified Come as You Are: The Story of Nirvana chosen by its author, Michael Azerrad:

Kurt doubted the band would have any lasting influence. “Fuck no,” he told me for the original edition of Come as You Are. “It’s sad to think what the state of  rock & roll will be in twenty years. It’s already so rehashed and so plagiarized that it’s barely alive now. It’s disgusting. I don’t think it will be important anymore.” 

He was right and he was wrong. Today, a lot of rock music really is a rehash. But Nirvana still looms large in the musical landscape: there are people in Nirvana-inspired bands who weren’t yet born when Kurt died — or even when the self-titled best-of album came out in 2002. 

There’s a difference between influence and inspiration. A band’s influences are who they sound like. But a band’s inspirations — the artists who galvanize them to make music in the first place — may not sound like the band at all. (Kurt and Dave being inspired by the B-52’s is a great example.) 

Not many bands imitate Nirvana anymore, but that’s not a very meaningful index of Nirvana’s legacy. The animating idea of Nirvana wasn’t really to see what happened if, as Kurt put it, you mixed the Beatles and Black Sabbath — really, it was to make music that was true to yourself and to play it with all the passion you possibly can. That recipe can and does come out a lot of different ways: the rapper MIA was inspired by Nirvana, and she sounds nothing like them; same with rappers Lil Wayne and Kid Cudi (who wore a Virgil Abloh-designed floral-print sundress in tribute to Kurt for his 2021 appearance on Saturday Night Live). So were musicians as diverse as new music composer Tyondai Braxton, pop singer Lana Del Rey, avant-rock band Dirty Projectors, folk-rockers the Avett Brothers, Radiohead, Post Malone, and countless others. 

I’m not sure Kurt would have been too impressed by musicians who were influenced by Nirvana. But he would have been proud of any musician who truly was inspired by Nirvana, no matter what kind of music they made, as long as they were, you know, passionate about it.

There’s no knowing exactly what Kurt Cobain would think of his place in pop culture history, but here at MoPOP we can say for certain that people from around the world are still deeply inspired by the music and story of Nirvana. Thousands of them visit our Nirvana: Taking Punk to the Masses exhibition each year, making a special stop on their visits and vacations to get a little closer to the Aberdeen garage band that changed popular music for everyone, forever. 

Thirty years on, Kurt’s legacy is as strong as ever, and I for one plan to mark the occasion April 5th by returning to the music, getting lost in what he left behind all over again. 

Want to learn more about Kurt Cobain, Nirvana, and the early Grunge movement in Seattle? Pick up your copy of Michael Azerrad’s book, The Amplified Come As You Are: The Story of Nirvana. Available at the MoPOP gift shop or from Harper Collins Publishers, here. 

Related Articles:

Kurt Told Me: Michael Azerrad on Nirvana

A Candle for Kurt" Photograph by L.E. Hertel Added to 'Nirvana: Taking Punk to the Masses' Exhibition at MoPOP

Take a 3-D Walkthrough of 'Nirvana: Taking Punk to the Masses' at MoPOP

A Closer Look at Kurt Cobain's Sunburst Stratocaster

Visit Nirvana: Taking Punk to the Masses to see the artifacts such as guitars, clothing, photos, and more, hear audio from Kurt Cobain, and experience the world's most extensive collection of Nirvana memorabilia.

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About the author

Will Taylor is a freelance marketing copywriter and a children's author for HarperCollins and Scholastic. You can check out more of his work at