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On This Day in Music... April 5, 1994: Kurt Cobain Dies at Age 27

The Nirvana frontman's death still casts a shadow on popular music thirty years later.

Kurt Cobain
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Kurt Cobain died thirty years ago today.

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On this day in 1994, Kurt Cobain, the singer and songwriter for the most influential American rock band of the past three decades, died from suicide in his home in Seattle, Washington. The 1990s contained more than their fair share of untimely deaths from now-legendary musicians: Tupac Shakur, Selena Quintanilla, Bradley Nowell, Jeff Buckley. But perhaps none had such an immediate and lasting effect on an entire genre — and indeed, an entire generation — as Cobain’s. Music still has yet to fully recover.

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Cobain, seen here with infant daughter Frances Bean, was an entirely new type of rock star.

For those who were old enough to be Nirvana fans at the time, Cobain’s death was as shocking and upsetting as it was somehow sadly unsurprising. Much like Tupac spent the final year of his life seemingly spiraling further and further into the abyss, so too, albeit in a less flamboyant fashion, did Cobain appear to be falling apart in real time. In the months leading up to his death, music outlets and MTV News offered a nearly constant drumbeat of Cobain updates: his health issues, his fitness as a parent, his overdose at a hotel in Rome, his stint in rehab, the persistent rumors that the band had broken up…none of it seemed to paint a picture of a happy man. (For a particularly eerie example, here's an L.A. Times article published the day after Cobain's death, but prior to the discovery of his body, breaking the news that Nirvana had pulled out of negotiations to headline Lollapalooza.)

And yet, his death hardly seemed preordained, either. Nirvana’s then-six-month-old third album, In Utero, saw the band try to sand off the poppier edges that had made 1992 breakthrough Nevermind such a commercial juggernaut, but it still debuted at No. 1 and launched several inescapable singles. The band’s MTV Unplugged performance from late 1993 featured almost as many Meat Puppets covers as radio hits, and yet it was obvious to anyone who saw its first broadcast that it was destined to be a classic. His personal life may have grown messy, he may have been beating a conscious retreat away from the spotlight -- but as an artist, he seemed to be just hitting his stride.

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Cobain had been a news fixture in the months prior to his death.

Though he died on April 5, Cobain’s body was not discovered until several days later, and the degree to which the news brought the entire pop music world to a standstill is difficult for those who weren't there to fully appreciate. Nirvana weren’t just one of the biggest artists of the era, they were a transformative force, an entirely new model for what a multiplatinum rock band could look like, sound like, and think like. The idea that a disheveled punk rock kid who'd once fronted a band called Fecal Matter could knock Michael Jackson off the top of the Billboard charts would have previously seemed absurd. After a decade when rock hedonism and careerism had hit such vulgar extremes, seeing Vince Neil and Axl Rose lose top dog status to a man who happily discussed feminism and gay rights and wore a “Corporate Magazines Still Suck” t-shirt for his Rolling Stone cover shoot had been something thrillingly new. There had never been a rock hero quite like Kurt Cobain, and now an entire movement had lost its reluctant leader overnight.

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Nirvana's music remains remarkably popular thirty years later, including with young listeners.

Of course, it didn’t take long before the discourse took a turn for the lurid, from the obsessive compulsion to reconstruct Cobain’s last days to the eventual cottage industry of Cobain truther conspiracy theories (including some particularly nasty and ridiculous ones involving his widow, Courtney Love). Some of the early reactions to Cobain’s death were shockingly crass, and even cruel: a Seattle radio deejay called Cobain “a coward” within hours of the announcement of his death, while curmudgeonly 60 Minutes commentator Andy Rooney decided to use Cobain’s depression as a snide jumping-off point to complain about shiftless young people, saying: "What would all these young people be doing if they had real problems like a Depression, World War II or Vietnam?” (Rooney’s segment on Cobain proved so unpopular that he spent a subsequent one simply reading aloud from the hate mail he’d received as a result.)

A corollary impulse to make him into a martyr began almost immediately, as well, and this too could often veer toward mawkishness, tastelessness and borderline irresponsibility. (I can still remember, as a sixth grader, seeing classmates with t-shirts that had the entire text of Cobain’s suicide note printed on the back, in an approximation of his handwriting. You could buy them at the mall.)

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Cobain’s death cast a heavy shadow on rock music for years to come, and set a ghoulish precedent for his peers from the Seattle music scene. Of the “big four” grunge bands to break huge out of the city in the early ‘90s, three would see their frontmen meet tragic ends. In 2002, Alice in Chains’ Layne Staley would die from a drug overdose at the age of 34. Soundgarden’s Chris Cornell lived long enough to see middle-age, forge a successful solo career, and regroup his band for some lucrative reunion tours, only to die of suicide in 2017. Even Pearl Jam, always the healthiest and most functional of the major grunge bands, had been born of tragedy, formed from the ashes of Mother Love Bone after the fatal overdose of frontman Andrew Wood. Every era of rock and roll has had its share of young casualties, but it’s hard to think of another movement that saw so many of its most important figureheads pass so early, and under such bleak circumstances.

Yet Cobain’s music has survived to a remarkable degree over the past three decades. Turn on any modern rock station today, and it’s a safe bet that Nirvana is still part of the daily rotation. Cobain has been cited as an a major influence by countless rappers, DJs, rock revivalists and even pop stars who were barely glimmers in their parents’ eyes when “Heart-Shaped Box” first hit the airwaves. And Nirvana t-shirts remain so prevalent among young people that a social media brouhaha erupted last week when a young conservative gadfly tried to chide fortysomethings for wearing “Nirvana brand” clothing, apparently believing it was a Gen Z streetwear line.

Cobain was always intensely uneasy about being thrust into the role of a generational spokesman, and perhaps that's why he continues to speak so convincingly to younger generations. “I’m a spokesman for myself,” Cobain said in 1992. “It just so happens that there’s a bunch of people that are concerned with what I have to say. I find that frightening at times because I’m just as confused as most people. I don’t have the answers for anything. I don’t want to be a f--king spokesperson.”

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