Tuesday, March 4, 2014
March 4, 2014: AmericanStudying Non-Favorites: Morrison and Cobain
[Much of the time when I’ve highlighted something specific in this space, it’s been because I want to emphasize something positive about it, something I enjoy or appreciate. Well, the heck with that! For this week’s series, I’ll focus instead on stuff about which I’m not as keen, and try to AmericanStudy some of the reasons why. Nobody can be positive all the time, right? Add your own non-favorites in comments to help with a crowd-sourced airing of grievances this weekend!]
On the gap between appreciation and enjoyment—or inspiration.
I’m not a music or pop culture historian (though I play on one the intertubes sometimes), but it seems undeniable to me that Jim Morrison and The Doors and Kurt Cobain and Nirvana drastically influenced, and even helped change, their respective eras in popular music and culture. They did so of course—as any influential figures and artists do—as part of larger trends, the psychadelic rock counter-culture for Morrison and the alternative grunge scene for Cobain. But contextualizing them doesn’t minimize their individual talents and voices, and again I believe it’s undeniable that both men, and the groups they spear-headed, stood out within those trends and eras for their talents and voices. As songwriters, as musicians, and even as poets, the two demand appreciation for what they accomplished in their too-short lives, and I gladly give it to them.
I can appreciate them without enjoying the fruits of their talents, however, and I have to admit that virtually everything I’ve heard from both The Doors and Nirvana leaves me cold. That’s partly a simple matter of taste, and so not much worth extended attention in this space. But I believe that there’s a factor in my lack of enjoyment of these bands that does connect to broader AmericanStudies conversations: I find most of their works distinctly pessimistic and cynical, expressing a kind of nihilistic rejection of and separation from the world that reminds me of the narrator of Dostoyevsky’s Notes from Underground. I’m not necessarily arguing that the world doesn’t deserve such pessimism much of the time—but to my mind, there’s a very limited point to artistic works and voices which consistently express that attitude. Or, to connect my first paragraph to this one, I can respect the artistic talent with which these figures and bands express those perspectives, but find not only little enjoyment but little inspiration in their consistent choice to do so.
Moreover, I think it’s difficult if not impossible to separate Morrison and Cobain’s tragic deaths from those attitudes toward the world around them. Cobain actively took his own life while Morrison did not, but it’s hard for me to see Morrison’s apparent descent into alcohol and drug abuse (which, despite ambiguities, certainly seems to have caused his death) as disconnected from his world-weariness and desire to separate from all that was around him. To be very clear, I’m not pretending that I know what either man was dealing with, nor critiquing their choices and lives. But on the other hand, I find the cult idolization of the two men troubling, not least because it seems that their deaths, just as much as their attitudes and perspectives in life, have contributed to that ongoing mythography. So while we can and should still engage with their lives and their music, to my mind we must at the same time push back on any sense that they represented ideals for which we should strive.
Next non-favorite tomorrow,
BenPS. Thoughts on this non-favorite? Others you’d share for the weekend post?