“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.” ― Kurt Cobain
Kurt Cobain- The Feminist
by Kat Broderick
The late Kurt Cobain was surprisingly, an avid member of the feminist community. Here are some of his links to activism and his ties to the feminist agenda.
If generation X had a king it would be Kurt Cobain. His devil may care attitude arguably defined a generation of people. His haunting melodies and desperate screams spoke to youth disenchanted with societies’ expectations. He cared about a lot of things despite what his attitude projected. He was one of a handful of male feminists who reached enough fame to project their ideas on a mass scale. Through his songs and even in his interviews he repeatedly noted how much he detested sexism. Up until his untimely suicide in 1994 and despite his drug abuse and personal issues, he never wavered in his attempt to prove that men, even famous rock band having men, could be proud unadulterated feminists.
Kurt was open about his dissociation with the masculine ideal. He was quoted as saying “I’ve always had a problem with the average macho man – they’ve always been a threat to me.” His mellow nature defied traditional gender roles. ‘Territorial Pissing’ may have been in response to the disenchantment he had experienced with masculine behavior. During his music video for one of his hit singles ‘In Bloom’ he donned a dress and also wore a dress during an interview with the Los Angeles Times noting “Wearing a dress shows I can be as feminine as I want.”
In junior high school Kurt noted that he was very into heavy metal but that he grew out of it. In an interview with metal express in 1994 he commented “I have nothing against heavy metal, except that some of it is pretty sexist”. This was very different from the male prominent bands of the time who made a considerable amount off of the degradation of women in music.
His progressive beliefs put him at odds with Guns and Roses, Axl called him a ‘pussy’ for not agreeing to tour with him. Kurt says he didn’t agree to tour with him because he believed him to be a racist homophobe referring to lyrics in his song ‘one in a million’ where he says “niggers and police” and “immigrants and faggots” and in ‘It’s so easy’ where he sings “Turn around bitch, I got a use for you”.
Whilst performing at a No On 9 benefit, (supporting defeating of Measure 9 an anti-homosexuality measure that said homosexuality was “abnormal, wrong, unnatural and perverse and they are to be discouraged and avoided”) he was approached by a kid that suggested he and Guns and Roses patch thing up. He responded with, “No, kid, you’re really wrong. Those people are total sexist jerks, and the reason we’re playing this show is to fight homophobia in a real small way. The guy is a fucking sexist and a racist and a homophobe, and you can’t be on his side and be on our side. I’m sorry that I have to divide this up like this, but it’s something you can’t ignore.”
In an interview Kurt describes an encounter he had with Axl where Courtney jokingly asked Axl to be the god father of, then nine month old, Frances. He turned around and told her “shut the fuck up bitch” and instructed Kurt to “shut her up”. Cobain then told the reporter he had not encountered a situation like that since the sixth grade.
Cobain was against all forms of prejudice. In the liner notes of Incesticide he wrote “If you’re a racist, a sexist, a homophobe, we don’t want you to buy our records.” In high school Kurt was often called discriminatory names alluding to him being homosexual because he was good friends with an openly gay male student. Despite this, he began to embrace the taunts and acted as though he was gay saying he, “really enjoyed the conflict” He got arrested for spray painting “Gay sex rules” onto an Aberdeen bank and “God is gay” on a van. He insisted he was ‘gay in spirit’ and said “I wish I were gay, just to piss off homophobes”. No Alternative is a compilation album the proceeds of which went to AIDS Prevention to which he provided the song ‘Sappy’.
Good friends are hard to find but Cobain managed to find them. Cobain was good friends Bikini Kills’ Kathleen Hanna, a strong proponent of the feminist scene who no doubt was an influence on his views. She was the inspiration for his titling of the song “Smells Like Teen Spirit” after spray painting “Kurt smells like teen spirit” on his front wall. Toby Vail, the drummer from Go Team and collaborator with Bikini Kill and all around feminist activist, dated Kurt. She was also featured very fondly in his song ‘Aneurysm’ written during their relationship. He supported his wife Courtney Love’s band Hole and said that ideally he would quit Nirvana and be a guitarist for her band. At the time Hole was considered a highly feminist band. Love used to pass out a guitar to a girl at the end of each concert to encourage young girls to enter the male dominated music scene.
As far as Cobain’s marriage with Courtney was concerned he tried to keep it completely equal. “It’s completely divided. We have influence on each other. It’s totally 50-50. Courtney insists on this: She has a tab when she borrows money from me that she has to pay back.”
Kurt’s sarcasm was tragically misunderstood. Along with his vintage acoustic guitar proudly having 1972s Nixon Now plastered on it for ironic effect, many of his songs were made to be so much that they weren’t. He was forced to re-iterate time and time again that In Utero’s hit single “Rape Me” was a song against rape. Kurt clarified bluntly, “It’s an anti-, let me repeat that, anti-rape song” Insisting that it was meant to be blunt so that people would not misinterpret it. “It’s like she’s saying ‘Rape me, go ahead, rape me, beat me. 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… When I first heard it I broke out in a cold sweat, but when you get over that you realize he’s turning it back on people.” Continuing to promote how truly against rape he was, him 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 is yet another anti-rape song. It 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’, he denounced them in the liner notes of his album Incestiside calling them “a waste of sperm and eggs” and said he “has a hard time carrying on knowing that plankton like that” were in his audience.
In Bloom’ addressed the disparity between the audience he wanted and the one he had. In the song he sing “He’s the one who likes all our pretty songs and he likes to sing along… but he don’t know what it means” and ‘all apologies’ where he wrote “I wish I was like you, easily amused”.
Cobain was perfect by no means, but he did contribute to feminism in a great many ways. Since Kurt Cobain’s suicide we are left to wonder what effect he could have had on today’s sexism. With his undeniable ‘cool’ factor, could he have inspired more men to identify themselves as feminists? Unfortunately, we will never know. On the upside, his widow Courtney Love has talked seriously about producing a film about Kurt’s troubled life. Maybe some of his activism will show up on the silver screen soon. We’ll just have to wait and see.
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This is from Kurt Cobain's journal:
“Yeah, all Isms (sic) feed off one another but at the top of the food chain is still the white, corporate, macho, strong ox male. Not redeemable as far as I’m concerned. I mean, classism is determined by sexism because the male decides whether all other isms still exists (sic). Its up to men. I’m just saying that people can’t deny any ism or think that some are more or less subordinate except for sexism… I still think that in order to expand on all other isms, sexism has to be blown wide open…but there are thousands of green minds, young gullable (sic) 15 year old boys out there just starting to fall into the grain of what they’ve been told of what a man is supposed to be and there are plenty of tools to use. The most effective tool is entertainment” (Cobain, 117).
“I knew I was different. I thought that I might be gay or something because I couldn't identify with any of the guys at all. None of them liked art or music. They just wanted to fight and get laid. It was many years ago but it gave me this real hatred for the average American macho male.”
― Kurt Cobain