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No Alternative to Transcendence

One of the most revealing moments in the history of punk culture transpired in April of 1994. Nirvana's lead singer Kurt Cobain committed suicide.
Joel Schalit

Issue #46, December 1999

For Rich Jensen

More Than a Feeling

One of the most revealing moments in the history of punk culture transpired in April of 1994. Nirvana's lead singer Kurt Cobain committed suicide by sticking a gun in his mouth and blowing his own head off. And Maximum Rock and Roll published its now legendary Major Labels edition, featuring a faceless individual with a .45 caliber semi-automatic pistol pointed directly inside their gaping jaws. Given the rash of copycat suicides that ensued during the months immediately following Cobain's death, for those readers picking up the magazine after the fact, it'd be reasonable to assume that Maximum was using Cobain's suicide as a warning to those artists who might consider signing major label contracts. Don't mess with The Man, or this is what will happen to you. MRR's after-the-fact choice of covers was in keeping with the creeping sense of imminent death one sensed in its pages during the boom period of alternative culture.

While it may be easy to conclude that there's a link between Maximum's anti-major label stance and Cobain's suicide, such coincidences are symptomatic of how previously marginal cultural communities end up thematizing their anxieties about being mainstream in an entirely similar manner. MRR's editor Tim Yohannon defined the punk rock party line about fin de siecle counter-cultural capitalism: Doing everything yourself was the only categorical imperative necessary to adhere to in a musical market economy. Stray away from that dictum, and for all intents and purposes you commit not only artistic but moral suicide. Yohannon was that certain. For anyone who grew up punk during the eighties, you not only read MRR, but you took Yohannon's admonitions more than seriously. You received them as though they were revealed truths.

When Culture Becomes Biology

MRR's world not only had its own moral cosmology, it also mapped out an aesthetic universe as well, where certain kinds of genres and particular kinds of politics neatly followed from Yohannon's cultural economy. While Cobain could never have been anyone's victim but his own, his imagination, self-esteem and sense of authenticity were shaped by Maximum Rock and Roll's moral universe. Take punk too far into the marketplace, and your conscience will eventually get the better of you. You'll punish yourself for your own transgressions, using all the same metaphors of self-immolation and suicide that you were raised with to do the job, and you'll get it done in such a manner that no one will ever misunderstand you.

The problem with Yohannon's zealousness lay not with himself or his magazine but the way punks interpreted it. Cobain just happened to be one of those people. Nothing drove it home better than how he framed his own crisis of cultural legitimacy in his suicide note: Cobain explained that he did not want to devolve into another Freddie Mercury. Such fears betrayed a horror at professionalization, one which, as Cobain explained, involved losing his enthusiasm for making music by being compelled to develop a routine, by turning into an entertainer instead of remaining an agitator.

Aptitudes for Self-Destruction

max According to MRR, transgressing the boundary between art and mass culture emptied rock and roll of its utopian content. Hence Cobain's anxieties about Nirvana's transition to mass marketability. Having been socialized to see one's own art in such a light, breaking this community-defining taboo would be enough to kill anyone like Cobain, who took such ideologies a little too seriously. But Cobain was a traditional romantic, who took such worldviews to heart not only because he was a drug addict and a manic-depressive overwhelmed by his own success, but also because punk places too much of a utopian premium on culture.

In a market economy, no amount of idealism could be less alternative than that, because economic formations underlie every kind of artistic practice, mass-produced or homespun. Wherever culture is being made, in whatever format, regardless of content, routinization is inevitable. The mystery of finding a means to give rise to one's own personal voice always disappears as soon as a method for doing so is developed. Whether that's accomplished in the context of a cottage industry or a highly bureaucratized musical context is irrelevant. Particularly in a society where pop culture is big business and even the crassest of Hollywood films and the most shallow of love songs promotes the false hope that any transcendence of the here and the now is perpetually possible.

Lost in the Supermarket Part II

The fact is that art and mass entertainment can coincide. The difficulty arises in positing that there's a strict political divide between them, one that is based on the ill-conceived notion that artistic form is wholly determined by its economic base. When a record comes out on an independent label, it's supposed to be politically progressive, because it arises from the economic margins of the culture industry. When an album comes out on a major label, it's automatically conservative, because the forces of production behind it are aligned with big business, AKA the state.

Granted, it's a hell of a lot easier to criticize the government if you're recording an album for a company like Kill Rock Stars, and not for a division of MCA. The rapper Paris getting shut down by his former label, Tommy Boy, for releasing a song called "Bush Killa" while George Bush was still president, is a good example. As a result of that experience, Paris felt compelled to issue his records on his own label in order to avoid the possibility of being censored again.

However, major labels have grown so accustomed to the cartoonishness of the cultural left that they indiscriminately let anti-establishment art out of their floodgates all the time. Bands that recycle already-neutralized Cold War vintage revolutionary imagery like Rage Against the Machine are a good example. Nevertheless, like Paris, Rage is an exception to the major label radicals rule because work like theirs, albeit well-intentioned, is so cliched. So many artists, from The Clash and The Gang of Four to Linton Kwesi Johnson and Public Enemy put out not only the right word but really challenging art as well. Thus, it's hard to take seriously the notion that there's a qualitative ideological difference between major label and independent, punk rock and roll.

Two Steps Forward (Three Steps Back)

Nobody better epitomized the hollowness of this alternative vs. corporate concept than Nirvana, who lacked any kind of explicit political commitments, and whose songs were nothing more than dramatic explorations of personal anxiety. Yes, tunes like "Rape Me," and "Radio Friendly Unit Shifter," had their own political significance when viewed in context of the band's own personal problems coping with stardom. But they spoke more about Nirvana's difficulties of being members of two different arts communities -- indie and big business -- than about posing a threat to the more moneyed authorities with ties to the political establishment.

However, it was that revolutionary aspiration, to make art capable of overthrowing the existing order that tied both Yohannon's worldview and Cobain's suicide to mainstream ideals about rock's utopian potential. That's why people on all sides of the cultural spectrum, counter and otherwise, invested so much personal capital in what both totems had to teach them. Both Maximum Rock and Roll and Nirvana were revered as icons of purity precisely because they distilled the prevailing faith in the redemptive possibilities of culture into an alternative ideology; making it possible not only to believe in the power of art to deliver us from evil, but also in art's ability to transcend the powers of the marketplace.

If we're to learn anything positive from MRR and Cobain, perhaps it ought to be to prohibit ourselves from believing in moral universes where we reduce our cultural alternatives to life or death. There's nothing utopian about being offered such choices, especially when they're based on the premise that the only solution to the false transcendence of the market offered by the mainstream culture industry is simply some other, equally false ideal of transcendence through art. But then again, maybe the constant invocation of death is a sign that there never really was an alternative in the first place, and that the convenient fictions which we resort to in order to justify our frustration, like punk, like suicide, have stopped being artistically relevant.

Joel Schalit admits that he's complicit in manufacturing many pseudo-countercultures. In his not so spare time, Joel co-edits Chicago's Punk Planet, writes a dissertation, and co-manages Seattle indie Kolazhnikov, who are proud to announce the impending release of the Christal Methodists/DJ Masa split 12 inch single, Keep the Faith Baby. You can reach Joel at

Copyright © 1999 by Joel Schalit. All rights reserved.