While acoustic instruments played a representational role in classifying the “folkness” or authenticity of an artist, like Dylan’s evacuation of authenticity according to the folkies in the 1965 Newport Festival performance, heavily usage of technology and electrical instruments may have seemed as inauthentic. The emergence of the conglomerate network of MTV in the 1980s with its MTV Unplugged was a method to demonstrate the authenticity of an artist under the close examination of lenses, despite the obviously “plugged” instruments – more heavily so after the Milli Vanilli lip-synching scandal and their revocation of their Grammy. Barker and Taylor state, “Clearly, MTV Unplugged fails this simple test: for it to be unplugged, we’d have to unplug our TVs. But on a less basic level, by presenting artists in a more-or-less “acoustic” environment, the program pretends to show us the most “authentic” aspects of the performer” (23). The 1980s and 1990s rock music went on several transitions, and the emergence of grunge was that which represented a raw, loud, and organic form of music, unlike the highly made-up and multi-layered rock-haired bands of the era – and despite its “plugged” elements. Grunge carries on punk rock messages of “being authentic…and simply telling it how you saw it” (Barker and Taylor 265).
Kurt Cobain popularized punk rock and experienced an incredible success. But people loved him not only for his music. Kurt also remained true to his roots. The higher he rose to success, the more evident it became for Cobain’s attempt to remain authentic. Barker and Taylor state, “While he loved a wide variety of music, a large part of his ethics regarding the music business came from the punk movement, were bands prized sincerity over skill and saw the corporate nature of the business as an enemy” (20). As only a selection of well known celebrity can land on the cover of the most popular yet commercial music magazine, such as the Rolling Stone, Cobain with Nirvana chose to cooperate, yet repress from diving full on to the integration of his new found celebrity. In the 1992 cover of the Rolling Stone magazine featuring Nirvana, Kurt wears a t-shirt that says “Corporate Magazines Still Suck”. Boorstin points out about the transition from heroes shifting to celebrities in magazines: “Studies of biographies in popular magazines suggest that editors, and supposedly also readers, of such magazines not long ago shifted their attention away from the old-fashioned hero. From the person known form some serious achievement, they have turned their biographical interests to the new-fashioned celebrity” (59). Barker and Taylor commented on Kurt’s choice of t-shirt by stating he “castigated himself publicly for selling out while continuing to strive for further success.” Furthermore, Barker and Taylor quote Cobain: “I don’t blame the average 17-year-old punk-rock kid for calling me a sellout. I understand that. Maybe when they grow up a little bit, they’ll realize there’s more things to life than living out your rock & roll identity so righteously” (4).
As shown in the documentary Kurt and Courtney by Nick Broomfield, this is what he said about his new found wealth and money:
You can’t buy happiness. I mean that made me happy for a little while. I look back at going to second hand stores and I was almost just as happy finding a little treasure. That actually meant more to me because it was more of a stab in the dark in a way. You didn’t know if you were going to be able to afford it and what you were really looking for. When you find it its more special to you rather than having a thousand dollars and going into a store like that or buying the whole store. It’s not as special.
He died at the peak of his career and many people have found it difficult to accept.
Kurt has been labeled a folk hero and called a God in his own right. But unfortunately “While the folklore of hero-worship, the zestful search for heroes, and the pleasure in reverence for heroes remain, the heroes themselves dissolve” (Boorstin 48). Barker and Taylor’s explanation of Kurt’s persona and his public deterioration was due to his struggle to remain as rooted, honest, and authentic despite the pseudoness and illusion of utopia that comes from being a celebrity. These authors state, “Kurt Cobain first approached music as a fan…Many of his attitudes came from observing how his musical heroes saw the world and wanting to emulate them…When he became a successful performer himself he knew well how the fans felt about him, the demands they would make, and the emotional connection they had with him. He knew that above all, his fans expected him to keep it real and to not forget where he had come from” (19).
In both cases, Dylan and Cobain represented a musical embodiment of their heroes in their own ways. They too remained heroes in their own right. Kurt Cobain’s final statement proved to be the most powerful, saddening, and enduring in the line between mainstream and authenticity.