It’s been almost 20 years since Kurt Cobain’s death — and more than 20 years since Nirvana made an indelible mark on the music scene, releasing landmark records like Nevermind and In Utero and making MTV history on “Unplugged.”
If Cobain were alive today, I’m sure he would be surprised to see his effect on music at large — but perhaps a bit more surprised by his impact on the fashion scene.
Yup, articles in the likes of Elle magazine trumpeting the “Return of Grunge” — articles emblazoned with the title of one of Nirvana’s most popular singles, “Smells Like Teen Spirit” — would have probably left him scratching his shaggy head. After all, he was pretty confused back in the ’90s when his signature lazy style — ripped jeans, flannels and barely washed hair — hit the runways and malls of America.
Author Charles R. Cross talks Cobain’s newly minted style icon status in his upcoming book, Here We Are Now: The Lasting Impact of Kurt Cobain, sharing an exclusive excerpt with MTV News on Thursday (February 20) — what would have been Cobain’s 47 birthday.
An early fan of Nirvana, Cross covers Cobain’s impressive impact in his upcoming book — on music, fashion, gay rights, Seattle’s status as a music scene and the way we deal with suicide and drug addiction. He previously penned New York Times bestseller Heavier Than Heaven: The Biography of Kurt Cobain.
Here We Are Now: The Lasting Impact of Kurt Cobain is currently available for pre-order — with the book going on sale on March 18 — but you can get a taste of the tome below before it hits the shelves:
“The Accidental Star of Fashion”
Here We Are Now: The Lasting Impact of Kurt Cobain by Charles R. Cross
Of all the aspects of Kurt Cobain’s legacy, Kurt himself would be most surprised by his impact on fashion. We know that to be true because by 1992, two years before his death, Kurt was already a fashion icon, and he expressed amazement to friends that a style of dress he had adopted out of practicality had become the stuff of runway shows. It surprised Kurt, but then everything the year after Nevermind was head-shaking.
Many rock stars have an impact on fashion, but Kurt’s influence has truly been a bizarre outgrowth of his fame, and one that will last (even if his music will undoubtedly be his greatest legacy). Kurt very much planned his musical career, writing out imaginary interviews with magazines in his journals long before he became famous. But he never considered that if he became a star, his ripped-up jeans and flannel shirts might one day end up on the runways of New York fashion shows.
Kurt Cobain came to his personal style out of necessity and fell into a fashion-icon role almost entirely by accident. His tousled hairstyle, for example, was due partially to the fact he couldn’t afford shampoo, and therefore washed his hair with body soap.
In 2003, a hairstyling product line called Bed Head was launched that sought to create, with a twenty-five-dollar shampoo and accompanying products, the same look Kurt achieved with a twenty-nine-cent bar of soap. Kurt essentially rolled out of bed and, moments later, was a style icon.
In the fall of 1991 so much of what he did and said had an effect on the consumer marketplace. That irony and power of accidental marketing was never greater than in the case of “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” Kurt wrote the song after seeing graffiti written on his bedroom wall by a friend who was taunting Kurt, implying that he had another girl’s scent on him.
He had no idea when he crafted his lyrics that Teen Spirit was the name brand of a deodorant marketed to teenage girls. It was only after the song was recorded, and on its way to being a monster hit, that he found this out. He was astounded that he’d written a song — one that would go on to become Nirvana’s anthem, his own signature piece — without knowing that the title referred to a product.
When the song became a hit, sales of Teen Spirit deodorant skyrocketed. The brand, produced by Mennen, added new fragrances to capitalize on the attention. The year after Nevermind was released, Colgate-Palmolive bought Mennen for $670 million.
From the book HERE WE ARE NOW: THE LASTING IMPACT OF KURT COBAIN Copyright 2014 by Charles R. Cross. Reprinted by permission of It Books, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.