Does Kurt Cobain deserve an inspirational character?

Disclaimer: The following article discusses substance abuse, depression, and suicide. If these topics are emotionally provoking for you, proceed with caution or consider passing this reading along for the time being. And always know that therapists and other supporters are there for you, and that suicide prevention is just a phone call away: just dial 988 or text.

If you open a search engine (e.g. Google) and start typing the letters KUR, those three letters will probably be enough for the browser to list “Kurt Cobain” as a top hit. Such is the power of this rock ‘n’ roll legend’s legacy, even nearly three decades after his death, which occurred in early April 1994.


Cobain was just 27 years old when he died – an age before which most people were even almost born, his time was up. But his music and genius left a mark that would last forever.

Kurt Cobain’s early years

Image of a young Kurt Cobain playing the guitar.

Music has always been of paramount importance to Kurt Cobain. He was later remembered singing songs by The Beatles at the age of two, and that towering band remained a lifelong influence. By the age of four, Cobain was playing the piano, singing, and even beginning to compose his own simple songs. And by his teenage years, Cobain had picked up guitar and was soon playing many of the rock songs that were popular in the late 1970s and into the ’80s, including the work of other bands that would influence him, such as Led Zeppelin and AC/DC .

But music was perhaps the only constant in Kurt Cobain’s life. After his parents divorced and they were both before Cobain was 10th On his birthday he was often commuted back and forth and was dismayed and disillusioned with the changes in life. His father remarried and Cobain’s new stepmother, who already had two children, would soon have another child. His mother began a relationship with a violent and abusive man.

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As a teenager, Cobain became defiant, rebellious, and often a criminal, being arrested for defacing cars, deliberately failing at sporting events, contradicting teachers and parents, and generally being a problem to those in charge of his care. He dropped out of high school shortly before graduating from high school and was kicked out of his mother’s house shortly thereafter.

Cobain briefly lived a semi-roving life, at times living with friends, at times homeless. He soon found reasonably stable housing and work, and engaged in several brief but apparently passionate love affairs. And soon he was playing music with many of the early pioneers of a style of rock ‘n’ roll that came to be known as grunge. Kurt Cobain rose to prominence as an icon of the genre, a role he never really wanted.

Why did Cobain and Nirvana rise to such fame so quickly?

Kurt Cobain, Krist Novoselic and Dave Grohl in white T-shirts are sitting in front of a house.

Nirvana, the band that would change music forever, formed in 1986. It consisted of Kurt Cobain, who sang and played guitar, bassist Krist Novoselic and drummer Chad Channing. This trio recorded the first Nirvana album “Bleach” in 1989. The album was well received by critics and received some airplay, but was not a huge success. But in 1991, now with Dave Grohl on drums, things changed for the band – and for the music – when Nirvana released their album doesn’t matter.

An almost instant sensation doesn’t matter was the number one album in America in January 1992, about three months after its release, and has sold countless copies around the world. Kurt Cobain was hailed as the voice of his generation, Nirvana was the biggest band on earth and music changed forever.

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doesn’t matter was such a sensational hit from an album – as were many of his mega-hit singles – because for many people around the world it was their first exposure to the grunge rock that had been seeping into the Pacific Northwest for some time. Grunge was seen as an antidote to the over-the-top glam rock of the 1980s. It was raw, simple, powerful and relatable. It wasn’t overproduced and according to Billboard it was authentic. In short, it was great music, and nobody made it better than Nirvana, so they became de facto spokesmen for the now immensely popular sound.

But fame would not do Kurt Cobain well, a man who genuinely cared about music more than awards and was already suffering and stressed without the eyes of the world.

Why did Cobain and Nirvana rise to such fame so quickly?

Kurt Cobain was first diagnosed with clinical depression in high school, according to Rolling Stone, and would see a multitude of doctors and therapists throughout his short adult life, but all without real success. He sought solace in drugs more than medicine or mental health treatment, beginning with the use of marijuana at the age of 13.

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In his later teens, Cobain began using LSD and heroin, and he continued to use marijuana and alcohol heavily. He often claimed that his heroin use was intended to help with chronic pain from an undiagnosed stomach condition, but many around him actually assumed the pain was caused by drug use.

In the early 1990s, as success and fame swamped Cobain, he began using increasing amounts of heroin in an attempt to drug himself. He frequently passed out in public and had to be resuscitated at least once. Drugs, addiction, short stints in rehab and a general malaise shaped the last year of his life.

Should we idolize Kurt Cobain?

Black and white photo of Kurt Cobain playing guitar and smoking.

As a musician, lyricist, and a man who helped transform American and global music, Kurt Cobain deserves every award he receives. But as a human being, he should be seen as a cautionary tale rather than a heroic figure. This is a man who committed suicide in leaving behind a daughter, a wife, other family members, friends, and of course, an adoring audience — though frankly, we owe less to the latter.

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Too often artists who die young are more romanticized than those who live to old age; among other musicians who died at the age of 27 are Jim Morrison, Amy Winehouse, Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin, most of whom also suffered from depression. It never seems to matter what talent, genius or impact they had on the world, anyone can suffer from depression whether they are famous or not.


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Sarah Y. Kim

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