In September 1991, I was a nervous freshman at the University of Michigan, sitting on a friend’s dorm room floor, when a guy ran in from down the hall, saying, “You’ve got to hear this.” He fed a cassette tape into the stereo, and I heard “Smells Like Teen Spirit” by Nirvana for the first time. It’s hard to capture how radical that song and that moment felt. Cobain and his bandmates were suddenly ubiquitous, an explosion of insolent Pacific Northwest cool into my deeply uncool, and fundamentally conservative, Midwestern world. (A few months later, Nirvana’s “Nevermind” supplanted Michael Jackson’s “Dangerous” atop the Billboard charts.) Hearing his music was like receiving a dispatch from another spiritual plane, one that offered irrefutable evidence that there were other ways of living — and maybe other ways of loving, too.
I don’t speak of love idly. Cobain is the Gen X icon who popularized alternative music and culture, but on the 25th anniversary of his death this week, I cherish another aspect of his legacy much more: his consistent and vocal support of gay rights. Something began to change in me the moment “Smells Like Teen Spirit” came on in that Ann Arbor dorm room, and it wasn’t just my grungy new approach to fashion. Cobain’s “oh well, whatever, never mind” attitude about sexual identity, expressed in lyrics and interviews, changed the course of my life.
Though Cobain might not be the first name you think of when it comes to gay rights, his band was never shy about its politics, especially where LGBTQ issues were concerned. In 1992, Nirvana played a “No on #9” benefit concert and issued a public statement opposing Measure 9, a statewide anti-gay citizen ballot initiative in Oregon that would have required “all governments” in the state to treat homosexuality as “abnormal, wrong, unnatural and perverse.” And in the liner notes of their album “Incesticide,” released that December, they warned: “If any of you in any way hate homosexuals, people of different color, or women, please do this one favor for us — leave us the f--- alone! Don’t come to our shows and don’t buy our records.” The liner notes to their next album, “In Utero,” echoed that admonition: “If you’re a sexist, racist, homophobe or basically an a--hole, don’t buy this CD. I don’t care if you like me, I hate you.”
Cobain himself repeatedly and publicly affirmed his pro-gay stance. In a 1993 interview with the Advocate, which I remember reading breathlessly in a Borders bookstore with the cover folded over so no one could tell what I was holding, Cobain called himself “gay in spirit” and revealed that as a teenager, he often questioned his sexuality and sprayed “God is gay” graffiti in the small town of Aberdeen, Wash., where he grew up. (The line “God is gay” later popped up in the Nirvana song “Stay Away.”) During the end credits of a “Saturday Night Live” episode in 1992, he made out with bandmate Krist Novoselic. And in 1993, Cobain appeared on the cover of the music magazine the Face wearing a dainty flower print dress.
All this played out in the early ’90s, when AIDS jokes and the word “fag” were common, ideas about allowing gays to openly serve in the military were considered radical, and politicians were waging culture wars over “family values.” Sure, there were rumors about the complicated sexuality of R.E.M.’s Michael Stipe, but Nirvana’s pro-gay gestures and its iconoclastic sound were remarkable for any popular music act. Guitar-smashing rock bands on MTV and mainstream music stations (Warrant, Poison) were generally uber-macho hair-metal acts, and even Hüsker Dü’s Bob Mould was in the closet at the time — not to mention wholly off my radar. The idea that you could make music that was aggressive, hard and loud and be an ally to the gay community seemed revolutionary, especially for me, a closeted prep school graduate from Detroit’s suburbs.
When “Smells Like Teen Spirit” was released, I was conservative in terms of both my politics and my lifestyle. I grew up in a family of Republicans who believed in tax cuts and traditional family structures. Just before going off to college, I attended a school assembly, during which we were warned to resist the dangers of the “P.C.” movement. I remember pledging to myself that I would follow this advice.
I wanted to pursue writing in college, and when I first arrived at the University of Michigan, I went to a meeting to learn about joining the Michigan Review, the newspaper for conservative students. The publication had characterized gay people as sad and pathetic, but I still volunteered at a bake sale to raise money for it. I remember sitting next to a young woman that day who observed how cute our editor in chief was. I agreed and wished I could say so openly, but didn’t dare.
I might have stayed with the Review, but something dislodged in me in my dorm room one night, listening to “Teen Spirit.” Maybe it was the explosive opening, all driving drumbeats and furious metal. Or maybe it was what came next: Cobain’s signature cracked yelp of a voice, which could hold a sarcastic yowl for several strained seconds that felt like ages, giving them a mysterious, eerie emphasis. I didn’t always know what he was saying, but I didn’t need the words to know what he was feeling, a mix of turbulent and conflicting emotions I too had experienced but couldn’t always name.
By the time Cobain killed himself at the end of my junior year of college, I was coming out to my friends and family. Having found my own confidence in his unapologetic approach to life, I didn’t fully appreciate just how insecure Cobain was until more than 20 years later, while researching a novel that pays tribute to his influence. The rock star I idolized was just one aspect of a real human being who created great art but also suffered great pain, both physical and emotional. And yet, during his relatively short life and career, he spoke with a clarity that inspired me to do the same, creating a kind of role model for me to follow.
Correction: An earlier version of this article misspelled the title of the Nirvana album “Incesticide.”
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