Did Gen X kill the rock star?

Seeing Nirvana's music repurposed to sell video games reminds us of Generation X's failure to produce a rock star of lasting worth.

Published March 5, 2007 7:15PM (EST)

For the first time this past weekend, I saw the new commercial for the "Major League Baseball 2K7" PlayStation 3 game that features Nirvana's "Breed" as its primary music. The ad is the first fruit of Courtney Love's recent sale of 25 percent of her stake in Nirvana's catalog to record industry mover and shaker Larry Mestel. I'm not one of those people who think using rock songs in ads diminishes the music in any real way, but it was still a startling experience to hear Kurt Cobain singing while a digital Derek Jeter took his cuts.

But listening to Cobain again -- and considering all that's come after -- raises another, more curious question: Did Generation X, the one that launched indie rock and a world of grunge, ultimately kill the rock star? Everyone remembers that "Nevermind" knocked Michael Jackson's "Dangerous" from the top of the Billboard charts back in 1992, but instead of heralding the rise of the indie, it seems more and more like Nirvana's ascent was really marking the death knell for a kind of larger-than-life rock stardom. For all their musical merits -- which to my mind are small in number -- the bands that came out of Generation X have wholesale failed to produce a genuine rock star.

Cobain, with only three studio records behind him, will always be defined more by his tragically lost potential than by his achievements. It's easy to forget, but the raw, harsh tone of "In Utero" was the sound of Cobain trying to reject stardom. If he hadn't died, it's reasonable to think his star would have faded. His contemporaries hardly shone half as bright. Think about it: Has there been a single rock act since Nirvana that reached the dizzying musical heights -- and unquestioned, mass success -- of such immediate forebears as U2, Springsteen or Guns 'N Roses? Simply put, Gen X, and its army of grubby, sensitive axmen, never produced a rocker of the stature of the aforementioned heroes. Maybe it was some collective failure of nerve on the part of that generation's leading lights to assume the mantle of rock stardom. Pearl Jam eschewed mass appeal for a kind of Grateful Dead-ish cult following; Beck opted for an eclecticism that minimized his chances of across-the-board success; Soundgarden broke up. The Smashing Pumpkins broke up. The Stone Temple Pilots broke up. Radiohead disappeared into the world of bleeps and bloops. If they all put their songs in an ad for Levitra tomorrow, would you care?

Yes, the ascent of rap is a major factor. Jay-Z, Tupac, Biggie, Snoop Dogg, R. Kelly -- they all rose to popularity during the grunge and immediate post-grunge years. But as a new generation of rock bands emerges, you can't help wondering if any of them -- Arcade Fire, Fall Out Boy, the Hold Steady -- can break out and become the unquestioned rock giants of two generations past. Or did Gen X bury the genre for good? Post or send your thoughts, and we'll feature the best ones throughout the week.

-- David Marchese

By Salon Staff

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