Kurt Cobain and Me: The Gen X poster child and rock legend is my Gen Z hero, too

My parents love Nirvana, too. But I have my own relationship with Cobain's music and persona

By Gabriella Ferrigine

Staff Writer

Published April 14, 2024 12:00PM (EDT)

Kurt Cobain of Nirvana during the taping of MTV Unplugged at Sony Studios in New York City, 11/18/93. (Frank Micelotta/Getty Images)
Kurt Cobain of Nirvana during the taping of MTV Unplugged at Sony Studios in New York City, 11/18/93. (Frank Micelotta/Getty Images)

The boys spilled out of the locker room in a gnashing horde.

They pitched their bodies into the air and flung clumps of sweaty hair from their faces, headbanging in line with the stomping bass that had just cracked across the gym’s sound system. 

Full of flowing hormones and covered in dried sweat, the entirety of my high school gym class began to move to the music — each individual in their own way — enraptured by its energy and still thrumming with adrenaline from 2v2 basketball scrimmages. 

For a few fleeting minutes, social stratification was entirely dismantled by one rotating guitar riff. Sports jocks, guys who stuffed their bottom lip with dip in the back of class, girls who smelled like vanilla and bright artificial fruit, and reticent wallflowers, all churning together.

By the time the bell rang, prodding us toward precalc or a quiz on “The Sound and the Fury,” it did, in fact, smell like teen spirit. 

We filed out of the gym, buzzing and bedraggled. A shared ecstasy lingered, if only until the next period began. 

Experiencing that subtle, shimmering solidarity, the threading of different social subgroups together, is intrinsic to my attachment — as a member of Gen Z, not X — to Kurt Cobain, frontman of the iconic '90s grunge rock band Nirvana. 

Since the genesis of the band in 1987 — and Cobain’s subsequent, seismic fame, then tragic death by suicide — he’s functioned as something of a talismanic leader for generations of morose, angsty and disaffected fans. Some of this posthumous cultural longevity is surely due to his premature death, which preserved him in amber, devoid of a flop era and safe from cancellable offense. But that doesn't entirely explain his enduring appeal. Cobain’s emotional melancholy is something members of Gen Z — widely understood as prone to trauma-dumping on the internet and hyper-sensitivity — can find particularly relatable. 

Raised by Gen X parents like mine whose early adulthoods were largely defined by Nirvana and Cobain, his music became part of a shared, familial identity they could pass down to us. In a recent essay for The Guardian, writer Hannah Ewens opines that “Just as the Beatles defined the construct of a rock band, Nirvana redefined what a band was — both in the public consciousness and to other musicians: unpretentious, tough and sensitive, embraced by the system while threatening it.” It's not particularly rebellious to embrace your parents' definition of good music, but over time, I forged my own relationship with Kurt Cobain, distinct from theirs. 

In all honestly, I’ve always felt several standard deviations away from what feels normal (an entirely subjective term). I know this sounds moderately insufferable, but bear with me. My life has been overwhelmingly positive in so many ways. And yet, setting aside personal conflicts and a heady amalgam of ADHD and anxiety, much of it has also felt very different to me than how it’s appeared outwardly to others. I don’t have a complex, philosophical explanation for this discrepancy. I don’t think you always need one. Cobain's music gives me a language for reconciling my own contradictions. We aren't the same by any means: I've had no meteoric rise to fame, no heroin addiction. But there was still a person named Kurt before all that happened to him. 

During my first years of college, like many, I struggled with finding my sense of self. Flush with insecurities of every kind, I tried on different personalities (and some bad outfits) in an effort to, if not wholly reinvent myself, at least discover something about myself that I actually liked or felt secure about. It was a process that ultimately backfired — by trying to be someone I wasn’t, I inadvertently jettisoned some of the most fundamentally defining pieces of myself. And all the while, I was still as sullen and angsty as ever. That all changed on Christmas Day, 2018, when my parents gave me my first pair of Doc Marten boots. 

Laugh if you will, but getting my Docs was like finding my glass slipper. At nearly 6 feet tall, I’d always felt something like Cinderella’s stepsisters, trying to cram my oversized foot into a tiny, dainty, acceptably pretty and interesting shoe. I wear them most days now. Aside from being comfortable, they're equipped with a steel-toed tenacity ideal for navigating New York’s perpetually crusty streets. 

And yes, Docs were a subcultural fashion item of the ‘90s — my dad still owns the pair he wore moshing at a Nirvana show with my mom at the now-shuttered Roseland Ballroom in New York in 1993. While Cobain wore Converse for that particular performance, I’m certain he laced up his boots often too. I often find myself gravitating toward those looks: slouchy pants, oversized jackets and knitwear, the occasional grandpa cardigan. As I’ve grown older, I’ve become increasingly confident in myself and my fashion choices, aware that the old adage is true: What you wear is truly a reflection of who you are. I’m sure that’s what Cobain was trying to convey every time he opted for a skirt or floral-patterned dress for a live performance. That has always been an inspiring exemplar of unabashed confidence to me.

But carrying yourself with confidence in public doesn’t necessarily equate to comfort with — or suitability for — fame, as Cobain's conflicted relationship to the celebrity status that accompanied his artistic success showed me. Regardless of whether he sought to be an international star before it happened, the “slings and arrows” of fame that writer Michael Azerrad wrote about in part for the 2021 New Yorker essay, “My Time With Kurt Cobain,” underpinned the rocker’s mental and emotional health struggles. 

It's not particularly rebellious to embrace your parents' definition of good music, but over time, I forged my own relationship with Kurt Cobain, distinct from theirs. 

In all likelihood, I’ll never be famous, and that’s OK. It’s not exactly something I aspire toward. But the essence of Cobain’s fame has always been incredibly relatable to me. There’s something so vulnerable and real — in an attention economy that demands performance from us all — about someone trying to keep a firm foothold in two warring worlds simultaneously, straddling the ever-oscillating line of what the public sees and what it can't. (“I’m not like them, but I can pretend,” resonates.)

This tension that seems innately bound into Cobain's persona — and Nirvana more broadly — is accurately reflected in the band’s lyrics. Dark, atmospheric themes abound — anger, personal struggles, violence, real and figurative — and while the sometimes disturbing subject matter can be difficult to take, I found the messages braided into them intriguing. His lyrics reflected Cobain’s chaos and mystique, which is to say, I didn’t necessarily understand them all, especially as a kid. All I knew was — mingled with his raspy voice and the band’s splintering sounds — they made me feel at an entirely unprecedented level. And some latent part of me was drawn to that brooding sentiment.

It came as no surprise to me when I learned that he was also a Pisces. 

Whether you believe in astrological signs or find it all to be a bit hokey, I find that Cobain embodied the compassion, sensitivity and emotional profundity that have come to be associated with the symbol of two fish swimming in opposite directions. That division between fantasy and reality — a liminal space I constantly turn to — is one that Cobain ostensibly occupied just as frequently. It’s something like the Vitruvian man, constantly splayed in different directions by our thoughts and ever-shifting emotions. It’s an identity Cobain internalized so intensely that he even carried it with him into his death in April of 1994, writing in his suicide note that he was a “sad little, sensitive, unappreciative Pisces, Jesus man.”

I’ve always known that finding comfort in the music and fashion of my parents’ generation, specifically the elements of it that have since become canonical, is a byproduct of my close-knit and large immediate family. It’s an idiosyncratic, shared existence — something that makes me feel comforted and protective at once. And yet, I’m my own person. While I would be remiss to ignore the inescapability of influence, my relationship with Cobain and his work could never precisely mirror theirs. And I think that’s part of his legacy. He was able to transcend space and time so seamlessly, so acutely, that his aura — which has spoken to my mom and dad for nearly 40 years — now screams to me from a stage set in an entirely different void. 

So consider me influenced, if that’s what becoming secure in my tastes and personhood means. I won’t be running from that anytime soon. 

If you are in crisis, please call the 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline by dialing 988, or contact the Crisis Text Line by texting TALK to 741741.

By Gabriella Ferrigine

Gabriella Ferrigine is a staff writer at Salon. Originally from the Jersey Shore, she moved to New York City in 2016 to attend Columbia University, where she received her B.A. in English and M.A. in American Studies. Formerly a staff writer at NowThis News, she has an M.A. in Magazine Journalism from NYU and was previously a news fellow at Salon.

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Doc Martens Essay Gen X Gen Z Kurt Cobain Music Nirvana