Grunge nostalgia: Why we should let Kurt Cobain rest in peace.

Pop, jazz, and classical.
Aug. 23 2011 3:20 PM

The Ghost of Teen Spirit

Why we should let Kurt Cobain rest in peace.

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When people—fans, critics, industry, whoever—look back to grunge, then, what they feel wistful for is not just the particulars of that moment (flannel, shaggy hair, down-tuned guitar sounds, Tabitha Soren) or even qualities that music seemed to have then and since lost (anger, rebellion, spontaneity, anti-gloss realness, etc). It is for the concept of period vibe in itself, for "aura of era" in the abstract. It is a nostalgia for a time when the Zeit actually possessed a Geist.

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"Geist" means spirit or ghost. Which brings us back to this year's Reading Festival and the spectral reappearance of Nirvana on its stage, in the form of that one-year-premature showing of the 1992 performance. A show that British rockmag Kerrang! ranked at No. 1 in their list of 100 Gigs That Shook The World ... and that turned out to be Nirvana's last-ever U.K. concert.

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The Nirvana "repeat" derives its meaning and value from something historic that happened two decades earlier. But its presence in the present—its re-present-ation—works against anything equally world-shaking happening again. For sure, the chances are remote that something as momentous as the Nirvana show would have occurred during the hour or so that the old concert footage takes up in the schedule, should some contemporary band have played during that precise time slot instead. But we'll never know, and the more that the present is taken up with reunion tours, re-enactments, and contemporary revivalist groups umbilically bound by ties of reference and deference to rock's glory days, the smaller the chances are that history will be made today.

One thing we can definitively say is that the screening of the classic Nirvana gig is an anti-event, a black hole in history. That hour in which young and old alike gawp at a world-shaking performance from 1992, is dead time: the time of repetition and simulation. Another, harsher way of putting it: The dead man on that screen is more alive than the people watching him.

Simon Reynolds is the author of Retromania: Pop Culture's Addiction to Its Own Past.