Is it sacrilegious to compare Kurt Cobain and Tupac Shakur?

Before you start screaming, believe me. I know you can’t compare their output from an artistic standpoint. Cobain was clearly an A-list songwriter and an effective vocalist who made two (three, if you count “Unplugged in New York” classic albums, while Pac’s output was decidedly mediocre. His legend is based more on charisma and image than music.

But take a closer look. The two died at relatively the same age (Kurt was 27, Pac was 25), both died by gunshot, and while their musical paths were widely divergent, they both were the spokespeople for a segment of their generation. I’m lucky enough (or culturally and musically eclectic enough) to be able to claim both as representations of the era in which I came up.

There’s no denying what Kurt did to popular music, even if (shock! horror!) his influence is ever-so-slightly overstated. A lot was made of his symbolic toppling of Michael Jackson’s “Dangerous” from the top of the Billboard charts, but a closer look into 1992 reveals #1 albums like “The Bodyguard” Soundtrack and Michael Bolton’s “Timeless…the Classics”, chart-toppers post-“Nevermind”. With that said, though, Kurt’s kicking down a door that R.E.M. had pried ajar is extremely significant. Whereas in the fall of ’91, I asked my friend Dee to make me a “rock” mixtape and returned with a Warrant and Poison-heavy piece of work, I was checking out much harder, less glammed-up sounds barely a year later. A whole generation of kids did the same.

After all these years, the music still holds up. A lot of folks forget (or don’t realize) how poppy Nirvana’s music was. While the musical structure was off-center, the melodies were straight from The Beatles. Think about that next time you find yourself singing along with a Nirvana song. “Teen Spirit”, “Lithium”, “Pennyroyal Tea” and “Rape Me” still sound fresh on the radio after nearly two decades, and Cobain’s shadow still looms large over the rock scene today. Next time you hear Chester Bennington shrieking on the radio, think about whether that sound would have existed in contemporary pop music without Cobain and Nirvana. Whether you want to praise or curse him for the existence of bands like Linkin Park is another story entirely.

kurtIt’s interesting to imagine what Kurt would be doing with his music if he were still alive. After all, his contemporaries Pearl Jam still make commercially relevant music, as do partners-in-rage-if-not-sound Nine Inch Nails. Hell, anyone who’s heard “Pablo Honey” knows that Radiohead pretty much started out as a Nirvana tribute band, and Soundgarden’s Chris Cornell was still pretty relevant until his recent ill-fated collaboration with Timbaland. Would Nirvana still be on the cutting edge? Would Kurt have said “fuck it” and retired? Would he be a kook like Axl Rose is these days? Shit, would the Foo Fighters (an absolutely underrated singles band) even exist? That’s to say nothing of Courtney Love. If Kurt really did write much of “Live Through This”, I’d say there was a helluva career in store for her, had they stayed together.

At any rate, Kurt deserves credit for bringing an anti-establishment attitude straight into the mainstream and not doing a goddamn thing to temper or change it. And when you break it down, isn’t that what rock ‘n roll is all about?