12 quotes that prove grunge legend Kurt Cobain was a social good pioneer
Kurt Cobain, legendary grunge musician, became a household name when Nirvana crashed into the limelight with the album Nevermind in the early ’90s.
But mainstream success was the exact opposite of what Cobain wanted. He was a generally reserved, private person, and he felt this kind of success was a betrayal of his grunge roots, as well as a personal violation.
Ultimately, though, he used his position in pop culture as an opportunity to speak about the issues he felt were most important.
Today we often praise celebrities for identifying as feminists or standing up in the name of social justice — but in the 1990s, speaking out wasn’t necessarily common practice. It was a time dominated by boy bands and teen pop idols, when mainstream music with substance was an anomaly.
But Cobain always went against the grain, and he couldn’t care less about what anyone thought of him.
He spoke his mind boldly and, at times, caustically.
To pay tribute to Cobain on the 22nd anniversary of his death, we’re highlighting some of his most impactful moments as a feminist and an ally of the LGBTQ community.
1. “Because I couldn’t find any friends — male friends that I felt compatible with — I ended up hanging out with the girls a lot. I just always felt that they weren’t treated with respect. Especially because women are totally oppressed.”
Cobain made this comment in an interview with PBS, at a time when it wasn’t always the norm for celebrities — especially men — to call out the problems women face every day. But Cobain took every opportunity to bring attention to the social state, usually in very public ways.
2. “In a community that stresses macho-male sexual stories as a highlight of all conversation, I was an underdeveloped, immature, little dude that never got laid and was constantly razzed. ‘Oh, poor little kid.’ It bothered me.”
The problems with traditional masculinity are widely discussed in modern-day feminism. It once was — and, in many ways, still is — normal to belittle a young man because he wasn’t “macho” enough.
Cobain responded to this in a recording featured in HBO’s documentary about his life, Montage of Heck. There, he discusses how this struggle with masculinity led him to attempt suicide.
3. “I mean, I’m definitely gay in spirit, and I probably could be bisexual … If I wouldn’t have found Courtney [Love], I probably would have carried on with a bisexual lifestyle.”
Even though the term “gay in spirit” and referring to sexuality as a “lifestyle” are frowned upon these days — and we know that being in a an opposite-sex relationship does not eliminate a bisexual identity — this sentiment still has a lot of power.
It’s especially poignant right now, when there is still stigma surrounding the bisexual community. People who identify as bisexual are not only faced with judgment from the straight community, but also from their peers in the queer community.
Cobain never shied away from this label, though. He made this statement The Advocate, most likely in order to connect with a queer audience and show that not all people in rock music were homophobic. (He had a long-standing feud with Axl Rose of Guns N’ Roses, whom Cobain believed to be racist, misogynistic and homophobic.)
The openness with which Cobain discussed his sexuality was revolutionary at a time when the LGBTQ community faced great stigma, especially in the wake of the AIDS epidemic.
4. “I even thought that I was gay. I thought that might be the solution to my problem … I had a gay friend. And then my mother wouldn’t allow me to be friends with him anymore, because, um, well, she’s homophobic.”
Cobain thought he was gay because he was struggling with traditional masculinity, as mentioned in Montage of Heck.
Saying that Cobain had a gay friend in a town that was not open to the LGBTQ community is poignant — but there’s something else going on here as well.
Cobain calls his own mother homophobic. If you listen to this interview, you’ll hear him hesitate to say it.
It’s clearly not easy for him to admit, but he felt it was necessary to show that he would criticize anyone for being a bigot — even his own mother.
5. “Measure 9 goes against American traditions of mutual respect and freedom, and Nirvana wants to do their part to end bigotry and narrow-mindedness everywhere.”
This was actually part of a statement Cobain made with the other members of Nirvana — Krist Novoselic and Dave Grohl — about a piece of 1992 Oregon legislation that would have eliminated protections from discrimination based on sexual orientation.
The band played a benefit concert to formally oppose the law, which ultimately did not pass.
6. “Rock ‘n’ roll has been exhausted. But that was always male rock ‘n’ roll. There’s a lot of girl groups, just now, within the last few years. The Breeders and the Riot Grrrls all have a hand in it. People are finally accepting women in those kinds of roles.”
Women in music still have a hard time gaining respect, but the situation was even worse in the world of ’90s alternative music.
Cobain expressed this sentiment to Spin Magazine in 1993 — but it wasn’t just talk. Nirvana made a point to tour with feminist bands like Bikini Kill and Sonic Youth. Cobain wanted the genre to become more diverse because he truly believed that the single voice it had at the time was one of racism, misogyny and homophobia.
7. “She should’ve stayed away from friends / She should’ve had more time to spend / She should’ve died when she was born / She should’ve worn the crown of thorns / She should have been a son…”
These lyrics, from the Nirvana song “Been a Son,” are very representative of the band’s style.
They loved to put a mirror to the face of society, as if to say, “This is what you’re really expressing. This is the sentiment you are furthering. How stupid do you feel?”
The point here is that victim-blaming, slut-shaming and the general criticism of women are charged with sexism. Saying “She shouldn’t have been wearing that” or “Why was she walking there alone at night?” exposes a double standard, and proves that men don’t endure the same scrutiny as women.
8. “The problem with groups who deal with rape is that they try to educate women about how to defend themselves. What really needs to be done is teaching men not to rape. Go to the source and start there.”
This statement, made to NME in 1991, could just as easily be strewn across an “It’s On Us” ad today.
Cobain recognized and understood the flaws in the system. Teaching women how to “avoid rape” is a form of victim-blaming — pinning a survivor’s experience on that person instead of on their attackers. It cements this idea that the assault could have been prevented if the victim had acted differently.
But that’s not the case: 9% of sexual assault survivors are male, and those survivors aren’t “taught” how to avoid being assaulted. Men are, however, the perpetrators about 98% of the time.
9. “Last year, a girl was raped by two wastes of sperm and eggs while they sang the lyrics to our song ‘Polly.’ I have a hard time carrying on knowing there are plankton like that in our audience.”
The song “Polly” was written about a little girl who was kidnapped, tortured and raped. Cobain, Novoselic and Grohl were moved when they read about her story in the newspaper.
“The only chance she had of getting away was to come on to him and persuade him to untie her,” Novoselic told NME in 1991. “That’s what she did, and she got away. Can you imagine how much strength that took?”
When Cobain heard what these two “fans” did, he was furious enough to write the message above in the liner notes of the B-side album Incesticide, which featured an alternate version of “Polly.”
10. “If any of you, in any way, hate homosexuals, people of a different color or women, please do this one favor for us — leave us the fuck alone. Don’t come to our shows and don’t buy our records.”
This quote also comes from Incesticide‘s liner notes.
When Cobain wrote it, the word “homosexual” wasn’t problematic for the queer community. Similarly, Nirvana probably didn’t have anyone to tell them that referring to people of color as “people of a different color” was white-centering, negative language. Although some of the language is dated, the sentiment is still poignant.
The band probably understood that this would lose them some fans — but they were OK with that.
11. “Never met a wise man / If so it’s a woman.”
This gem of a lyric is from the song “Territorial Pissings.” It pretty much speaks for itself.
12. “If you’re a sexist, racist, homophobe or basically an asshole, don’t buy this CD. I don’t care if you like me, I hate you.”
This message was published inside the album In Utero — the last album Nirvana ever released.
Cobain’s bluntness here is admirable.
It is certainly strongly worded, but that’s what makes it so perfectly Nirvana. As stated in the Incesticide liner notes, the band was not going to stand for bigotry, even from people who wanted to support them.
Yes, Cobain was a grunge legend. But that’s not what he wanted to be — he wanted to use his success to further the status of other people. And that’s what we should remember him for.
By Nicole Herviou