The title of “spokesperson for a generation” was so heavy that Kurt Cobain couldn’t bear to hold it up. I was fourteen when Kurt decided to kill himself. I was outgoing but picked on a lot because I was small and "weird." Kurt meant a lot to me because he made me feel like less of an outsider.Â When he died. I cried for days and would listen to Nirvana's albums on repeat.
What was it about Nirvana's songs that hit so close to home? Kurt's lyrics were nearly nonsense and completely obtuse. Was it his words? His angst? His message?
I've got a theory about music and why some artists hit people differently than others, regardless of their song's lyrical contents: Songs need protagonists. They need someone who can make you feel the torture in a howl, the confusion in a yelp, and force in a bark. It's why some songs can only be performed by one person/group, and nobody else. It's why so many people hate covers.
But I love covers. I love them because it helps me clear away all my old views of a lyric and figure out if the song made the singer, or if the singer made the song. It lets me see things from a nearly scientific and, yet, poetic point of view.
Do Kurt's lyrics still hit close to home when someone else sings them? Yes. Sometimes more than I could ever expect - revealing the universal pain behind the words that made Kurt a spokesperson for a generation.
Here are some of my favorite Nirvana covers.Â What are yours?
Tori Amos - "Smells Like Teen Spirit"
Tori gives an obviously pained and feminist version of the most famous song in all of rock music.
Butch Walker & the Black Widows - "In Bloom"
Butch Walker's version is reminiscent of any Supergrass song, and transforms the song into a spirited and upbeat ode to life.
Joseph Gordon-Levitt - "Lithium"
"Lithium" is an important song because it's one of the few on Nevermind that actually makes sense outside of context with lyrics that really put you in the mind frame of Kurt. Is this the greatest version of one the greatest songs ever performed? No. But I like it because Joseph seems to love this song from his heart, and he's playing it from his heart in a way that makes me think that this was the first song he learned to sing and play on guitar when he was 12.
Polyphonic Spree - "Lithium"
The 'Spree take a TOTALLY different spin on this song. Once about society-imposed alienation, the song turns into a cult-like call to arms about being alienated together, as a collective. I think this is what we all thought Heaven would be like in the early 90s: All of us, looking the best we've ever looked, feeling a joyful abandon as we sing in unison "light my candles in a daze 'cause I found God!" This song went from being about being forever alone to being about rolling around in a pile of eternal puppies.
Yuna - "Come As You Are"
Re-imagining a powerful balls-out track as a light-weight-without-being-lounge-act track, Yuna ends up owning this this song that never should've been hers. Well, she can share it with Kurt.
Placebo - "All Apologies"
I love this cover because I like to picture myself in the crowd (I'm a huge Placebo fan) pogoing and singing along to the chorus with everyone around me. Also, the lyrics in the first verse seem to fit Brian Molko's M.O. perfectly - "what else should I be? All Apologies. What else should I say? Everyone is Gay." Kinda makes you realize that Kurt was doing the whole "born this way" thing before Gaga was.
Hole - "You Know You're Right"
This was probably the first time any of us heard this Nirvana song... and to have it covered by his widow, Courtney Love, is exactly the way I would want to hear it for the first time. Courtney Love, by the way, is the single greatest song protagonist in the history of rock music.
Lisa aka RadioLisaHead - "Drain You"
Lisa changes the chord progressions of cheeky song and turns it into something that the untrained ear might mistake for a 90's-era Radiohead b-side. Lisa isn't famous. I found this cover by searching "drain you nirvana cover" on YouTube because I find myself quoting this song to myself more often then is probably normal and I wanted to see how others interpreted it. By far, this is one of the most creative arrangements of a Nirvana song I've ever heard.