04/03/2014 01:03 pm ET Updated Jun 03, 2014

Cobain 20 Years Later: Smells Like Another Retrospective

Kurt Cobain was famous for roughly 30 months of his life. On April 5th, he will have been dead for 20 years.

He might as well be Mozart or Robert Johnson. We've known him as a dead man for way longer than we ever knew him alive. How long before the myth out-measures the man? Or has it already happened?

As the lead singer and songwriter for Nirvana, Cobain released only three studio albums. But he was the ulcerated, polyp-chorded poster child for the grunge movement and the larger alternative boom of the early '90s, the perfect embodiment of a cynical, alienated and disenfranchised Generation X.

At the moment, the Internet is really into posts about how things from the '90s are turning 20. It certainly makes for tempting link-bait. Mostly though, these exercises are designed to make you feel old. That's right. It really has been that long since the masturbation episode of Seinfeld.

But it feels different with Cobain.

Cobain's death truly signaled the end of something. Twenty years hence, it is more than idle nostalgia to wonder where we are since Nirvana; who we've become since he made himself a martyr to the cause of disillusionment.

Cobain died the way he lived, in a bloody and disturbing muddle of anguish and inconsistent detail. Whatever conspiracy theory you subscribe to, it would seem that an early end was always in the cards. Reflecting at the time of his bandmate's shotgun suicide, a grieving Dave Grohl observed that: "Sometimes you just can't save someone from some ways, you kind of prepare yourself emotionally for that to be a reality."

Those around him knew this of Cobain. At age 27, he was an inevitable tragedy.

Forever In Debt To Your Priceless Advice.

But Cobain's story still compels well beyond the scope of tragedy. He is almost certainly the last rock star, the last generational figure to achieve permeating cultural importance before our music splintered into a thousand media outlets, a million minute-rice superstars and a billion YouTube hits. By the by, 1991's landmark "Smells Like Teen Spirit" has more than 145 million views, which would be awesome if Bieber's "Boyfriend" wasn't at 318 million plus.

Cobain was the last icon to represent a time and place in musical history, both in his artistic output and in the way he embodied the inescapable feeling that we were all on the short bus to Hell. I admit, it wasn't an inspiring message exactly. But as a sulky 14-year-old with a sneaking suspicion that the world was not exactly what it seemed, that America wasn't always the good guy and that corporations weren't always ethical, I was just glad to know I wasn't alone.

Cobain was also an outspoken critic of homophobia, sexism, racism, rape and violence against women. To only remember Cobain as bitterly conflicted by his own success is to allow his suicide to overshadow the reason he was the anointed one.

The early '90s wasn't just a Golden Age for rock music. It is also a time that, in reflection, seems almost delightfully quaint for its unabashed progressivism. Those overall-sporting hacky-sackers had no idea what social backsliding the Age of Terror would bring.

And Cobain was, contrary to popular opinion, not a reluctant leader on these issues. He was articulate. He was deliberate. He rocked the vote. His liner notes on the 1992 outtakes compilation Incesticide sum it up pretty well:

At this point I have a request for our fans. If any of you in any way hate homosexuals, people of 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.

Also, if you're giving the liner notes a scan, you'll see that Cobain used his sudden celebrity to secure the big break for all his buddies. At the height of Nirvana's fame, Cobain shone a spotlight on the artists who toiled in underground obscurity around him, like the Raincoats, the Vaselines and the Melvins. Nevermind's unexpected success also sparked a major label goldrush for the next oddity-turned-blockbuster. Bands who'd spent ten years hawking their own discs at piss-smelling punk clubs were suddenly headlining Lollapalooza (because suddenly there was a Lollapalooza). Bands like Sonic Youth, the Meat Puppets and the Flaming Lips became borderline household names. You can thank Nirvana for the fact that your mother was forced to pick up your compact disc in disgust and say: "What's a Butthole Surfer?"

What these guys all have in common is that they formed in the early '80s, worked for a decade to achieve cult status and, in the wake of Nevermind's multiplatinum enormity, found themselves suddenly in the thick of the zeitgeist.

This wasn't an accident. Cliché has it that Cobain struggled with the notion of selling out. But he was loyal to his heroes to the very end, and did everything in his power to help them all make the same leap. At a time when his word on music was received like the commandments from Mt. Sinai, he wore their T-Shirts on MTV, covered their songs in concert and used press conferences to divert attention from his own band to the bands that inspired him.

And it actually worked. Nevermind was not a shot upward from the underground. It was a pop album designed to catapult a band into the primetime. Cobain noted, with his typical self-deprecating smirk, "I'll be the first to admit that we're the '90s version of Cheap Trick or The Knack, but the last to admit that it hasn't been rewarding. "

For Cobain, the greatest reward, even beyond getting to play music for a living, seemed to be this opportunity to open the door for all his friends, even the weird ones. Strike that...especially the weird ones.

The world of mainstream music may never again be safe for the kind of oddball creativity that actually got us a seat at the adult table for a few years in the early '90s. As the infrastructure of the music business continues to change around us today, major labels have never been more risk averse or further away from the rampant diversity of the alternative era. How many working class rock bands out there could use a champion like Cobain?

But he chose to cede that responsibility and there was nobody to step into the fray. Grunge was like a support group for adolescence and he was its deeply flawed mediator. I won't speak for all of Generation X, but when Nirvana disbanded and the whole movement ended, I hit on hard times, didn't know what to believe in, even went through a brief phase of going to Dave Matthews concerts and wearing sweater vests.

It was... a confusing time.

In the Pines, In the Pines.

Nirvana's MTV Unplugged in New York was the final and arguably finest statement from a band on the verge of unraveling. By the time we had it in our grubby teenage hands, it was November of 1994. We already knew how the story ended. The devastating concentration of pain in "Pennyroyal Tea," "All Apologies," and Lead Belly's "Where Did You Sleep Last Night?" made you feel complicit in his death.

This record represented more than the end of Nirvana. This was the end of the alternative dream and all its innocent, borderless artistic naiveté.

If you remember this time, you will recall knowing that a mainstream alternative movement was oxymoronic. After Cobain's death, radio-friendly unit shifting bands like Blink-182, Matchbox 20 and Third Eye Blind flooded the market just to show you exactly how oxymoronic the term "alternative" could be.

And what of MTV, the network that had the balls to broadcast a dying man's last will and testament? Nirvana's swan song was also the death rattle for Music Television. Road Rules made its debut in 1995 and MTV never looked back. The forum that helped music achieve new heights of creative and promotional potential in the visual medium made its rapid descent into reality television programming.

Cobain and MTV taught us to be suspicious of authority, skeptical of institutional thinking, resistant to conformity. Then he left us in the lurch and they became the enemy.

And the world changed around us...dramatically. Alternative values became cliché, and then passé and now they're almost comical. One can't escape the obvious internal contradiction of protesting the commercialization of rock music while topping 75 million units in international sales.

Moreover, the young Cobain was, on the surface, a poor choice for a role model. He was a heroin junkie who struggled with abandonment issues, episodic violence and philosophical incongruity. But he was also the representative figure of rock music during its last true gasp of creative fertility and offered the type of poetic conscience that we sorely lack in an era where U2 makes Broadway bombs and Bob Dylan features in car commercials.

The fact that it's been 20 years since his departure means it's been 20 years since we even really had a conversation about "selling out" or being a "poseur." These were the worst things you could say about somebody back in the day.

But righteous indignation over corporate greed is old-fashioned, even childish. We collectively know and accept the likelihood that our government, our companies and even our rock musicians are probably lying to us. And it seems like we're pretty much ok with that fact. Cobain might argue that we'd rather be anaesthetized by reality TV shows that aren't real, by information campaigns that misinform, by product consumption that consumes us.

Contrary to the generation of rockers before him and the world of music in general since, Cobain was not called to his cause by hedonism. And if we ever doubted that before April 5th, 1994, he made sure we knew just how serious he was. He literally couldn't live with the hypocrisy.

It may not be heroic. His death was probably pointless and stupid. But it certainly meant something. What it meant exactly is increasingly obscured by the passage of time.

When Nirvana enters the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame next week, will they simply become another museum piece? Would he resent it? And do we even care what he would have wanted?

Cobain said it best. We don't really want to think about it. We want to be entertained. It's so much easier. But Cobain didn't have the luxury, so says the last entreaty of a dying man: "I wish I was like you...easily amused."

In his wildest fantasies of self-sorry misery, I doubt Cobain knew we'd be quite so easily amused as we are. Could he have known how much American Idol would come to define our culture and how verily the alternative dream would die with him?

It probably wouldn't be much different if he stuck around to see. Maybe he made the right call. If he thought the '90s sucked, he would've absolutely hated the Aughts. But maybe that's the point. We really could've used a voice like Cobain's right then. And in an era where consumerism rules and we take everything at face value, we still could.

It's nice to think that maybe he's up there somewhere, looking down on us and grimacing.