The editors at Rolling Stone, by putting Kurt Cobain on their cover announcing the findings of the Columbia School of Journalism’s report regarding their discredited and badly reported University of Virginia sexual assault story, are either diabolical corporate shrills or so tone deaf they all need to be fired.
Cobain, dead twenty-one years almost to-the-day, is the subject of a new documentary, Montage of Heck, set to premiere on HBO and in select theaters May 4th. The documentary, which is executive produced by Cobain’s daughter Frances Bean Cobain, includes never before seen home movies, interviews with family and friends, and a glimpse into the self-proclaimed feminist’s early life, career highs and tragic death by suicide. The Rolling Stone feature is an emotional roller coaster that includes heartbreaking honesty from Frances describing what she calls the “K.C. Jeebies” which she defines as the moment someone from her father’s past looks at her and sees his ghost. In a truly gut-wrenching moment, Frances talks about screening the movie with her mother and Cobain’s wife, Courtney Love, where Love breaks down in tears and tells her, “I am so sorry.”
The feature is raw and devastating and tucked within the same issue as Rolling Stone‘s inept mea culpa over their now discredited and completely-removed-from-their-website story “A Rape on Campus.” The story, centered around a student named “Jackie” and reported by Sabrina Rubin Erdely, alleges a brutal gang rape at a University of Virginia fraternity and the failure of the university to appropriately respond to claims of sexual assault by students. After publication, The Washington Post uncovered details that eventually led to the story’s unraveling. Rolling Stone hired the Columbia School of Journalism to review their reporting procedures in an attempt to retain their credibility.
The Columbia School of Journalism announced earlier this week that Rolling Stone failed at all levels in their reporting procedures for the story, and yet the magazine dug in its heels and fired no one. Then, adding insult to injury, they went ahead with putting Cobain on their UVA report cover which sends the message that they really don’t give a shit their story will forever be example number one for sexual assault-deniers.
In short, Rolling Stone just used Kurt Cobain as a prop for everything he hated.
Cobain is an anomaly in the machismo of rock legends — there’s no womanizing in his story, he dated and married strong women, wrote no less than three songs about or referencing sexual assault; aligned himself with minority populations, considered himself a feminist, used his music to benefit pro-choice politics by performing at Rock for Choice in 1991; wore dresses without irony and reveled in feminine gender play.
In her essay, “Kurt Cobain and Masculinity,” Cortney Alexander writes how Cobain saw himself and his alliances noting, “In his lyrics and journals, Cobain often identified himself with women, racial and gender minorities because he felt alienated from the cultural expectation of masculinity.” On a deeper and physical level, Cobain suffered from debilitating stomach pain which he ultimately saw as a feminine experience. Alexander writes, “The inability to transcend the weakness and fallibility of one’s body is culturally coded as feminine. Cobain’s experience of his failing body comes out in almost all of his writing. Physical pain, emotional pain and self-annihilation are major themes in the narratives around Cobain’s life, especially the narratives he authored.”
Cobain in all of his physical pain, often used sexual assault imagery to convey the lack of control he felt over his failing body and, it can be argued, his relationship with his record company and hyper-masculine men attending his band’s concerts, which he abhorred openly. Alexander writes:
It is especially striking to note “Rape Me” on the album “In Utero.” In “Rape Me,” like many of Nirvana’s songs, Cobain identifies with the victim of a violent, gender-based crime and uses language and voice to demonstrate his extreme discomfort. Whether his discomfort comes from the violent nature of rape as a violation of female bodies or from his own displeasure at MTV, Vanity Fair or any of the other countless corporate entities that Cobain felt had stripped him of his identity and manufactured his art for mass sale, we cannot know for certain.
Sure, Alexander argues, it could be easy to look at Cobain as a privileged white male (which he undoubtedly was) appropriating marginalized narratives, but Cobain’s suicide changes that dynamic. “The ultimate expression of Cobain’s failed masculinity is his suicide,” she writes.
In a way, Cobain’s suicide is Rolling Stone‘s gain: they can package and resell him any way they want, stripping him of his feminism and advocacy by selling his family’s pain next to a bad reporting job they blame on a fantastical lie by a victim who “duped” everyone. No one knows what happened to Jackie, but police, friends and reporters all agree something terrible did happen to her. And Jackie has stopped talking. Much like, well, Cobain.
Cobain is more blunt about his disdain for those who try to place the burden of avoiding sexual assault on women. “Rape is one of the most terrible crimes on Earth and it happens every few minutes. The problems with groups who deal with rape is that they try to educate women and how to defend themselves. What really needs to be done is teaching men not to rape. Go to the source and start there,” he once said in an interview with NME. He continued with a personal anecdote, “I was talking to a friend of mine who went to a rape crisis centre where women are taught judo and karate. She looked out the window and saw a football pitch full of boys, and thought those are the people that should really be in this class.”
The link between Cobain and sexual assault survivors is not a flimsy one; it runs prominently throughout his work which Rolling Stone must know. As a collection of music journalists who consider anything Cobain ever produced as handed down by a god, they’ve never been able to square what they wanted him to be — a womanizing asshole — with what he really was: a man who believed women and didn’t want to be “one of the guys.” So they went ahead and did the unthinkable — Rolling Stone used Kurt Cobain to sell all the rape apologies.
Kurt, in his own words, bears repeating on the matter at hand:
“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.”
Liz Henry is the managing editor of The Broad Side. Follow her on Twitter.