On April 5, 1994, musical sensation Kurt Cobain committed suicide. Lead singer of Nirvana, Cobain is considered one of the voices of his generation — he is remembered for being a reluctant rock star, a tortured genius and a heroin addict. To this day, he represents the sad contradiction of a man convinced of his inadequacy yet adored by the masses: a treasure gone too soon.
Cobain’s powerful, emotional lyrics and outsider status established him as a pop culture icon. Legendary albums “Nevermind” and “In Utero” mixed raucous rhythms with raspy vocals, dubbed “grunge,” a sound that connected with angsty teens everywhere. Nirvana paved the way for a budding Seattle music scene including Pearl Jam, Alice in Chains and Foo Fighters. The band sold over 75 million records worldwide, establishing it as one of the most influential groups ever.
In many ways, Cobain exemplifies our stereotype of an artistic prodigy. Scarred by his parents’ divorce and his own struggles with depression, the Washington state native captured life in a unique yet relatable form expressed in his music. From Vincent Van Gogh to Sylvia Plath to Robin Williams, the trope of the tormented visionary is a regrettable commonality.
Anecdotal and scientific evidence align on the often-simultaneous presence of mental illness and creativity. Studies in Iceland found genetic dispositions to bipolar disorder and schizophrenia were 25 percent higher in “creative professions” like art, music, literature and dance, compared to less creative careers including farming and labor. The Telegraph reports female artists, including actors and other entertainers, commit suicide at quadruple the average rate, and male artists at twice the average.
Cobain is a noted member of the “27 Club,” a group of musicians and actors who tragically died at the age of 27 from suicide, overdose or accident. Singers Jimi Hendrix, Amy Winehouse and Jim Morrison join Cobain in this group. The rapid rise and imminent destruction of promising talents is a far-too-frequent trend.
The majority of people dealing with mental illnesses do not enjoy a platform of fame and wealth like the 27 Club. The lack of proper treatment and facilities drives many to homelessness, something Cobain claimed to have experienced as a teen, and drug abuse, which he struggled with until his death.
Many of the mentally ill find difficulty assimilating within the boundaries of our institutions, as Cobain did. Most do not find expressive outlets like music was for Cobain, and some are forced onto the streets, failing to stay in school or keep a job. Around a quarter of all people experiencing homeless in America deal with “severe mental illness.” People with mental disabilities are more likely to experience homelessness as well. Once fallen into this hole, reintegration into society becomes difficult; bad hygiene, drug addiction and lack of prior qualifications block employment opportunities.
Cobain’s prominence put a face to the reality of mental illness, as have other profound characters in pop culture. Donnie Darko and John McLemore, from the movie “Donnie Darko” and podcast “S-Town,” respectively, demonstrate the neurotic, suicidal existence of those with untreated illness. Despite difficulties functioning in society, both individuals are caring, valuable and selfless in unconventional ways. Though not encapsulating the entire range of mental illness, these stories show us a misunderstood nature and internal beauty that can be deciphered with some compassion and an open mind.
The suicide note Cobain left explains the harrowing view he held of himself. He felt the world would be better off without him, saying, “It’s better to burn out than to fade away.” The failure to make troubled individuals feel accepted leaves them disillusioned and hopeless, sentiments expressed by the Nirvana frontman.
Creative people bring the most beautiful forms of human nature to fruition. We live for the wonderful music, art, film and comedy produced by those who feel rejected by us, a heartbreaking paradox.
The new and exceptional ways people like Cobain enhance the human experience grant the rest of us relief from monotonous lifestyles. These artists are unbelievably important. The hidden potential and the ability to brighten our lives with their craft should inspire us to help find more appropriate ways to support them in times of need. Relegating others to homelessness, drug addiction and loneliness robs us of wonderful people with the potential to change the world, like Cobain did.
Nabil Kapasi is a sophomore in the School of Foreign Service. This Week in History appears online every other Thursday.