I read two books from the 33 1/3 book series last weekend, in an on-going effort to think about its approach to canon formation. Since reading the two titles in question, I’ve been sitting on my hands thinking about how to write a post about them. They were two interesting, disparate pieces written by Gillian Gaar and Daphne Brooks on albums that somehow seem linked. Gaar documents the recording process of a band’s follow-up to an album that resulted in their meteoric rise. Brooks weaves her personal history as an African American woman growing up as a member of Generation X, who was a graduate student when another artist’s only proper full-length was released.
Too bad dudes made ’em, right? Dudes who died young and didn’t release any more albums. Dudes who were dreamy, sensitive alternative pin-ups. They probably showed up on some teenage bedroom walls. I never harbored a crush on Nirvana lead singer Kurt Cobain, but I get the appeal. However, in the 7th grade I taped a picture of Jeff Buckley in my notebook. The crush continues.
The heartthrob factor has been what has kept me from writing a post. I consider this blog to be a space where issues of gender, among a multitude of oft-intersecting identity categories, are critical to how we understand music culture. As a feminist, I wanted that space to focus on female contributions. I made this decision not because I’m a misandrist but because, so often, our work is denounced or ignored. Plus, I find the efforts some feminist publications take toward acknowledging the good guys is really a way to affirm that “feminism” isn’t a euphemism for “She-Woman Man-Haters Club.” This perception is misinformed and antiquated, and I feel like we enervate feminism when magazines like Bust run a cisgender “Men We Love” issue. Do we really need to give guys the focus in our own feminist projects just to prove that we aren’t all man-haters, lesbians, or man-hating lesbians? Can’t we have anything to ourselves?
That said, I wondered if by thinking about how women view these particular male artists and considering how these men complicated issues of gender and sexuality in their own work, I could write a thoughtful entry.
I’ll address Gaar’s book first. Though her entry came out a year after Brooks’s, she’s discussing an album that predates Grace‘s arrival in the market by several months, and a band who effectively dissolved a few months after its release. We know why Nirvana disbanded, though opinion differs as to how Cobain died at 27 (most abide by his death being a suicide; there’s a faction of people, Kim Gordon among them, who believe he was murdered). Refreshingly, Gaar takes all of this as a given and decides not to dwell on the band’s superstardom or the lead singer’s untimely end. She also doesn’t comb In Utero for clues as to the lead singer’s mental state, acknowledging that a number of fans and critics have already done the forensic work to determine for themselves whether or not Nirvana’s last album is its lead singer’s suicide note.
Instead, Gaar primarily focuses on the recording and mixing of the album, and a bit of the aftermath. I really appreciate this approach. She walks the reader through the players, the jargon, and the studio process with a journalist’s eye for detail and uncluttered prose. She also weaves first-person accounts from bassist Krist Novoselic, drummer Dave Grohl, recording engineer Steve Albini, and others. In doing so, she stresses Albini’s reticence toward working with a band of such commercial stature, his dismissal of the credit “producer,” Cobain’s deliberate pace as a lyric writer, how quickly the band worked in the studio, the struggle the band faced in attempting to distance themselves from the radio-ready slickness of the Butch Vig-produced Nevermind, song selection, album art, video production, and how much of the album ended up being remixed so as to be more commercially palatable.
BTW, Albini also recorded PJ Harvey’s Rid of Me and Electrelane’s Axes. The latter will get further consideration in a future “Records That Made Me a Feminist” entry. Albini will probably record your band for a nominal fee. I looked into it when I thought I was going to Northwestern. All you need is a way to Chicago, a little bit of money, and a thick skin.
But Gaar doesn’t just talk about gear. One of In Utero‘s major themes is gestation, and Cobain’s preoccupation with pregnancy, abortion, umbilical cords, and the abject pleasures and terrors of motherhood and womanhood is of critical importance to both Gaar and myself. This was the man who wished he could be a seahorse because its the only species where male members can carry its progeny to term, even as he mocked the co-dependent relationship he had with his wife.
A young father to Frances Bean, Cobain often dressed in women’s clothing, was a supporter of riot grrrl, counted Gordon and Kathleen Hanna as close friends, believed in his wife Courtney Love’s artistic capabilities, felt empathy for troubled women like Frances Farmer, and was responsible for DGC reissuing The Raincoats’ first two albums. He also identified as bisexual at a time when grunge proved to be just another guise for rock’s machismo. If only he had lived to see his daughter grow up. I think they could have learned a lot from each other. But at least he never saw Fred Durst’s chest tattoo. In tribute, my ass. I’ll leave you to Google. I can’t in good conscience put up so grody an image. Instead, let’s look at the cover photo Cobain and Love took for Sassy.
I’ll admit that save for In Utero, Unplugged In New York, and portions of Incesticide, I was never a Nirvana devotee. Nirvana’s sound was just a bit too of its time for me: sludgy guitar, shredded vocals, marked dynamics. It also sounded too traditionally masculine to me, though songs like “Very Ape” and music videos like “In Bloom” call this reading into question.
I enjoyed Nirvana more when they alienated people with noise. Give me “Scentless Apprentice” or “tourette’s” any day. The band also worked for me when they went acoustic, as on “Something In the Way,” “All Apologies,” and the Unplugged performance of “Pennyroyal Tea.” That said, I know what the band meant and continues to mean for people. I hope Cobain’s belief in gender and sexual fluidity is an essential component to some folks’ fandom.
As Cobain left behind a wife and child, Buckley probably understood his father’s legacy from a vantage point akin to Frances Bean’s. Raised by a single mother after his singer-songwriter father Tim ran out and later died of an overdose, Buckley stressed throughout his brief career that he had no real connection to the man whose familial and musical lineage he inherited. I get what he meant, but always questioned the argument. While Tim had more of a conventionally masculine vocal register, both dudes had an affinity for atonal blends of jazz, folk, and rock music and shared a spectral falsetto. And high cheekbones.
You might gather that I have a deeper investment for one artist over the other. Cobain died before I turned 11, so I was just slightly behind the curve with Nirvana. But somehow I was right with Buckley. It helped that I had cable at the time. MTV started playing the music video for “Last Goodbye” as Houston’s alternative station put the single in rotation. The hours I spent thinking about sucking his bottom lip red and raw must have been considerable.
But imagine my surprise when I spent my allowance on Grace and discovered that instead of eight other versions of “Last Goodbye,” the album was far more complex. I devoted hours to understanding the elliptical song structures, the ornate production quality, and the vocalist’s operatic singing style. I was particularly struck by how similar our vocal ranges were.
After a little research, I noticed that Buckley covered many female artists. People can and should continue to talk about his readings of Leonard Cohen, Van Morrison, and Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. But Nina Simone’s “Lilac Wine” and Janet Baker’s interpretation of Benjamin Britten’s “Corpus Christi Carol” are my favorite covers on Grace. In addition, Mahalia Jackson’s “A Satisfied Mind” and Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit” were in his repertoire. I also found out about Édith Piaf after reading somewhere that he covered “Je n’en connais pas la fin,” whereupon I asked my mother who this French lady was. He had a deep admiration for women like Björk and Elizabeth Fraser from The Cocteau Twins. The latter recorded a duet with him called “All Flowers In Time Bend Towards the Sun” and wrote “Rilkean Heart” for him and their relationship.
Buckley also valued the work of women like Simone de Beauvoir, Germaine Greer, and Penny Arcade. He carried these feelings into his relationships with his mother Mary Guibert and partners like musicians Rebecca Moore and Joan Wasser. And while a lot of white boys, mysterious or otherwise, appropriate the work of other artists, I never felt like I was listening to someone trying something on, whether it be another person’s race, gender, or both. With Buckley, it always sounded like his voice was guiding him into a process, however brief, of personal transformation because of his musical heroes, many of whom were heroines. It never felt like thievery so much as tribute.
Many have singled Buckley out as a diva. He wanted to be considered as a chanteuse. Shana Goldin-Perschbacher scribed an argument for his transgendered vocal quality in her essay for the anthology Oh Boy!: Masculinities and Popular Music. And while he has since been lauded by rocker dudes like Soundgarden’s Chris Cornell and Skid Row’s Sebastian Bach, many people were put off by the musician’s histrionics and how they offended traditional notions of rock’s paradigmatic heterosexual masculinity. I’ve even heard an acquaintance unfavorably compare him to Mariah Carey. But upon reflection, I’m faced with a startling realization: I might celebrate Buckley’s alignment with the feminine for reasons similar to why I’ve dismissed Patti Smith’s kinship with the masculine.
Thus with Buckley, there’s a lot of contradictions. This is something that Brooks confronts in understanding her fandom and what it might suggest of her status as a black woman in the academy, growing up during the 70s and 80s and completing her graduate studies during the first half of the 1990s — a time marked by hybridization, multiculturalism, political correctness, and third-wave feminism’s embrace of conflicting gender, sexual, and racial politics. Brooks constantly dialogues her own interest with Buckley around an exhaustively researched narrative of the artist’s trajectory, spending most of her time unpacking the one album he completed before drowning at the age of 30 in the Wolf River while working on his follow-up in Memphis.
Of course, we’d do well not to overpraise musicians like Cobain and Buckley, who were imperfect and mortal despite their musical legacies. Cobain constantly had to battle stomach ailments, heroin addiction, and record executives. Buckley may have sung many women’s songs, but the argument could be made that he did it to fuck women through their own music. Of course, doing so risks presumption that women are passive and dominated in the act of fucking, which I take issue with. But unlike Patti Smith, Buckley made sure his pronouns suggested he was the man in a heterosexual relationship. Buckley may sound a bit like fellow Simone fan (and Wasser colleague) Antony Hegarty, but Hegarty kept the pronouns pure when covering “Be My Husband.” Also, Buckley’s heterosexual masculinity allowed him to hover betwixt gender’s poles in song. Hegarty lives there.
But both Cobain and Buckley also suffered loss, confusion, and mental duress. Sometimes, they put those feelings, and many others, into their music. That they identified with women is important, though in greater need of complication. It doesn’t always make them men we love, but it does make their contention with gender and sexuality worthy of feminist inquiry.