Divine kings or postmodern puppets?
Reading Nirvana and NFTs with Jean Baudrillard and Mark Fisher
By Nick Hagan
It’s October 1991. A photographer goes to see an up-and-coming band called Nirvana play in Philadelphia, just days after the release of their new record, Nevermind.
You know — the one with this image on the cover:
The photos taken that night aren’t published. That is, until just over three decades later, when the photographer, Faith West, announces they’ll be released as NFTs on Kurt Cobain’s birthday — February 20th 2022. Fans and collectors can now buy and own the source code of these ‘unseen’ images, with prices ranging from $99 up to $250,000. These moments in time from 1991, of three young musicians (one since deceased) on the brink of global fame, are suddenly granted an uncanny afterlife.
And technically, you could argue it’s not even the images themselves that are on sale. NFTs, or non-fungible tokens, are a part of the blockchain that makes up cryptocurrencies. So what is being bought, in essence, is a segment of data — already belonging to the DNA of a currency — that authenticates a digital product. It’s a little like buying the image of a president or monarch on a coin or banknote…and paying significantly more than the accepted value of that cash.
Predictably, the online backlash from Nirvana fans is swift. On Twitter, axes are ground and spleens vented. The NFT sale is deemed an insult to the memory of Cobain, and of his own anti-capitalist commentary, often read in his cryptic lyrics.
And really, can the fans be blamed for such a response? I too feel there’s something weird and uncomfortable about this zombie reanimation — something specifically connected to the NFT bandwagon jumping. It feels cheap, exploitative, opportunistic — money grubbing dressed up as commemoration. And that’s even after knowing that most of the proceeds of the sale are going to charity. Cobain, I imagine, would have found the whole thing pretty funny. Again, the cover image from Nevermind says more than I ever could (and is of course currently subject to its own irony).
To West’s credit, she’s been even-handed in her response to the criticism. And in some ways, this story is no different from any other instance of historical photography. Something iconic happened, someone captured it, and years later people paid money for it as a form of nostalgic iconography.
Yet there’s also more to it than that. From another point of view, the Nirvana NFTs are powerfully symbolic of our cultural moment, of something that’s unfolding right now.
There are, of course, the questions raised about how we remember the past, and those we’ve lost. But even bigger than that, the whole debacle says something about an enduring conflict we are enmeshed in, as a species, in 2022. About the thorny relationship we hold with authenticity, and value, in the digital age.
The question of authenticity — of who and what can be declared ‘real’ — has long been of central concern to musical subcultures. Hip hop, techno, rock, blues, jazz; the genre tree can be endlessly subdivided, but the search for realness is a recurring trope. It preoccupies fans and artists alike, even if it’s not spoken of in exactly that way, or even considered consciously. At surface level, the question is simply: Is this artist worth getting excited about? But at the next level down, it becomes a more serious proposition. Is this artist a worthy torchbearer for the scene, its sound and — crucially — its deep identity and values? Are they ready to become iconic?
Of course, the reality of musical success is a messy business. The lucky few who achieve ‘real’ status do so as a result of many factors. Fan and label support, word of mouth, critical acclaim, commercial appeal — and much in between. But what this event amounts to, within a given subculture, is nothing less than a certain set of values being realised, and affirmed. When realness is bestowed, the recipient is anointed as the worthy heir of a cultural tradition. The artist in question has succeeded in telling a particularly powerful story through the entire, 360-degree sphere of their art; through their music, their performance of it, their image, their engagement with the media. And in telling that story, they’ve also embodied a set of principles; a shared idea of what this particular music is all about.
Grunge, as with all scenes, was instantly far more diverse than the label and caricature that defined it (consider the gulf in styles between Pearl Jam and Nirvana). But also one that, yes, managed to articulate a certain set of values; one that was undeniably birthed in response to the excesses that had left mainstream 80s rock, by some accounts, bloated and self-satisfied. One that sought to re-engage with the rock template and its possibilities.
To this end, grunge’s grammar of authenticity was grounded in a world-weary social realism. Lyrics frequently addressed depression, hopelessness, outsiderness, deprivation and drug dependency, and the corresponding emotional palette was one of angst, rage, despair, pain and — crucially — a recurring undercurrent of ironic self-awareness.
To quote the late Mark Fisher, who offers a Marxist reading of Kurt Cobain as cultural icon:
“In his dreadful lassitude and objectless rage, Cobain seemed to give wearied voice to the despondency of the generation that had come after history, whose every move was anticipated, tracked, bought and sold before it had even happened.” (Fisher, 2009).
The blend of nihilism, anger and ironic humour Cobain embodied became, intentionally or otherwise, a generational statement about the pointlessness of statements. And from there, a small step to self-destruction; it’s no coincidence that the scene’s drug of choice was heroin. Cobain’s suicide by shotgun in 1994 was the watershed that also marked the end of the cultural moment.
In contrast to the bleakness, there was also hope. Grunge’s politics, broadly speaking, can often be recognised as progressive. With roots in the antagonism of punk and 60s counter culture, there was an awareness of the ongoing struggle against authoritarianism, corporate control, misogyny and other inequalities. Riot Grrl, as a parallel subculture, went even further in its commentary on feminism and gender inequality, and a core part of the identity of both scenes was derived from a left-leaning, progressive wellspring.
“Music is, to me, proof of the existence of God.”
Different scenes value different ways of being. And if we consider music scenes as extensions and remnants of folk cultures — with roots that trail easily into spiritual and collective identity — the ‘why’ of realness becomes more understandable.
As cultures and collectives, the quest for the real thing allows for an empowering, transcendental focal point; for a spiritual journey that affirms and renews the community, its security and its vitality. Its identity. And when an artist becomes real, they become a nexus that’s worthy of ritual worship. The quest for authenticity, then, is about more than just safeguarding a particular musical tradition; it’s about the preservation of the entire network of relations within it.
In The Golden Bough, his study of magic and tribal customs, the Victorian anthropologist James Frazer made the argument that many cultures periodically enacted this fertility right as a means of renewal. The king, as the head of society and personification of a deity, holds the highest symbolic value for the health and wealth of the collective whole. But the king must also die. In careful avoidance of natural death, this could sometimes mean a literal self-sacrifice. The king must commit symbolic suicide, terminating their power in a ritual that marks the arrival — literally at first, then figuratively with their successor — of new blood.
After all, this is a cycle of death and rebirth. Through sacrifice, a new personification of the divine ascends to take the place of the old and in turn maintain the wellbeing of the people. The circular logic of this is perfectly expressed in the well-known, contradictory phrase: “The king is dead. Long live the king!”
In the context of the musical subculture, as in modern politics, the sacrifice is typically symbolic, not literal — though it’s interesting to consider the phenomenon of young deaths (Cobain’s among them) and its relationship to realness (generally an amplifier). It’s harder to locate the divine sacrifice in a field that is not exclusively about power; while some artists fade from relevance and some bands split up or ‘sell out’, others endure, creating music that matters to people until they actually die (David Bowie, Prince and Leonard Cohen spring to mind). Nonetheless, there is clearly an ongoing cycle of death and rebirth taking place within a given music subculture. The established god-kings, now anointed and passed into legend, hand power to those new, ascendant champions; the generational wheel turns, and the new heirs to the throne have their moment.
The key point in all this is that the musicians act as our symbolic kings (or indeed queens, if we’re gendering). Psychologically and socially, we grant them an elevated status through the recognition of realness, which in turn allows a sacred exchange with the fans (the worshippers) to unfold. The performance, in whatever form it takes, is the ritual through which this is realised. From a psychological perspective, it can likewise be understood as an act of exaggerated identification. As fans, we locate ourselves in the other on stage, projecting our emotions into them to forge a cathartic connection. At its most potent, this accounts for the quasi-religious experiences music can create, whether live in a club or festival field, or just listened to on record.
How does all this link to the Nirvana NFTs? Through one word: Money.
Ancient impulses, postmodern permutations
Money is something else to the collective ritual we’ve been describing, but something that, nonetheless, has indisputably been tethered to music for a long time. For these two dimensions to overlap, we have to situate music within modern capitalism. We have to understand both capital and music itself as being vehicles for human needs and desires, but also that there is a fundamental antagonism between music’s power as collective ritual and its relentless commodification.
If evidence is needed to support such an assertion, we need only look at the barriers to live music that late capitalism has raised. The spiralling price of gig tickets, not to mention the often prohibitive costs of performing for new and unsigned acts, or for independent venues to stay afloat. These are all hallmarks of live music in late capitalism, symptoms of how music is contained and packaged within it. To make ends meet, artists turn to whatever economic models are viable. An increasing number now offer subscription services to hardcore fans, as one stand-out example.
And the fact is, this goes deeper than just live music. It goes right to the very heart of our relationship with the music we love; to the exchange with the artists themselves, and how we experience it. It’s a fundamental tension that colours the relationship we have with culture, and the emotional bond we have with it too.
I can think of few better symbols of this tension than the Nirvana NFTs, and the debate that surrounds them.
We are witnessing, in fact, the collision of two psychological and emotional impulses, right before our eyes. Impulses which perhaps, at root, both ultimately seek the same value — but which codify that value in entirely different ways.
That value is authenticity itself. And we all have a choice to make about how we pursue it.
The problem that NFTs solve, as an idea and a ‘thing’, is that of origin. The piece of code being bought is proof of originality, and therefore authenticity — no matter how ephemeral the creation it signifies.
The capacity that capital has to fix that value is undeniably part of its seductive power — and always has been. In this sense, NFTs are only the next logical step in the work that capital does.
But the difference between an NFT and, for example, a painting, is also clear. The NFT is not the thing itself, but the referent of the thing. There is some irony in this, because despite not being ‘the thing itself’, the NFT still serves as proof of the thing’s originality. In a ceaseless digital tide, it provides fixed co-ordinates for a creative point of origin. This is its value, whether it’s an NFT of a photo of Nirvana taken in 1991 or of the original Nyan Cat GIF. It’s the difference between the baby and the birth certificate.
Artists like Andy Warhol have long been aware of the slippery paradox attached to originality, and used it to their creative and commercial advantage. But NFTs represent a different level of remove, a truly postmodern symbol of our conflicted insistence on authenticity.
We can even go as far as to understand this as an act of evil genius. The late Mark Fisher famously compared capitalism to the titular creature in John Carpenter’s film The Thing, depicting it as “a monstrous, infinitely plastic entity, capable of metabolizing and absorbing anything with which it comes into contact.” (Fisher, p.X). To further the analogy, the logic of the Thing is one of replication, of attacking someone (or something) and synthesising a near-perfect clone of it. The identity of the original is swiftly lost in simulation — and with it the certainty of ever knowing what is ‘real’.
Such destabilisation, as in the case of NFTs, allows value to be coded in new ways. This, of course, is the logic of capitalism, to always advance towards new growth and appreciation — to mine new value. Would these photos of Nirvana be nearly as valuable if they were exhibited in a gallery and sold as actual photos? It seems unlikely. In fact, through their mutation into NFTs, they achieve the goals of capitalist logic and accrue significantly more value. As with the Thing, assimilation is a strategy that generates more power, more security, by mounting a challenge to reality itself.
As the philosopher and theorist Jean Baudrillard writes, “throughout its history it was capital that first fed on the destructuration of every referential, of every human objective, that shattered every ideal distinction between true and false…in order to establish a radical law of equivalence and exchange” (Baudrillard, 1994).
Baudrillard sees the dead hand of capital as undermining the very possibility of the real, instead splintering it into an endless parade of interchangeable simulacra. The trade-off might be the sudden emergence of new value, as suggested above…but it comes at a terrible price. Because, from Baudrillard’s perspective — echoed in the online outrage of Nirvana fans at the news of the NFTs — this act of simulation is in fact an act of murder. The very object that the process seeks to preserve is in actuality hollowed out, suffocated, killed. The sacred is sealed in a “glass coffin”, on display for unchanging eternity, its truth forever depleted.
As we’ve already touched on, the relentless commodification of music has the propensity to overtake the music itself. The tribal identity so inherent to musical scenes, and the collective experience that articulates it, must constantly resist the contrary pressure that capital exerts in its quest to trap, encapsulate and replicate commercial success. At its most extreme this can lead to the actual abuse of performers and stars, as expressed recently in the Britney Spears conservator scandal and many other human bondage horror stories. The (sometimes unwitting) artistic genius of pop music is, aside from the music itself, its ability to dramatise this impulse — the impulse to turn human subjectivity into product. Again. And again. And again.
Does this matter? For those who feel the product is good enough, or don’t care either way, perhaps not. But from the perspective of Baudrillard and Fisher, it’s a symptom of the absolute hegemony of capitalism as an ideology — as a site of meaning. And at a deeper level, the stories and emotive experiences we engage with through culture both reflect and shape who we are. They make us feel alive; they enrich our lives. They help us to understand ourselves better.
If you believe that there is something essential at play here — that your personal relationship with culture matters — that the currency of ideas is the lifeblood of our possibilities at both a personal and political level — you should care about this. Because what I’m describing here is, in the most extreme reading, a kind of soul murder. When industrial farming of culture takes over as our value determinant, as the goal we are working towards, something important is inevitably lost.
But back to Nirvana. As Baudrillard acidly claims:
“Our entire linear and accumulative culture collapses if we cannot stockpile the past in plain view…we require a visible past, a visible continuum, a visible myth of origin, which reassures us about our end” (Baudrillard, 1994).
A “visible myth of origin”…what better way to describe an NFT that validates a photograph? The source code that confirms, allowing for no uncertainty, the authenticity of a moment of frozen time.
Capital will eat itself
Aptly enough, the commodification we’re describing is precisely what happened to grunge. Within months of its recognition as an authentic scene, embodying a certain set of ideas and cultural moods, grunge fashions became the hot new thing at malls and clothing outlets across the US. The cultural moment was swiftly parroted, packaged and purchased.
And, significantly, this is in no way surprising. It’s precisely what happens to so many underground, alternative scenes at the point of popularisation. Perhaps this is the bigger point. For while it could be argued that the photographer selling the Nirvana NFTs does so in bad faith, betraying the spirit and values of the music she captured, the ugly truth is that, in a late capitalist society, this is just what happens.
Mark Fisher famously expresses this in the title of chapter 1 of Capitalist Realism, stating: ‘It’s easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism’ (Fisher, 2009).
The crowning irony is that, perhaps, the tribal impulse for renewal that music satisfies and the zombie impulse of capital are both rooted in the same essential human conflict. In both instances it is the puzzle of how we can authentify something divine, something transcendent, in a way that allows us to face death. As Baudrillard describes, the act of stockpiling the past acts as a salve for our own fragility and mortality, precisely as the killing of the divine king allowed a parallel sense of catharsis.
The key difference is that catharsis is not the same as control. The work that capital does, in this reading, is at heart a disavowal of death through the stifling of change. Which brings us to a psychoanalytic perspective of capital as being unable to mourn, unable to let go. Instead, the cultural logic we exist within clings; grasps; and finally reanimates the corpse of the moment, over and over. No matter how monstrously disfigured, no matter how depleted of meaning, it will never, ever let go.
Nick Hagan is based in Oxford, UK. As a freelance writer and editor, he is interested in ideas, psychology, philosophy, popular culture, and the interplay between them.
Baudrillard, Jean, Simulation and Simulacra (1994). Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.
Fisher, Mark, Capitalist Realism (2009). London: Zero Books