I’ve been thinking a lot about the lyrics so indelibly burned into my brain from ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’, the song that made Kurt Cobain famous and Nirvana a global phenomenon.
Even the Nevermind album’s cover image, the naked baby chasing the dollar on a string underwater, was prescient. If any-one predicted our reality-show president, our escalating stupidity and our race to rock bottom, and had the understanding that we could amuse ourselves to death, it was Kurt.
Load up on guns, bring your friends
It’s fun to lose and to pretend
She’s over-bored and self-assured
Oh no, I know a dirty word
Hello, hello, hello, how low
Hello, hello, hello
With the lights out, it’s less dangerous
Here we are now, entertain us
I feel stupid and contagious
Here we are now, entertain us
The first time I heard ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ was the fall of 1991, right when it came out. I’ll never forget hearing those first four chords. I didn’t understand half of the lyrics — all I could really make out was ‘I feel stupid and contagious/ Here we are now, entertain us’ — but suddenly my whole messed-up existence, my parents’ recent separation and my place in the world made sense.
I had to know what he was saying. All of it. This guy, this skinny, hot-mess express with shaggy hair and piercing blue eyes, he knew something. And the more I listened to his music, the more I thought Kurt knew everything.
He understood my rage, my apathy, my helplessness, and he was light years ahead of recognizing and calling out the corporatization and lameification of everything. It’s no accident that Washington, the same state that brought us Microsoft and Starbucks also brought us Kurt Cobain. He was reacting to our sterilization. He tried to warn us.
He would be dead three years later. Watching Kurt wrestle with fame and addiction and genius was like watching an acrobat on a tightrope, drunk. You knew you were probably going to watch this person die — but you couldn’t turn away. It was inevitable. Having read some of his published journals, it was a self-fulfilling prophecy. There was no alternate ending to his story, and Kurt knew that too.
And I guess that’s how it’s felt watching America play out the past 30 years, the past five in particular. The failure of our education system, the media incentivized to divide us, the Wild West internet where some folks find gold and other find madness…all of it leading to this moment where America self-destructs, spectacularly, inevitably.
Meanwhile the chaos is all being used as an excuse to dismantle our liberties, take away freedoms and scare everyone into getting in line.
Big Tech is censoring in ways that are terrifying. As I write, every capitol is on high alert with threats of violence. The histrionics online are ramped up to 11. The media, the administration on the way out, the administration on the way in and Big Tech pushing algorithms designed to tear us all apart are throwing gasoline on an already raging fire. That familiar sense of rage, apathy and helplessness kicks in.
I loathe them all for it but most of all loathe myself for not being able to do anything productive in the face of it all. My coping mechanism has been the same for decades: laughter, cynicism and mocking irreverence. Submission wrapped in snark.
It’s hard not to feel like this is a story we all collectively told. A self-fulfilling prophecy that was destined to come true no matter how disciplined and presidential Trump might have been. Although this would have been impossible, because he cannot help but be exactly who he is.
We cannot help but be who we are either. Everyone knew the part they had to play. And we all dutifully played it.
The part I play, so far as I can tell, is that annoying girl sitting on the fence, hating everyone. The Gen-X grunge chick sneering at it all. The Nineties kid who wasn’t raised by her parents but instead by a steady stream of brilliant satire which started in my childhood with The Far Side and Calvin and Hobbes and continued into my teens with The Simpsons. And if you watched enough Simpsons, as I did, you weren’t that surprised or terrified the day a man in a Viking horn stormed the Capitol.
Sometime around 2015, America jumped the shark. Idiocracy started seeming more and more like a documentary, and our headlines started reading like satire. As many have remarked the culture is ‘beyond parody’. Even though I know on some level this is tragic, the only curt response I can muster is, ‘Well, whatever, never mind.’
This article was originally published in The Spectator’s February 2021 US edition.