Teen angst and token black girl problems make for a hell of a combination, but oddly enough I subconsciously found some solace in it with Nirvana’s lyrics. “I’m so ugly, but that’s okay ‘cause so are you” brings on some new significance when you feel systematically undesired as a tall black girl going through an awkward phase, surrounded by your white classmates getting boyfriends and dates. “Come as you are, as you were, as I want you to be” gets new life when applied to the fact that I felt like I was viewed as a walking paradox, this black chick who was often told that she acts white. “Love myself better than you, know it’s wrong, so what should I do?” was probably my earliest practice in self love, something I honestly needed during my teen years.
But for ages I wasn’t sure what it was about Nirvana—and Kurt in particular—that set something off within me at that age. I didn’t watch Kurt Loder announce the tragedy of Kurt Cobain’s suicide on MTV News. I didn’t listen to “All Apologies” and hold a candlelight vigil. I didn’t even know what Nirvana was. That’s because I was three-years-old in April of 1994. The only songs that were on my toddler playlist were from The Little Mermaid and Barney and Friends.
And yet, 10 years after Kurt Cobain’s death, Nirvana was the most formative band of my early teen years. While most of my other friends were obsessed with Jude Law or Orlando Bloom, I crushed on a man who killed himself.
Sure, I could chalk it up to the morbid cult of personality surrounding Kurt and his untimely death that still lingered into the early ‘00s. Or it could have been the fact that Nirvana’s unreleased track “You Know You’re Right” hit my local rock radio station when I was in 7th grade. Whatever it was, it led to me covering my walls in Nirvana posters, receiving the Nirvana three-CD box set for Christmas in 2004, and bringing a commemorative magazine about the 10 year anniversary of Kurt’s death to school with me every day for a good two weeks. All of this on top of the fact that I was the kind of Nirvana freak who read his suicide note over and over again every other night until I made myself cry. Yeah, I was a huge weirdo.
So I could end this right now and say that I loved Nirvana because they were a great band and I was an obsessive teenager. I mean, I’m sure that that is a good 60 percent of the reason why I still bump to them to this day. And let’s not act like they weren’t a band that inadvertently became a symbol of youthful angst. It’s a fact they poked fun at in the opening song of their third album, In Utero, as Kurt wailed, “teenage angst has paid off well.”
But until recently I thought that teen-angst was something I co-opted as opposed to something I truly experienced just because I wasn’t in a constant state of anger. Now I realize that I felt a lot more alone than I thought I did. This isn’t all that unique, I know. This is something most high schoolers feel this way, but the way I encountered it was different than most.
The only other big Nirvana fans I knew at school were one of my best girlfriends and this dude in my ninth grade English class who was convinced that, “Courtney did it.” Both were white, which doesn’t come as a surprise since I was one of the only black kids at an all white private school, but this also meant that I knew no other black Nirvana fans until I went to college. I didn’t even know if they existed. When I was 14-years-old I was positive—convinced—that I was the only black girl in the entire world who owned a Kurt Cobain shirt. It was a starchy and black, depicting Kurt wearing a blue dress and eyeliner. I got it from Hot Topic despite the fact that I thought I was too cool for Hot Topic (I wasn’t). I’ve been wearing that startchy old shirt for about ten years now, still admiring it through its multiple washes and unsightly deodorant marks, its snug fit hugging my waist and chest much tighter than it did in 8th grade. But let me tell you: When you already feel like an anomaly for being that black chick who loves punk rock, little things like this just add another notch to your sad, special snowflake, “I’m not like other black girls” complex; a complex that I would spend years destroying, and deconstructing and writing personal essays about online.
I understand the irony of thanking a deceased white man for filling in the weird gaps of my token black girl status. Trust me, it sort of gives me pause, too. But it’s my truth. There was something about the angry guitar riffs and the candid lyricism that spoke to me on such a personal level that this band became the music that defined my early adolescence.
Now I’m 23-years-old. It’s been 10 years since I fell in love with this band, 20 years since their abrupt disbandment; Nirvana’s impact still resonates with me. I might not be crying on the pink carpet of my childhood bedroom floors as “Pennyroyal Tea” blares from my CD player, but I’m still moved enough to spend an hour watching live Nirvana concert footage on YouTube when I should be doing laundry. So keep on resting in peace, Kurt. You’ve managed to make me the weird, mixed up black chick that I am today.