Romanticizing Mental Illness, Kurt Cobain, and Posterboys for Teen Angst

Tuesday, August 25, 2015 by Meg   •   Filed under General

What happens when we emulate the behaviors of our favorite rock stars? 

The Nirvana Age was a prime example of the romanticization of mental illness, and one that stands out as particularly poignant to me as a child of this era.  Kurt Cobain spoke to us because we were broken too, the epitome of teen angst. He was an example of what a little bullied child could aspire to. He was proof that even a troubled little boy whose parents shuttled him from one home to another could find love in legions of fans. We heard his brokenness, saw his success and aspired to overcome as he had. 

But he hadn’t. And instead of acknowledging that this guy needed help, high school students embraced Smells Like Teen Spirit as their anthem. Like Robin Williams, we saw only what we wanted to in Kurt Cobain.

And we were wrong.


It wasn’t as if Cobain had nothing going for him: there was the music, certainly. The art of gloriously expressive song lyrics that spoke to our personal pain, for they were all about loss, drama, helplessness, or even aggression. We wished we had written them, that we could expel them into the world to show our bullies that they could not defeat our spirit, that maybe they were the ones who were ugly.

“I'm so ugly…That’s OK 'cause so are you…We’ve broken our mirrors.” (Lithium)

But creative expression is not isolated to Cobain; those with bipolar disorder are more apt to have brain connections that favor creative expression (discussed more here in Bipolar and Creativity). And the line between the moody artist and mental illness can be dubious at best (more here in Personality Vs Mental Illness).  It is also worth noting that Bipolar Disorder has not been officially confirmed in Cobain (at least not by a psychiatrist). Cobain’s only diagnosis was ADHD as a child, something that may have been misdiagnosed and was certainly not treated as he grew. 

But whether mania was a part of his makeup, there are few who could deny the depression.  

Kurt Cobain and Depression

There are numerous symptoms of depression that may apply to Cobain though it is difficult to tell from th outside. But some are more overt that others. The world saw Cobain’s attire as "grunge rock”; a fashion trend to be emulated. He came on stage with disheveled hair and ripped clothes, and a nation of teens stopped showering and started borrowing their older brother’s flannel shirts.

But was this dishevelment a symptom of depression? We don’t know, we only know that a lack of personal care can be a symptom of depression. And this not caring spills into other areas. 

Apathy, Anhedonia and Rejection Sensitivity

To us, Cobain’s apathy was legendary. We saw his pithy responses to interview questions and intuited, “Fuck the establishment, I don’t have time for your bullshit rules.” We thought, “He doesn’t care about the money. He’s the real deal, an artist. He's not playing to the man.” We saw zen in his aloof, noncommittal rebuttals, peace in his nonconformist grin. 

But while we were idolizing his aloofness, he was fighting against fame he didn’t feel he deserved. While we tried to emulate his apparent lack of concern over money and the establishment, Cobain was aiming for three million dollars so he could quit music and officially be a full-time junkie. While we embraced his apathy and strove to be free of the confines of caring what other people thought, he was so acutely sensitive to rejection that he attempted suicide when he thought his wife wanted to cheat on him. 

My girl, my girl, dont lie to me. Tell me where did you sleep last night?  

My girl, my girl, where will you go? Im going where the cold wind blows.” (Where Did You Sleep Last Night?)

It is easier to stop giving a shit about what other people think if you don’t believe you deserve love. It’s easier to embrace “apathy” when nothing matters because you can’t look at yourself in the mirror, let alone accept praise for your accomplishments. Rules and approval no longer matter once you feel you’ve already lost everything: 

“Oh no, not me, we never lost control. You're face to face with the man who sold the world.” (Man Who Sold the World)

The extremes of society, the fringe, the different, draw us, justifiably, because we see in them representations of things we want to be. But at the root of the extremes are often people who are suffering more than we are, people who would give anything to BE US, free of the confines of their brains, of their bodies, of their own self loathing. What we see is sometimes a symptom of a condition, and not necessarily something to be idolized. We strive for the apathy, to care less, with a lack of understanding for underlying cause. With the dawn of Nirvana, those who weren’t depressed took on characteristics of depression because they saw a rebel, a suffering artist, a genius, and not a suffering human being crying out for someone to help him.

Though we may be evolutionarily predisposed to see the “suffering artist” as the “more gifted artist” or, at root, the “more fuckable artist” (more here), romanticizing the suffering of artists, of musicians, is a dangerous president to set. For me, even as a classically-trained pianist instead of a “rocker”, the depression of numerous brilliant composers from Beethoven to Tchaikovsky is the stuff of legend, something to aspire to not fight against. 

Reducing stigma is not the same thing as romanticizing. Accepting mental health issues and loving someone anyway is not the same as promoting elements of conditions when we should be assisting. Do unto others, as you’d want them to do unto you. Help.  Or as Cobain said: “Come. As you are. As you were. As you want me to be.”

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Topic-Relevant Resources

Repressed: An Ash Park Novel (#3)
Not all monsters wear masks.

Mindsight: The New Science of Personal Transformation
New techniques for mindfully altering the wiring of your own brain, leading to increased happiness.

Help Me, I'm Sad: Recognizing, Treating, and Preventing Childhood and Adolescent Depression
A deep but easily readable look into the world of childhood and adolescent depression.