Kurt Cobain's Hierarchy of Needs
The Jonah Complex, and What Came After
Take stock of those around you and you will… hear them talk in precise terms about themselves… But start to analyse those ideas and you will find that they hardly reflect in any way the reality to which they appear to refer, and if you go deeper you will discover that there is not even an attempt to adjust the ideas to this reality… For life is at the start a chaos in which one is lost. The individual suspects this, but he is frightened at finding himself face to face with this terrible reality, and tries to cover it over with the curtain of fantasy, where everything is clear. It does not worry him that his ‘ideas’ are not true, he uses them as trenches for the defense of his existence, as scarecrows to frighten away reality.
-Jose Oretega y Gasset
It was in a leafy suburban neighborhood in Seattle, in a respectable brick townhouse, that lead singer of grunge band Nirvana, Kurt Cobain, was discovered dead from a shotgun wound to the head. It was early April in the Pacific Northwest, and the trees were starting to bud. Weather hovered at a pleasant sixty degrees, but the sky rolled in currents of graveyard-gray half of the month. At least if we’re to believe a website called “Climate Spy,” which claims it rained 13 days in the month of April 1994.
Cobain, following the footsteps of so many stars before him, chose to express with his suicide that singular lesson that Americans are determined to unlearn in perpetuity: no level of fame or success can unbreak the things broken inside us.
Reaching the top of the Hierarchy of Needs, Cobain decided to jump. He left a void of influence behind that, four years later, would be filled by “Total Request Live,” the MTV show that would crown the music industry’s next biggest stars and give us the world of pop music - and boy bands - that we know today.
It all started and ended with two things: fear, and influence.
Living Large in the Jonah Moment
Kurt Cobain succumbed to what psychologists call “The Jonah Complex.”
The Jonah Complex, as twentieth century psychologist Abraham Maslow describes it, is the universal fear of our highest potential. Maslow, famous for his love of a good methodology (exemplified by his much better known ‘Hierarchy of Needs’), offered three criteria for the Jonah Complex:
fear of “grandiosity, arrogance, sinful pride, hubris”
fear of “doing what one is capable of doing”
fear that people will dislike or hate you for being successful
Cited in Ernest Becker’s Pulitzer-winning The Denial of Death (1973), Maslow explains:
We fear our highest possibility as well as our lowest ones. We are generally afraid to become that which we can glimpse in our most perfect moments… We enjoy and even thrill to the godlike possibilities we see in ourselves in such peak moments. And yet we simultaneously shiver with weakness, awe and fear before these very same possibilities.
What lies beyond the Jonah Complex? Self-actualization.
That’s the peak of the pyramid that is Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.
But what The Denial of Death posits is that Maslow’s lesser known theory is that self-actualization is a dangerous game. We balance our life between what is necessary and what is possible. It’s up to each person to decide where the line between one ends and the other begins. Focus too much on the necessary and we become automatic, responding only to external stimuli without any sense of self. Focus too much on the possible and we sacrifice our inner self to endless speculation, possibilities, and uncertainty.
Artists that achieve global success are at a high risk of disappearing into their work and, if they don’t fight the fears of the Jonah Complex, they lose their center. That’s what happened to Cobain. It’s what happens to most people who achieve a certain level of being where your influence becomes your definition, because the influence influences the influencer until, as Cobain once said, you have no choice but to “serve the servants.”
Serving the servants isn’t as fun as commanding them.
Where can you grow when your influence starts to influence you?
Maslow would say that you have to achieve, yet again, another stage of growth. Unfortunately, the tireless pursuit of self-actualization must never end.
One can choose to go back toward safety or forward toward growth. Growth must be chosen again and again; fear must be overcome again and again.
Hierarchy of Unneeds
In the documentary about Cobain’s awkward rise to stardom, Montage of Heck (2015), Kurt Cobain’s wife Courtney Love tells an interviewer that Cobain’s life plan had been to make enough money to do nothing other than inject heroin for a few years and die. Cobain’s artistic affinity for annihilation, in the spiritual tradition of all celebrity artists, was compromised by his need to express his art to the masses, to actualize his meaning, over and over, through his own influence.
His biggest gripe was that the masses misinterpreted his message. Attempting to self-actualize, his own influence became stagnant in a quagmire of success. You can see this in his frustration at the worship of Nirvana’s biggest hit single, 1991’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” which he felt distracted listeners from songs he considered superior, telling an interviewer:
Everyone has focused on that song so much… The reason it gets a big reaction is people have seen it on MTV a million times. It’s been pounded into their brains. But I think there are so many other songs that I’ve written that are as good, if not better, than that song, like ‘Drain You.’ That’s definitely as good as ‘Teen Spirit’. I love the lyrics, and I never get tired of playing it. Maybe if it was as big as ‘Teen Spirit’, I wouldn’t like it as much.
Today, “Smells Like Teen Spirit” has been viewed more than 1 billion times on YouTube.
“Here we are now, entertain us,” Cobain grungily groans to the listeners in the song.
Later, in one of his last interviews, he would say about Nirvana that they were, at the end of the day, “entertainers.”
Few other musicians would be as honest as that. Fewer still would ever dream of the massive reach that Nirvana achieved: selling 75 million albums worldwide, Nirvana, lasting seven years total, is one of the best-selling bands of all time. Nevermind, which featured “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” has sold 30 million albums. Originally, the album had a working title of Sheep, with Cobain offering a fake advertisement in his journal by saying:
Because you want to not; because everyone else is
Writing poetry about a culture hypnotized by entertainment, Cobain recognized that his band had become part of the hypnosis. Both hypnotist and hypnotized, Nirvana’s music created a trance that he would never break.
Influencing Under the Influence
Nirvana spawned a grunge genre that became the parent and grandparent of alt rock, alt metal, and nu metal nineties bands that oozed straight from MTV into my middle school CD player. The band helped create the classic nineties look of flannel and unwashed hair and ripped clothes worn by proto-hipsters everywhere.
Cobain, hating every second of it, was considered the voice of a generation that ushered in a new age of alternative music. The underground crawled out into the sunlight and got a tan.
In In Utero, the follow-up to Nevermind, Cobain explains in “Serve the Servants.”
Teenage angst has paid off well
Now I'm bored and old
Self-appointed judges judge
More than they have sold
Always seeking his center, Cobain found that, more and more, fame hollowed it.
As The Denial of Death tells us, this should be expected for any person who achieves popular success. According to psychologist Otto Rank, a close friend of Freud’s, we are defined by what’s outside us:
All our meanings are built into us from the outside, from our dealings with others. This is what gives us a ‘self’ and a superego. Our whole world of right and wrong, good and bad, our name, precisely who we are, is grafted into us; and we never feel we have authority to offer things on our own. How could we? - I argued - since we feel ourselves in many ways guilty and beholden to others, a lesser creation of theirs, indebted to them for our very birth.
When an artist creates a masterpiece, that masterpiece lives within and without. The artist influences others and the influenced influence the artist. People spend all their lives seeking purpose. Music, the purpose of the artist, becomes a vehicle for every listener’s purpose. And, as every disaffected musician knows, that purpose is fundamentally monetizable.
That was the problem that the music industry faced when Cobain died in 1994 just one year after Michael Jackson was accused of having inappropriate sexual relations with a 13 year-old in a case that scandalized millions and ended, in 1994, with no witnesses being able to implicate Jackson with any actual evidence, a fact only reinforced by FBI files that went public after Jackson’s death showing that no credible leads were ever found in the investigation.
Influence, a spell that requires the belief of the bewitched to cast its magic, is dispelled with gossip as quickly as it is dispelled with death.
So MTV decided to diversify the portfolio of musical influence with the TV show “Total Request Live,” which premiered in 1998 and became an engine of mass self-actualization.
As Vulture explains in a history of “Total Request Live”:
In the wake of Kurt Cobain’s suicide and Michael Jackson’s child-abuse scandal, popular music lacked a signature star or scene.
Genre by Democracy
Started in 1998 and hosted by a reassuringly wafer-like figure, the goal of TRL was simple: build new influencers to create monetizable self-actualization among the listeners. Specifically, younger listeners.
That’s because younger viewers were dropping from MTV. In the quest to entice them, the studio had a reporter actually research and interview and create an 8,000 word report called “The Secret Life of Teenage Girls,” in which new boy bands were identified.
This is how The Backstreet Boys were discovered.
Airing at 3:30pm, right as kids all across the country got home from school, TRL offered an interactive format that depended on viewers to vote for their favorite videos. I remember getting home and watching it during elementary school while eating bagel bites, before transitioning to rousing sessions of Donkey Kong Country 2.
This was a show that showed the most popular music videos in a countdown format, per viewer feedback.
As Vulture describes it:
And thus, on TRL’s first-ever countdown, the show’s cultural identity would be permanently forged, when Backstreet’s “I’ll Never Break Your Heart” and ‘N Sync’s “Tearin’ Up My Heart” came in at Nos. 1 and 2.
Was the pollination of culture by boy bands the ultimate intention of the show?
It didn’t matter.
Female adolescents, a force of estimated $60 billion annual spend in 1998, had spoken.
As Backstreet Boy AJ McLean said in an interview:
MTV had to play the video because the fans wanted it… A bunch of guys in linen shirts dancing in the rain showing off their abs? Wasn’t gonna happen.
Three years later, AJ would enter rehab for substance abuse.
Confronted by the Jonah Moment, the influence of the new influencers, once more, became a puppet show in which the influenced and the influencers play each other for self-actualization.
According to the extremely entertaining academic analysis by professor Gayle Wald, the popularity of TRL’s anointed saints - whether Backstreet Boys and NSYNC or Britney Spears - was accompanied by
Anxious public hand-wringing about the shallowness of youth culture, the triumph of commerce over art, and the sacrifice of “depth" to surface and image.
Wald’s primary question is whether cynicism really qualifies as “depth,” namedropping Kurt Cobain, a traditionally “male” rock star, whose songs with Nirvana are considered higher art than what she classifies as the “feminized” masculinity of the Backstreet Boys.
To critically analyze teenybopper pop, we must first shift our thinking about youth culture and crisis, resisting and recasting the assumption that the latter can only be expressed in the form of "troublesome"(i.e., implicitly masculine) expressions of angst or rebellion
What if you just wanted to listen to music that made you connected to a band’s pure passion in order to enhance your own passion and explore the path of that passion?
The Backstreet Boys, and TRL’s music videos, provided that level of intimacy.
As Wald explains:
Here the importance of music video as a means of the visual representation of a boy band such as the Backstreet Boys cannot be overstated, since it's predominantly through video that they perform their willingness to submit to the erotic possession of fans. Such videos offer millions of viewer-listeners… an illusion of physical proximity.
These men are close. They’re reassuring. They’re innocent.
All of TRL’s earliest popular videos could be seen as a direct reaction to the occasionally unbearable grimness of nineties rock. Most importantly, a new audience was activated.
Through this practice of giving viewers a platform to broadcast their preferences before a live television audience of their peers, "TRL" capitalizes on the popularity of a select number of videos while elevating and spotlighting the figure of the female fan, making her an object of viewer identification/desire and, arguably, the show's real star... otherwise atomized viewers imagine themselves as part of a virtual "community" of fans joined in the collective project of voting in the day's favorites, a fantasy underscored by the posting of voter tallies for the day's top video.
From September to February 1998, The Backstreet Boys and N’Sync always found themselves - without fail - in the #1 spot of TRL’s countdown.
There was a catch: not everyone wanted it that way.
Freaks on Parade
It was March 1999 when Korn’s “Freak on a Leash,” a song directly inspired by the machinations of the music industry, broke the assured invulnerability of the boy band influence and became the #1 video on TRL.
As lead singer Jonathan Davis would say in an interview:
That's my song that rails out against the music industry. It's about how I feel like I'm a fuckin' prostitute. Like I'm this freak paraded around, but I got corporate America fuckin' making all the money while it's taking a part of me. It's like they stole something from me–they stole my innocence and I'm not calm anymore. I worry constantly. I'm not just talkin' about the record business. Everything's involved. I've lost something. I'm not all there anymore. I love what I do, but I wish I could have it all back. It's like the "Peter Pan syndrome." I wish I could still fly.
Korn flirted with the number one spot on TRL a few times, but NSYNC and The Backstreet Boys still reigned supreme until on July 29-30, 1999, Limp Bizkit displaced the boy bands with “Nookie.”
The sudden surge of popularity wasn’t by accident.
The week before this victory, from July 22 to July 25, the notorious Woodstock 1999 took place, a festival during which fans eventually set fire to the venue in both a protest and an embrace of the new culture of music and influence.
Who wouldn’t protest a reality where The Backstreet Boys and NSYNC were #1 on the most popular music video channel for 222 days of the year?
Two decades later, “I Want It That Way” and “Smells Like Teen Spirit” both have more than 1 billion views on YouTube.
Influence becomes immortality, but immortality, for the influencer, is not a state of being but a dissolution of purpose and persona and performance into the liminal lifetime of each and every fan’s conception of themselves, and the shy sonic shadows refracted from the soul in the spotlight.
If Kurt Cobain helped create the 1990s image of slacker culture and Nirvana offered cultural exhaustion as personality, then the boy bands of TRL synthesized a cultural autoimmune response against the viral denial that there is nothing past the inescapable eternity of self-actualization, no cure for the degradation of self through the complexity of time: answering, overwhelmingly and forever, that the cure is love, and singing about love, and thinking and feeling love, all the time.
One year later, at Woodstock 1999, this all backfired.
TRL, whipping new audiences into a frenzy, sought to balance the boy bands with a new wave of metal and rock that, by the show’s design, pitted listeners against each other and atomized musical preferences.
This all came to a fiery climax at the end of July 1999, in which both influencers and the influenced achieved a new kind of self-actualization.
Next week, we’ll explore how.