Nirvana's seminal second album and a milestone in rock and alternative culture turned 30 on 24th of this month. The Seattle group’s musical milestone turned them from indie promises to global superstars, and made Grunge a cultural phenomenon. And while its tracks held a mirror to the ideals of Cobain & co. there’s another element from the album that has become equally iconic & haunting - the art on its cover.
Created by Robert Fischer, the cover shows a naked 4-month-old baby underwater, swimming towards a dollar bill attached to a fish hook. If you are a 90s rock fan then you may have already painted this image in your mind. Inspiration for this visual struck Kurt Cobain while watching documentaries on waterbirth. And while Geffen - the label Nirvana were signed to found this idea too graphic, Fisher and photographer Kirk Weddle found a middle ground to tell this story.
The final visual, now etched in music history, can be looked at as a metaphor for Nirvana back then. The kid, a representation of innocence, floating in a trance-like state underwater, can be seen as Cobain, Dave Grohl & Krist Novoselic - a naive, indie group from Seattle being drawn towards mainstream music and pop fame (the dollar on the hook). Will they be beguiled by the glamour of consumerism and bite the bait or stay undiscovered and happy?
But while this may have you thinking which Nirvana track to press play on now, Spencer Elden, the kid who was photographed for this now-iconic cover, can’t just go “well, whatever, nevermind!” When his parents decided to help out their photographer friend Kirk Weddle by allowing him to click their baby naked, they never once imagined that Nevermind would become a mainstream hit, let alone a generation-defining milestone. Today Elden finds his 4-month-old self naked on billboards, playlists, t-shirts, posters and merchandise across the world. In 2007 he had told the Sunday Times it was “kind of creepy that many people have seen me naked. I feel like the world’s biggest porn star”.
Just before Nevermind hit its 30th anniversary this year, Elden sued the band, claiming sexual exploitation as a kid. Ironically though he has a sprawling Nevermind tattoo inked across his chest and has recreated his pose from the 1991 album cover (with clothes on albeit) for several publications previously. So, is this a case of the art coming back to haunt the artist? Has the baby from that hallowed cover, bitten the bait of money & materialism? The very thing Kurt Cobain feared he and his mates would fall prey to.
While Nevermind and Nirvana’s legacy continue to be celebrated, Spencer Elden seeking $150,000 in damages weave in quite naturally with the theme of societal expectations to spend your entire life chasing money from the moment you come out of the womb until you end up in your casket- a theme that ran throughout the band’s work, and continues to rule true.
Kurt Cobain will continue to be celebrated as a precious talent gone too soon, Nirvana - a voice for teenage angst, will continue to gather more fans, and Elden will keep looking for closure and clarity on this burden of fame that he had never asked for. While us consumers and music fans will continue our chant of “here we are now, entertain us.”