Originally penned in December 2018

It’s an age-old cliché to say that many of the musicians in the charts these days have no soul; that they have nothing to say and are only interested in making a fast buck. Without trying to sound too much like a grumpy old man – on the week that I turn the ripe old age of 34 – I must say, I’m very much inclined to agree. 

By Jonathan Foley

Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not gonna sit here and simply bash the pop-stars of the modern era for being soulless, because in truth, it’s not really their fault. Poppy catchy tunes have often outsold the musicians and bands that are more raw, honest and unsuperficial in their approach to music; so they might as well try and cash in and get all the ‘Likes’ they can. 

As a teacher of English literature in schools, I always instruct pupils to not simply take a poem or a novel at face-value, but instead, to take the time to deconstruct the contextual life of the writer behind the work. During a recent week off, I decided I was gonna start practicing what I’d preached and, in truth, I loved the journey. 

First up, it was time to reunite myself with some old Nirvana tracks; most of which I hadn’t heard from these grunge-based legends for longer than I could remember. In following my practice however, I found myself diverging into studying the true history of Kurt Cobain’s life, his experiences and ultimately his emotions that duly influenced his work.

In a Netflix documentary, it was said that Cobain genuinely disliked the fame and attention he received. Having already grown up with emotional difficulties over his parents’ divorce and for how his family often rejected him, the Aberdeen-born rocker found solace in drug abuse that, when married to fellow-addict Courtney Love, things became turbulent for him. 

“I wish I was like you, easily amused!” was a line from the song ‘All Apologies.’ It’s believed here that the Nirvana frontman was taking aim at the tabloid media who were consistently exposing negative stories about his lifestyle and his music as a whole. Yet in his conflicted psychological state, he also informed them that “I don’t mind if I don’t have a mind!” in the song ‘Breed.’ 

His dislike and distrust of the mainstream media did seem to quell for a period however. After becoming a father and improving upon ways to spend his free-time, he briefly became a healthier and truly loving father to his daughter, Frances. He began doing tours and interviews again and his friends and family all remarked that, even if only for a short while, he became truly happy. 

As his marriage hit a severe rocky patch however he became suspicious of his wife’s fidelity and this led him to performing on a stage in a manner in which the public had never seen him before. In December 1993, Nirvana performed the ‘Unplugged: Live in New York’ album. A truly moving and mesmerising show to watch even today. 

The band had forsaken the screeching guitars, boisterous drumming and often incoherent screaming and instead, sat down and played with acoustic guitars – accompanied by cello players and violinists – on a stage that was beautifully lit with candles, flowers and decadent lighting. Little did many know, at the time though, this was his way of saying goodbye. 

Many know believe that his decision to play such numbers as ‘About A Girl’ and a cover of ‘Where Did You Sleep Last Night?’ (which contains the lyric “Don’t lie to me; I’m going where the cold wind blows!”) were subtle digs at his wife’s supposed behaviour and ultimately, his eventual suicide that would take place less than four months later. 

He’s not the first to have done this type of thing. Many researchers now agree that John Lennon’s “Help me if you can, I’m feeling down” line in the famous song by The Beatles, may have been disguised as a happy-poppy lyric; but in truth, issues about his internal struggles at the time are said to have been the real inspiration behind that particular song’s creation. 

And it’s certainly not merely restricted to musicians. Definitely not. A study into the life of F. Scott Fitzgerald shows that his background are in some ways perfectly mirrored in his novel ‘The Great Gatsby.’ Just as the feelings of loneliness come through in the poetry of William Butler Yeats through his writings of poems such as ‘Wild Swans at Coole’ or ‘Maud Gonne.’

Nowadays, Eminem is probably the best known writer for expressing how his emotions affect what goes into his art. He’s certainly no spring-chicken himself anymore, but he could be the last of a dying breed in the music industry. It just seems that very few musicians today seem to be able to truly express themselves – be it or good or bad – in the ways they used to.