Come As You Aren’t: The Problem With The New, AI-Generated 'Nirvana' Song

Will we ever let Kurt Cobain just rest in peace?

Humanity has kind of a fucked up relationship with advancement, right? Every day, millions of people work tirelessly to make even the most insignificant and mundane daily tasks slightly easier for the rest of us. (Do we really need to listen to that audiobook at 2X speed?) These developments are welcomed, but hardly necessary. And, as to be expected, they’ve permeated the music industry as well, from iPods to Spotify and everything in between. Things took a darker turn when holograms of artists no longer with us started appearing on stages across the world, like 2Pac and Whitney Houston. Sure, it can be fun for a moment to believe the fantasy that these artists are gracing the stage once again, but that only lasts for so long before you realise how macabre it all feels.

Fast forward to this month, when it was revealed that AI software had written a “new” Nirvana song. The song is titled “Drowned In The Sun” and is part of a compilation album Lost Tapes of the 27 Club. The album has used Google’s AI program Magenta to create “new” songs from a string of artists who died at 27 years old, including Amy Winehouse, Jim Morrison and Jimi Hendrix. The idea is that of Toronto organisation Over The Bridge, that helps those in the music industry deal with mental illness.

“What if all these musicians that we love had mental health support?” Sean O’Connor, a member of the board of directors for Over The Bridge told Rolling Stone. “Somehow in the music industry, [depression] is normalised and romanticised … Their music is seen as authentic suffering.”

O’Connor raises a good point. Artists that routinely struggle with mental health are often not cared for in the way they should be, whether that’s due to keeping up a facade of a celebrity image or the rigorous cycle of writing, promoting and touring. But, forgive me here, this all feels so terribly, terribly fucked up.

Since his death, people have consistently mused about what Kurt Cobain would’ve thought about today, and what music he would have made. His pen is revered and his legacy is cemented as one of the greatest music icons of all time. But, trying to imagine what Cobain would’ve thought of life in 2021 is a futile task. Society has gone through unprecedented and what was once considered unbelievable changes in the 27 years following Cobain’s passing, as opposed to the 27 years he got to experience. How is it at all possible for us to imagine what he would have thought about life when we ignore the changes that he would have had to adapt to?

That didn’t stop Eric Hogan, who fronts an Atlanta Nirvana tribute band and who provides the vocals for “Drowned In The Sun” – the only part of the song that isn’t computer generated. “The song is saying, ‘I’m a weirdo, but I like it,’” he told Rolling Stone.

“That is total Kurt Cobain right there. The sentiment is exactly what he would have said. ‘The sun shines on you, but I don’t know how’ — that’s great.”

While not nearly the stroke of original thematic genius it’s made out to be, the song does sound like a Nirvana song – so mission accomplished there. And even if it is what he would have said, is it what he would have wanted? Kurt Cobain’s relationship with fame was complicated and, depending on who you ask, he either always wanted to be famous or hated being famous; or both. Fame aside, he was first and foremost a songwriter who was across every aspect of the band. The band’s former manager, Danny Goldberg, once told USA Today that Cobain “was acutely aware of every review and interview and how often the videos were on”. It’s hard to imagine that an artist so meticulous and integral to every facet of the band’s operation would be OK with a computer generating sound-alike art and slapping Nirvana on the label.

But a bigger conversation needs to be had about the way we view and use the legacy of deceased artists. We’ve seen Cobain’s death exploited many times before, whether it be the auctioning of his expired credit card or the fact that his suicide note was printed on T-Shirts. However, Lost Tapes of the 27 Club is a huge misfire when it comes to mental health awareness, as it literally removes the artists that they’re celebrating from the equation. There’s no correlation at all besides similarities in sound and in lyrics, yet is supposed to make people wonder how Kurt Cobain would have benefitted from apt mental health treatment? I don’t see the connection.

There’s also the sad truth that, if this works, the industry will continue with this type of work until people have lost interest. To the music industry – or any industry in Western society, really – if it doesn’t make money, it doesn’t make sense. The possibility for, say, a “new” Aaliyah album made entirely of AI-generated music about what she might have had to say in 2021 is real now, and it could impact her actual legacy greatly. No longer would it be ‘nostalgic’ to listen to ‘Try Again’, when you can merely recreate her sound with a 2021 lens on it and call it “new Aaliyah music”.

Kurt Cobain and Amy Winehouse’s music serves as a specific time capsule for certain generations and the issues they faced. Using computer technology to rip their sound might, in this case, be for “raising mental health awareness”, but it is ultimately a cheap gimmick. There are countless other ways to raise awareness for mental health issues – perhaps using artists who are alive today to tell their stories in a way that resonates to people today. Get people who can say something new and original and thought-provoking, instead of theorising what those who are no longer with us might have to say, and then slapping a price tag on it.

It’s been close to 27 years since Kurt Cobain passed away. For the love of God, I hope we let him rest in peace soon.

This is an opinion piece written by Jackson Langford, music contributor at MTV Australia. Hot takes at @jacksonlangford and hotter pics at @jacksonlangford.

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