“I wish I was like you … easily amused”
Courtney Love has always been a figure that has attracted derision and attention from legions of the rock fraternity. Love had carved a niche in the band Hole but it was her marriage to Kurt Cobain that embedded her place in history. Kurt had formed Nirvana in 1987 after a long standing fascination with Pixies, the Melvins and Flipper which had encouraged him to try and make his mark on the world. In 1991 Nirvana released ‘Nevermind’, this was the record that would simultaneously make and break Nirvana. Whilst it catapulted Nirvana into the rock stratosphere, it also marked the start of the collapse for a fragile and vulnerable Cobain. In April 1994 Cobain decided that he couldn’t go on.
I met Cobain, very very briefly when I had congratulated him on performance at the gig in Leeds in 1989. I was near breathless with excitement having been exposed to arguably the most visceral and exciting band I had ever seen. He was in the corner of the venue, and was already surrounded by ‘fans’. The gig was tiny and they had enraptured the whole room. Looking at Cobain it was clear that he was already under pressure when talking to strangers. Some can naturally handle attention and adulation, but Kurt was not one of those people. Having said that, beneath his fragility there was clearly something, it was ephemeral and fleeting but ‘it’ was there. On stage this was amplified. The fragility was always there, no matter how loud Kurt screamed.
After his death Courtney Love was appointed to safeguard the estate of Kurt Cobain. This gave Courtney the right to exploit or commercialise the music and image of Kurt Cobain. In 2006 Love sold 25% of the publishing rights to the Nirvana back catalogue to Primary Wave Music for an estimated $50 Million. This was essentially to try and generate revenues from Kurt’s songs, through their use on TV, Soundtracks and other avenues.
“We are going to remain very tasteful and true to the spirit of Nirvana while taking the music to places it has never been before.” Courtney Love
Whilst legions of fans gritted their teeth, in anticipation of a global marketing campaign for deodorant sound-tracked by “Smells Like Teen Spirit” (this of course would have been entirely apt as it was the original inspiration for the song), it never came. For the time being at least it seemed like Courtney was managing to hold onto the legacy of Cobain with dignity and grace.
On September 10th 2009 a story broke that opened a new chapter in the posthumous commericalisation of Cobain. A video appeared of a digital Cobain singing “You Give Love A Bad Name” by Bon Jovi. The video had been grabbed from Guitar Hero 5. The predictable furore broke out and all eyes turned to Love. She was quick to respond with a series of tirades on Twitter. Love pointed the finger at Activision, and they were quick to respond, citing the fact that Love had given them the necessary permission. The lawyers started to square up, chests were puffed out, litigious bravado abounded.
The point that fascinates me is the implications for digital replicas of real people in games moving forward. The use of ‘celebrity’ likeness had long been employed in games, indeed for Vin Diesel it is a pre-requisite for getting involved with a project through his Tigon studio. The inclusion of a likeness serves to give the synthetic a credibility and tangibility that is transferred from the real world. We know it’s not Kurt Cobain, but the likeness triggers emotions and memories within us that we subconsciously attribute to the game. In the case of Guitar Hero, a game built around the act of mimicking a rock star, the inclusion of Cobain is both logical and immersive. I cannot identify with an identikit avatar like Axel Steel as it creates distance. Playing as Cobain, in theory would give me a way to slip into the persona of someone I greatly admire. But I would never do it, its unthinkable.
Kurt feels like a puppet, this digital marionette can be used to perform songs that Kurt would have hated. The music of Nirvana was ranged against these very artists and songs. The breakthrough and the global impact they made were a reaction to the rock pomposity that the Guitar Hero franchise has been built upon. Even Jon Bon Jovi understands the reaction. Guitar Hero was built upon a semi-ironic appreciation of the merits of rock. The track selection, the avatars and the styling were all built around rock as a ‘guilty pleasure’, where the foot was firmly on the monitor and the hair was back combed. Nirvana were a head down rock band. No bullshit.
Of course, none of this matters for the members of the Guitar Hero audience who see Cobain as another dead guy on a t-shirt, a poster on a dorm room wall, or a sing-a-long anthem on the radio. In fact these are the very reasons for Cobain’s inclusion in the game. Enough time has passed for him to have evolved from reactionary to commodity. In this case, Guitar Hero is an introductory route to the band a new generation, the widening of appeal and a new channel for the rights holder.
When faced with commerce and revenue streams the adulation and admiration of the fans is secondary. They have already bought the content, perhaps they can be coaxed into buying it again, if they cant then look toward to a new market. Just because Kurt is dead doesn’t mean that he cannot be commercialised. The music industry has a long-standing tradition of recycling bands for new generations. The music industry are fascinated by expanded and remastered editions. The reasons for this seem to be that the platform has remained pretty stable since the widespread adoption of the CD in 1985. Music has resold the same product in a different package, whereas the games industry has reformatted the same idea across a variety of platforms. In that respect, the games industry has a unique value proposition as each new iteration of a title effectively renders the last obsolete. The continual evolution of technology has always offered the consumer a new and improved experience. Perhaps this evolution validates the use of Cobain as a digital likeness as the music industry has found a way to enhance his legacy, to bring him into a 3D interactive form.
In Guitar Hero 5 Cobain will never age, therefore continuing and perpetuating his legacy. The problem however is that Cobain has been unwittingly sold out, and its his lack of consent that is the most sickening. Cobain is now a brand and it makes you wonder what the future holds as new digital opportunities unfold. Guitar Hero 5 is no way to remember and celebrate Kurt Cobain and those plastic wielding puppeteers should be aware of that.
“He’s the one who likes all our pretty songs
And he likes to sing along and he likes to shoot his gun
But he knows not what it means
Knows not what it means and I say, yeah”