There’s something to be said for the cultural importance of artifacts not belonging to a well-substantiated narrative, but instead, remaining a random, weird hodgepodge of often misinterpreted but nonetheless dearly savored objects. Sometimes they’re better that way. Take Sassy magazine’s seminal, April 1992 “Ain’t Love Grand? Kurt of Nirvana and Courtney of Hole” cover. For me, this cover is a sort of fetish object, I guess: something I’ve held on to, for a long time, while mostly ignoring its underlying conditions of production.
By now, so much has been written about Sassy that it’s become almost clichéd for American women in their thirties to talk about what it was like reading it while growing up—a kind of communally recognized, easy shorthand to simultaneously signal a number of things: an early affinity towards feminism, a precocious interest in publishing culture, an abiding affection for My Own Private Idaho and leggings under everything. Still and all, it’s the case that when I was first reading it (and I’m sure this is true, I should note, for many other women in non-cosmopolitan settings), the magazine seemed to me a totally singular entity presenting totally singular people doing totally singular things.
In fact, the singularity that I thought Sassy represented is not unlike the singularity I thought Nirvana represented. Remember how much it used to matter that you were the first person in your tenth grade class to own Nirvana’s Nevermind? Er, I do, even though now, of course, it seems a little funny: first, that quaint pitting of rocker authenticity against its nemesis, corporate pop (and how cute, in retrospect, that I truly believed I was an early adopter of Nirvana’s?); but, too, the fact that my own particular situation was, from the start, not exactly the definition of urban indie savvy. Even though I did spend the ur-Grunge school year of 1990-91 living in Seattle, by the time September 1991 and Nevermind arrived, I was already back home, in Haifa, Israel.
This felt like being driven from hub to colony, and an enormous part of my self-perception, and self-presentation, depended on worrying over that lapsarian descent. In the early 90s, Israel was just beginning to move from a historically socialist, culturally centralized model to a more Americanized, capitalist model (the first McDonald’s opened in Israel around that time). The process was slow, however, and in the meanwhile, there was a vacuum to be filled with important cultural knowledge. For the rest of high school, I took it upon myself to provide my fellow natives with crucial nuggets of information about Bret Easton Ellis, Heathers and Kurt (“Kurdt”) Cobain. It was a tough job, but somebody had to do it.
The thing is, though, I didn’t really know a whole lot. In fact, I knew hardly anything at all. Part of it was probably just being a teenager, when one tends to not only misunderstand one’s body (That thing I just experienced can’t be what they call an “orgasm,” can it?), but also to misapprehend the cultural artifacts that surround one (These black Guess jeans make me look “alternative,” right?). But, since I happened to live in a middle-eastern backwater, that sort of baseline confusion became even more amplified.
In those pre-Internet days, specialized knowledge tended to arrive in the provinces piecemeal. A translated article here, imported posters there, tapes somebody who used to live for a year in a London suburb got from a friend at school. From that relative meagerness emerged a weird collage of elements, which probably didn’t have a ton to do with how the cultural field organized itself originally. Clues were guessed at, puzzled together, misunderstood: I remember, just for example, how a friend got a tape of a live Velvet Underground show where Lou Reed could be heard calling Doug Yule his “brother;” we all thought this meant an actual brother, and so my tape’s handwritten liner notes came to include the name “Doug Reed.” It took me like a decade to realize the mistake. We had no one to ask.
So when the Kurt and Courtney Sassy arrived, it was something of an event. They seemed, as everything in Sassy seemed, so singular. Not many men in fuzzy, light blue cardigans or platinum blond, lipsticked kinder-whores could be seen walking around the town of Haifa at that point in time (nor, for that matter, at this point in time, as a visit earlier this year confirmed). It really didn’t matter to me then that while in the cover image, Kurt and Courtney looked really great, smooth skinned and clear eyed and mutually infatuated, in the snapshots that accompanied the feature inside the book they looked really bad, junkie-pockmarks-and-stringy-hair-of-the-strung-out bad. Even with what bits of evidence were available to me, I disregarded that gap, refused to understand it, willfully continued to imprint the cover in my mind as a model for everything I imagined a good adult life might include—cool clothes, slight-boned, concave-chested men with Manic Panic hair, etc. etc.
It also doesn’t really matter that looking at the cover today, we all obviously know a lot more, way way more than we did then, and no amount of willfulness can now repress the suicide, the plastic surgeries, the court battles, the nutso twitter wars with the estranged daughter. Still, now that we know everything, I like to reflexively go back to a time when I didn’t know anything. And this I do almost every time I recall that cover image’s double punctum of cardigan and lipstick, and perhaps this is why I still find myself, wiser but still not knowing much, putting on a sloppy red lip or an ugly, oversized man sweater, preferably together.
Naomi Fry: Would one day like to live in LA.