The Shape of an Idea

In 2013, Tom Berninger released the seminal documentary Mistaken For Strangers: a chronicle of his brother’s rock band, The National. It was a film about a band, or, about a band of brothers, or two brothers, fighting. The film is a personal narrative about two brothers, not a band, but a banding together. 

 Tom Berninger is jealous of his brother and band-member Matt Berninger because Matt is  a rockstar, famous and successful, while Tom lives at home with his mom. They embody the tension between the similar. Why is Tom not a copy of Matt?

Much of post-Y2K America can be gleaned from this work: the latest rise and fall of rock, the struggle of man in a harsh land, the tension between brothers, across states, as the one secret subject of a banking crisis that would be realized a mere nine years after the band’s formation. 

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Nirvanna is a brand new Nirvana1 cover band with a Kurt Cobain impersonator frontman, self-nominating as “the #1 tribute to the greatest grunge band of all time,”2 and a flawless recreation of the “iconic look and sound.” They sound pretty close to the Nirvana. They play the same songs. The impersonator looks like Kurt in the right light. But, this Cobain is too heavy to be from the nineties. The other two look nothing like the old other two of Nirvana.

Just this February, Nirvanna hit the House of Blues in New Orleans, turning the city into their own “Mardi Grunge.” This column is their coverage: a dissection of the fifty pounds this impersonator Kurt has gained since Nirvana last shredded America’s values in 1993; a critical conflation of this band with Berninger’s Mistaken For Strangers. The brother’s of The National are marked by their similarity. From it arises both their hatred and themselves. Everything is about this The National documentary, yet, in a way, it also is not. 

There is something unsettling about Nirvanna’s renaming. Perhaps it is a deep similarity of language and letters with a resounding lack of semantic continuity. The name sounds and looks quite similar, but the additional ‘n’ entails that it is no longer ‘nirvana:’ it is neither a symbol for the meditative state, nor the band . In “The Doctrine of the Similar,” Walter Benjamin posits 

Nature produces similaritiesone only need think of mimicry. Human beings, however, possess the very highest capability to produce similarities. Indeed, there may not be a single one of the higher human functions which is not decisively co-determined by the mimetic faculty.

Nirvanna’s choice to imitate is not novel, but rather a choice to which we as humans are possibly predisposed. Their self-expression is merely the expression of capitalizing on a trope: namely, the trope of Nirvana. But can something new be found in their, presumably, conscious similarity, in their decision to express, in a seemingly original fashion, the expressions of another? No, “it might not be too bold to presume that on the whole a uniform direction can be perceived in the historical development of this mimetic faculty.”3

If what it is to be human is to be original, then only a continuous progression towards the unquestionably original can be assumed. However, this does not refer to an indeterminate and indefinable original, but instead to an Abrahamic sin-based conception of the original. Can the mimetic progression of Benjamin’s projection be one of both assimilation into the past and exploration into the future? Can Nirvanna both become Nirvana, escape Nirvana, avoid its impending battle with its brother, and be its own music by practising the similar?

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After several viewings of the recent rock-documentary The History of the Eagles,and with its corrosive elixir of irony brewing in the back of my mind, there, the cover band Nirvanna began to slip, in and out of conflation, with the brothers of Mistaken For Strangers. 

Nirvana and the grunge movement represent the 90’s desire for originality, for individualism in the individual; The National documentary is documentation of a man spiritually murdering his brother, the relation by which he both is and is not his own boy. These cultural artifacts are emblematic replications of the originals, to which the originals offered no foreshadowing. But also of sin. This move in the 1990’s to American individualism was a movement towards depravity, towards grunge, Lewinsky, and the computer-based techno-panic, a prelude to Y2K.

Increasingly, liberal America has forgotten that it, too, is constituted by sinners; that each and every man is born with original sin. People think that to own original sin is to sin in your very own way. Many think that they are not a product nor an aspiration of the similar. Yet, original sin is the timeless sin, the universal sin, and has nothing to do with post-Y2K originality, irony, or sincerity.

Nirvanna is original in the way we think our sin is not but is. It is original as traced back to the beginning— never new or naked, but simply exposed in its uninventiveness. The turn of the millennium, Y2K, has not brought us sweet sinlessness— but rather, its has made us forget that each of us possesses original sin. Our grunge movement was not a rebellion, but a Catholic Crusade. It was the hunt for the inner individual, for the self, for Kurt Cobain’s vapid aspirations. This was grunge, it was original, was the never-before. This was also sin: the sin of heroin, of the murder of Courtney Love by proxy of Kurt Cobain. Yes, there was a suicide; however, it was Love who killed herself, not Kurt, but through Kurt. Moreover, this was the same: Nirvanna is Nirvana, and even Nirvana was not Nirvana. Nirvana itself could only be original as it relates to the similarity of sin. They commit the same sins in the hunt for individualism, and even their suicide, their climax, was an act of proxy: an act through another, through the similar.

Nirvanna is the emblem of our post-Y2K existence, of our denial of our sin, of our Catholic guilt. They are sinful, full of lust and greed and pride for that which is not theirs: Cobain’s music. They are sinful. Yet have no ownership over their own sin. 

We as contemporary Americans pride individualism, but we have perverted our original sin to be sin we believe to be original, sin that we think is not fake or lacking in uniqueness. This is the post-Y2K: the individual, the original, the identity, the personal. But it is not original. Another ‘n’ wont change anything. This is Nirvana still.

Maybe it is just that Cobain never died. A man, a proxy, a figment? Maybe he was a proxy, a hired hand, in own his death. We know he was a proxy when he was married. And so was Love. Maybe we have on our hands the same Cobain, having disappeared for twenty years and gained 50 pounds. He is fat, but he is also himself— he is Kurt-and-fat— and covered in a thin film so as to replicate the process of birth, and by proxy, the process of documentation.

Somewhat little known, and allegedly replaced, rocker Andrew W.K. has, admittedly, never been the same man. And as he says, he never feels real, or has never before felt quite so real. So why must we demand so much of Cobain? Because Buzzfeed does not know what is original, and neither do our concert goers. They do not know the sound of “Pennyroyal Tea”, or know that it hurts to see you Kurt, again, after so long. 

Our perceived sinlessness is sinful. Our perceived originality is a cover band. Our means of crying out is unoriginal, and sinful. So it is sin. And the only sin is the original sin: that with which Adam and Eve left the Garden. Thus, it is not new, but it is original, and so infinite. Just as the deceased Cobain occupies the threaded needle of the infinite, so must Nirvanna, for its unoriginal originality is its very timelessness. Going out of fashion never will.

 Yet, it is as well the symbol of our amnesia. We have forgotten what is original, what is the true Form, who is standing in the tall grass, why we are replicas and simulacra, which band is a cover, that Kurt is no one’s brother, that the first documentary was about The National, and that the New Age is one of sin (the same sin), the first sin, the original sin, the genetic and replicated sin, of the grunge ideology repeatedly breaking open the same punk-freedom riffs and rifts at each step, each time the clock strikes the next generation, each time the golf ball hits a hole-in-one, in our sinful genealogy. 

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But what can be gleaned from the similarity of these bands (and these brothers)? Is there something to read into this, or out of it to read? The nature of our new sin and new originality is determined only in so far as we can be certain that it is the same. Yet, there remain two ways for us to comprehend the novel originality that erupted from Nirvanna and The National, two means by which we can read into their cultural footprint. Benjamin, again, conceives of such similarities and their readings in these terms:

…This non-sensuous similarity, however, reaches into all areas of reading, this deep level reveals a peculiar ambiguity of the word "reading" in both its profane and magical senses. The pupil reads his ABC book, and the astrologer reads the future in the stars. In the first clause, reading is not separated into its two components. But the second clarifies both levels of the process: the astrologer reads off the position of the stars in the heavens; simultaneously he reads the future and fate from it.

The word ‘Nirvanna” as a symbol is understood only in its similarity, its subtle difference yet inclination to the mythical state and the grunge group, for it means nothing in and of itself. It is a symbol that can be listened to, heard, and read. But one can read more than that. Benjamin’s astrologer reads into the stars the future. Into Nirvanna we can read the past, though we may not want to. Because it is merely a reiteration of the same similarity, the same sin, we can read in it the past as reaching the entire way back to the Garden of Eden. Thus, though unintentionally, it is a crusade, as alluded to above. We can reach the tranquil state of understanding that there no nothing novel and interesting in our movements towards the self, the identity, or the individual, to our movements toward grunge, freedom, or self-expression. All that may be contained in these cultural shifts is a repetition, is the similar, is the the most general, frequent, and defining trait of human: namely, to aspire to the similar. And this similar is sinful. And like the sin with which we were all born, the similarity can be traced back, without genealogy to one event. The death of Cobain. For without this, there could be no impersonator, no inter-band tension, no gripe from which to build a feud or a documentary.

Nonetheless, Kurt Cobain is no longer Kurt Cobain. To cover a band is original only insofar as it is what has always been done. The Pitchfork review will say that Nirvanna sounds too much like Nirvana crossed with Creedence Clearwater Revival and with a drizzle of Danzig, too much like a bowl of sound mixed with a mixer that is Minutemen, while all painted on a canvas stolen from Can, running with a vision stolen from Television. Faux-Cobain is too hefty for his role as Kurt. They, Nirvanna, are the modern sinners, filmed live on documentary. The other two members look nothing like Cobain’s flank-mates. We go to concerts of the cover band because we have forgotten what original means, or because precisely we remember. Our sin is the same sin, and yet it feels so new. This film is still, and has always been, about The National.

1The renowned 90’s pacific northwest grunge band

2 Nirvanna— A Tribute to Nirvana, Facebook Page Biography

3 Benjamin, Doctrine of the Similar”