By Saffron Dale
When you think of Nirvana’s albums, what picture comes to mind? I’m assuming you’re visualising the iconic but controversial 1991 album cover of ‘Nevermind’ which features a naked baby swimming towards a dollar bill. The album cover is so impactful that it in part, forms the identity of Nirvana and is perhaps the first thing that springs to mind when we hear the band’s name. Yet, we’ve never stopped to think about the baby’s opinions on the cover. Not until now.
Spencer Elden, now 30, has filed a lawsuit against the surviving members of Nirvana, Kurt Cobain’s estate, the photographer, director, and record labels that released and distributed the album, arguing that the picture is child pornography. Elden is suing each of the 15 defendants, including Dave Grohl and Courtney Love, $150,000, plus costs and asks the case to be tried with a jury. Elden, who was just four months old when he was photographed, is arguing that the project sexually exploited him, causing him “lifelong damages” as a consequence. If you are a fan of Nirvana like I am, you may have various apprehensions about Elden’s claims.
Firstly, and perhaps most importantly, is the image of a sexual nature? Conceivably, Elden is completely naked with his genitalia exposed. However, the image is not placed in a sexual context. The baby is swimming in a pool, looking as though he is about to grasp a dollar bill. I have always interpreted the image as Nirvana’s commentary on capitalism where we are born craving and defined by wealth, something Kurt Cobain who created the concept for the cover, knows all too well having been born into a poor family. The fact that Elden’s lawyers are claiming the image represents the baby as a sex worker grabbing for money, seems to me to be a bit of a stretch.
Furthermore, it has been reported that Cobain’s first inspiration for the cover was a documentary on underwater births in conjunction with what I believe to be his self-proclaimed fascination with anatomy, evident from the covers of ‘In Utero’ and ‘Insecticide’. All of this surely indicates that the intent behind the cover was of a completely non-sexual nature. Moreover, is it not dangerous to associate every picture displaying child nudity with sex? Surely the two can be differentiated and one does not entail the other?
However, I think Elden’s issues lie with how widely distributed and iconic the album cover has become. Since Elden has no control over who sees his younger self’s nude body, he is not in control of how people view and use the image. Moreover, there is only a minority of people who have not seen the image in the world, meaning that even the most dangerous of sex offenders have probably seen it, which is a disturbing thought for us, let alone for Spencer Elden.
Admittedly, I wasn’t convinced by Elden’s claims until I watched an interview where he sounded genuinely saddened and confused by his involvement with the project. Elden stated that the weirdest thing about the image is the fact that “it doesn’t go away” and perhaps most upsettingly he says that he sells signed posters of the album cover to buy groceries since he made barely any money from his involvement in the project. It is difficult to process that everyone you meet has already seen your naked body, especially after not receiving any of the proceeds for its success. It was here that I started to understand Elden and how victims of sexual exploitation are often misunderstood.
Therefore, although I don’t think the band or anyone involved in the project intended the image to be perceived in a sexual way, I can understand how the mass distribution of someone’s naked body without their consent can be mentally challenging. Yet, I’m not sure that if the baby wasn’t naked and captured in all its vulnerability, whether the album cover would have made such a powerful statement on capitalism.
I think my final thoughts are that if the image is causing Elden “lifelong damages”, his genitalia should be redacted from the cover since it is his genitalia after all. I think thirty years has been plenty of time to digest the powerful message of the cover. Most ironic is perhaps how fitting the cover’s commentary on capitalism is. It is the baby in the image now suffering the consequences of what it was born into, a world profiting from his bare body, he still inches away from attaining the dollar bill himself.
Image: Blocks via Unsplash