Why Activision “Knows Not What It Means”
© 2009 Aaron Klein
There is a big hub bub on the net right now over the use of Kurt Cobain’s likeness as an unlockable character in Guitar Hero 5. This means Cobain can be the front man of your band while you perform the hits of Flava Flav and Bon Jovi.
While that may not initially seem like a big deal- gamers love unlockable characters- anyone familiar with Cobain’s work will get a creepy vibe upon watching this video of Cobain’s doppleganger in action.
• Activisions ‘vision’ of Kurt Cobain
Now compare that to some real footage of Cobain performing:
• Kurt Cobain Live #1
And now Cobain’s widow is threatening via Twitter to sue. Activision says she signed off on it. She says she thought his avatar would be on screen only during Nirvana tracks. He said, she said…. blah, blah, blah. Let the courts figure that out.
But Activision could have easily avoided this mini controversy if it took a little bit of time and evaluated how it utilizes the likenesses of rock icons in Guitar Hero. What they have been doing for years is simply paying for the rights for a familiar skin on their 3D models. Like many record companies, they viewed the rock artist as something that can be replicated for profits.
And they were right for a long time. But when they tried to copy the unmimicable anti-rockstar, Kurt Cobain, it blew up in their faces. Nirvana was a revolutionary band, and they forgot that. In many fans’ eyes, Cobain was more than a rock star, his music sparked a culture and way of life.
Oh, and then there’s the fact that Cobain’s suicide note states that the pressure of performing and pretending to have a good time when he wasn’t was a driving factor in his decision to take his own life. That’s OK, Activision says, We’ll just create a digital Cobain to replace you when you’re gone who won’t have those issues and we can all still get rich.
Nirvana’s entrance into the national spotlight sounded the death knell of hair bands and power ballads and introduced the world to a new genre: Alternative Rock. Bands with flamboyant stage shows, finger-blistering guitar solos and crates of hairspray in the trailer, bands like Bon Jovi and Van Halen, lost prominence as the teens began dressing in flannel shirts and baggy pants and listening to “Smells Like Teen Spirit.”
• Kurt Cobain Live #2
Cobain’s music was darker, moodier. It was the antithesis of the excess and corporate feel of every pop and pop-rock band from the 1980s. His songs were about conformity, apathy, societal contradictions, love and codependency. Cobain was very much against the macho man image, and even wrote songs like “In Bloom” that point out the irony of a “macho guy” listening to Nirvana because they were popular yet not understanding the meaning of their music.
“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
when I say”
Guitar Hero, Activision and Neversoft exemplify the irony in that song. This is where that little pit in your stomach comes from when you see Cobain’s image belting out “Shot through the heart, and you’re too blame, baby you give love a bad name,” while an adoring crowd sings along.
The most interesting part of the whole situation is the timing. This comes out at the same time when Guitar Hero’s rival, Rock Band, released an entire rhythm game based on The Beatles to critical acclaim.
Harmonix understood that they would be taking liberties with one of the world’s most cherished bands and went to deep lengths to make sure they paid sufficient reverence to the band. They ensured that the game was more than a quick money grabber by focusing on the Beatles, their music and their message. Harmonix didn’t try to force the Beatles into a Rock Band game… they tried to adapt Rock Band to accommodate The Beatles.
Neversoft and Activision, on the other hand, obviously didn’t put that much care into incorporating Cobain into Guitar Hero 5. It appears as if the Cobain avatar is just running through the same pre-programmed motions as the rest of the avatars in the game. There’s no consideration of his mannerisms, philosophy or his art. It’s cut and paste. There’s no context, and that’s a disservice to Cobain.
In the game he jumps around on stage like he is having the time of his life. In reality the pressure of performing and being the spokesperson for Generation X was too much for him to handle. Sure, Cobain wanted to be a rock star, but felt guilty when he realized that the greenness of the grass was highly overrated and he wasn’t enjoying his success as much as he should.
From his suicide note:
“I haven’t felt the excitement of listening to as well as creating music along with reading and writing for too many years now. I feel guilty beyond words about these things.
For example, when we’re backstage and the lights go out and the manic roar of the crowds begin, it doesn’t affect me the way in which it did for Freddie Mercury, who seemed to love, relish in the love and adoration from the crowd which is something I totally admire and envy. The fact is, I can’t fool you, any one of you. It simply isn’t fair to you or me. The worst crime I can think of would be to rip people off by faking it and pretending as if I’m having 100% fun.
Sometimes I feel as if I should have a punch-in time clock before I walk out on stage. I’ve tried everything within my power to appreciate it (and I do, God, believe me I do, but it’s not enough). I appreciate the fact that I and we have affected and entertained a lot of people. It must be one of those narcissists who only appreciate things when they’re gone. I’m too sensitive. I need to be slightly numb in order to regain the enthusiasms I once had as a child.”
Maybe this cut & paste tactic could have flown in earlier releases. But as more bands sign up for Guitar Hero and Rock Band as a new format to release their music the medium is becoming a more than just a game. As The Beatles: Rock Band shows, it’s about exposing people to music and art. It’s about interactively listening to music and paying more attention to the subtleties in the song.
Activision, how about taking a couple years off and releasing DLC for existing games and spending more time in between titles? Do some soul searching. Figure out exactly where you want Guitar Hero’s place in our culture to be. Or is the franchise is going to end up being the next: “Now That’s What I Call Music #61.” A money maker, for sure, but void of any cultural relevance.
Let’s let surviving Nirvana band members Krist Novoselic and Dave Grohl have the final word on this subject:
We want people to know that we are dismayed and very disappointed in the way a facsimile of Kurt is used in the Guitar Hero game. The name and likeness of Kurt Cobain are the sole property of his estate – we have no control whatsoever in that area.
While we were aware of Kurt’s image being used with two Nirvana songs, we didn’t know players have the ability to unlock the character. This feature allows the character to be used with any kind of song the player wants. We urge Activision to do the right thing in “re-locking” Kurt’s character so that this won’t continue in the future.
It’s hard to watch an image of Kurt pantomiming other artists’ music alongside cartoon characters. Kurt Cobain wrote songs that hold a lot of meaning to people all over the world. We feel he deserves better.
-Krist Novoselic and Dave Grohl
While I’ve been pretty harsh on Activision and Guitar Hero, surely Courtney Love has plenty of blame to share for this fiasco. I’m sure Activision was acting on good faith. Ignorant, maybe. But they didn’t wish to cause harm. Love signed some sort of agreement in the first place then obviously detached herself from the creative process if it took this long for her to make a fuss.
Why didn’t she catch this earlier in development and air her greivences then? On that note, why didn’t any of Activision’s employees pick up on this?
Filed under: 3rd Party Games, Console gaming, Editorial, Game Impressions, GameBanter, Industry News, New Game Information, Xbox 360, Xbox 360 News Tagged: | "Rock Band", 360, Activision, Dave Grohl, Guitar Hero, Guitar Hero 5, Harmonix, Krist Novoselic, Kurt Cobain, Neversoft, PS3, Sony, The Beatles: Rockband, Xbox, Xbox 360