Say nevermind to Nirvana’s most popular album cover

“Nevermind” is the second studio album released by the legendary grunge rock band Nirvana. Released in Sept. 1991, it reached #1 on the Billboard 200 by Jan. 1992, and its lead single “Smells Like Teen Spirit” topped both the single and video of the year polls. The iconic artwork that adorns the cover of this popular album features an infant Spencer Elden, swimming underwater with a U.S. dollar bill on a fishhook just out of his reach. According to lead singer Kurt Cobain, the cover was conceived while watching a television program on water births.

Although the “Nevermind” cover is still easily identifiable despite being 30 years old, it has been no stranger to controversy over the years. Kurt Cobain was insistent on not censoring the penis of young Elden from the cover art, which led to controversy upon its release. The cover made some uncomfortable, and gave others yet another reason to condemn the rock genre as a whole. However, in the years following the albums critical acclaim, these complaints faded away in the awe of the albums success, simply being attributed to another strange quirk of Kurt Cobain’s character. 

As the album aged, so did young Elden. He continued to be featured in the band’s cover art, however, recreating the iconic picture for the album’s 10th, 17th, and 25th anniversary covers. In a Jan. 2015 interview with The Guardian, Elden said “I might have one of the most famous penises in the music industry, but no one would ever know that to look at me. Sooner or later, I want to create a print of a real-deal re-enactment shot, completely naked. Why not? I think it would be fun.” 

In the following 2016 25th anniversary reshoot, Elden expressed interest in once again appearing on the album cover nude, but was not permitted by the photographer. Instead he is pictured in swim shorts, his torso sporting a real tattoo of the album title that launched his fame, “Nevermind.” Later in 2016 during an interview with Time magazine, he confessed “[When] I go to a baseball game and think about it: ‘Man, everybody at this baseball game has probably seen my little baby penis,’ I feel like I got part of my human rights revoked.” These two separate statements seemingly convey completely different responses to his childhood experience as Nirvana’s poster boy, and one has to wonder if Elden’s conflicted feelings about the use of his likeness began after this reshoot. 

Fastforwarding to 2021, Elden is now involved in a lawsuit with Cobain’s estate and Nirvana’s surviving members. He claims that the use of his likeness on the album cover was done without his consent or the proper approval of his legal gaurdians, and that it violated federal child pornography laws. Therefore by using this artwork on the album cover without censor, Nirvana failed to protect him from exploitation and exposed him to lifelong emotional damage. To remedy this the plaintiff is seeking $150,000 from each of the fifteen defendants. Critics in the field of law argue that the case is a cash grab that causes offense to what they would consider more important cases of child sex abuse in America.

The argument would certainly hold more weight if Elden had not profited so heavily financially and socially from reshoots of the cover art over the years. Yet still, it could be a landmark case in creating tighter restrictions on the use of minors in media who are much too young to consent to their roles, no matter the intentions of the plaintiff himself.

 

robins19@stolaf.edu

Ethan Robinson is from 

Osceola, Wis.

His major is English.

 

+ posts