Chronologically speaking, I'm a dyed-in-the-wool Gen X'er. I was three months out of high school when Nirvana ushered in a musical revolution, and while truth be told, I was never totally down with "grunge" as a movement or a mindset at the time (it engendered a grimmer worldview than I was comfortable being capable of), I get it now. Generation X was the last to cry out from the wilderness of corporatism begetting commercialism begetting consumerism, the last to howl artistically, for just a year or two, that something wasn't right with the direction society was headed, or the humanity driving it.
And here Gen Xers stand in 2021, sailing through middle age, caught between The Boomers, who idealized and then selfishly let all that idealism go, and the Millennials, the first digitally processed generation who ... I don't know ... dont really make things better, just more confusing, awkward and sometimes annoying. (Yes, I'm fully aware that might just be my age talking.)
News last month that the infant featured on the cover of Nirvana's 1991 Nevermind album (an image that, in my opinion, has always provided a suitable summation of the indictment "grunge" tried to hand down), is now a 30-year-old man named Spencer Elden who is suing the band for hundreds of thousands of dollars, is two things: 1) proof that sometimes life really does imitate art (sometimes literally), 2) a really fucking Millennial thing to do. (And I don't think that's my age talking.)
The lawsuit alleges exploitation in the most preposterous fashion, contending that baby Spencer, with his (gasp!) exposed baby pee-pee, is somehow being depicted as a sex worker chasing money, with his genitalia "explicitly displayed".
It's ridiculous, of course (er, right...?) The dollar bill on the fish hook is what is explicitly displayed. The money-grubbing instinct that commandeers us the moment we pass from the womb (I always kind of considered the underwater environment to represent the womb) is what is explicitly displayed.
Sure, it's possible I'm wrong about that, but whatever artistic message might be ripe for interpretation there, sex and/or sexuality of any kind, in any manner whatsoever, is not present. At least it never was in my mind, and I know I can't be the only one thinking the same thing. In fact, I'd venture this lawsuit has led countless Gen Xers to thinking about it for the first time and being jarred into re-thinking it, which is really too bad. The whole business is especially lame, considering Elden has in the past embraced the cover, embraced his permanent peripheral role in rock history. He's been interviewed talking about it and has even re-created the image, periodically, as he's grown up.
I think the lawsuit would be more impactive if Elden simply claimed that he was never financially compensated for the non-consensual use of his image. I'd almost be on board (a little) with the remarkably simple argument that he was just as much a human being then as he is now, with an inherently prescribed possession of his own self and likeness, which should have been acknowledged by his parents, but wasn't. I don't know whether a lawsuit painted in those colors would go anywhere, or even that it should, but it reads better than this grossly super sensitive allegation of child pornography. That's the part that seems a uniquely Millennial parlor trick: making it sexual in the first place, shoehorning the subject into the legal narrative, and then presenting it as a matter of anxiety-pocked self-shame.
But more bizarre to me than the lawsuit, is the fact that that baby on the cover was an actual baby. Seriously, in all these years counting Nevermind among the most influential rock albums, its cover among the most iconic (and seminal to my generation), it never really clicked that it was essentially a child model posing.
Yes, logically I knew it was a photograph of an actual baby, but the collective image was too surreal, the message it conveyed too pointed, for me to imagine an actual kid. I just thought it was a fake image, in the pre-deep fake era (before Jordan Peele could get people believing Barack Obama publicly called Donald Trump a "total and complete dipshit"). I assumed the image was the result of high-tech visual wizardry not yet available to the masses, rendered by professionals who went to school to learn the craft. I never looked at it closely, or all that objectively, and had no idea it's actually a picture of an infant underwater.
But man, this lawsuit encapsulates exactly what the image, real or not, suggests: from the moment we are born we are chasing something that for most people forever remains just out of reach, the proverbial "almighty dollar".
I, for one, hope that dollar bill continues to elude Spencer Elden as he paddles his way through adulthood.