Thirty years ago, after seeing a documentary on underwater birth, Kurt Cobain visualized the cover to Nirvana’s first major-label album Nevermind in his mind’s eye. The idea he wanted to convey: Even the most innocent human being can be hooked by money. Cobain’s idea, toned down from a birth scene to a picture of a young baby drifting underwater, became one of the most iconic album covers of all time. The bait was $1 bill, toward which the totally naked baby couldn’t help himself from swimming. Today, that baby is an adult, who is suing for damages, alleging that the image constituted child pornography distributed with commercial intent.
Times change. Time changes us. The baby, now 30-year-old artist Spencer Elden, may sincerely feel that his life has been wrecked by a fame he didn’t ask for, and never directly profited from. His father, on a lark, took $200 for his baby son to be photographed by his friend Kirk Weddle from below in a pool. Infants can’t sign consent forms, and the new lawsuit argues that Elden’s legal guardians never signed a release, either. Cobain and his band Nirvana became famous, and Nevermind sold more than 30 million copies.
Elden joins a long line of child stars, among them Christopher Robin Milne, the model for Christopher Robin in Winnie the Pooh (written by his father, A.A. Milne), whose identities have been overshadowed by young fictional characters their parents invented—or allowed others to invent. Like Elden, who re-created the Nirvana album cover (clothed) a few times over the years, Christopher Robin Milne sometimes seemed to bask in the glow of fame. Later, again like Elden, he tired of being perpetually known for his childhood self, no matter how beguiling.
Elden has said he might have one of the most famous penises in the music industry. But if you are ranking the most famous baby penises of all time, the winner would be Jesus Christ. Stroll through any museum that displays art from the Italian Renaissance, and you will see one divine baby penis after another. And—by our modern standards—who seems to be ruthlessly exploiting him, but the Madonna? Christ’s own mother blatantly displays his genitalia for all the world to ogle. But that’s not what those penises meant, argued art historian Leo Steinberg in 1996. With painstaking care and excruciatingly erudite repetition, Steinberg proved that all those naked babies made a theological point, once upon a time. The youth and nakedness of Christ showed observers, back in the Renaissance, that God didn’t just save us. He willingly became the most vulnerable, helpless human being possible. And so, when he would suffer for our sins, he would really suffer.
It just doesn’t look that way to us now. Nothing much about the past looks to us now the way it was intended. I can’t tell you with certainty what Kurt Cobain was thinking in 1991. But as a scholar who has studied images of childhood, and a mother who had her own children only a few years after Nevermind came out (and who remains a fan of the album), I can tell you the album cover resonates very differently today than it did back then.
Nevermind, when it was new, looked like the perfect image of idealism in jeopardy. In 1991, idealism still seemed like maybe—just maybe—it could be saved. The dollar bill on the hook rippled, right up close to us, pulled on a line held by an invisible force outside the image. The baby’s arms stretched from one side of the image to the other—yes, like a crucifixion—swimming so close to that dollar bill, because he takes up so much picture surface, and yet far away, because underwater everything looks far away. We were thinking: Baby, don’t do it—don’t sell your soul. We felt we were that exposed baby, always in peril, always swimming after some temptation that would get us nowhere in the end.
The genius of the image was in its core concept and in its formal execution, not in the documentary fact of a penis photographed. If Cobain had had a less clever idea, if Weddle had chosen a different angle or light, if Geffen Records art designer Robert Fisher had composed the cover differently, the cover wouldn’t have become a cultural icon—then. The image succeeded despite the penis. As Michael Azerrad writes in his book about Nirvana, some at Geffen feared chain stores would object to the inclusion of the baby’s genitalia, and Cobain proposed putting a sticker over it, with the copy: “If you’re offended by this, you must be a closet pedophile.” But as the record rolled out, successfully, very few objected, and the sticker proved unnecessary.
Now, the cover of Nevermind looks genuinely different, and it’s not just Elden’s mind that has changed on the topic. We see the impact of childhood experiences differently than we did. To treasure our children, we want to keep them safe, and covered. We do therapy; we acknowledge trauma. We know sexual abuse of children really happens, and the pain of it can damage a whole life. We know the human brain is plastic, so that the stories we tell ourselves shape our identities.
And social media has given us a greater sense of visual sophistication. We think about images’ effects on people more often. Above all, we know how badly people can be hurt by pictures gone viral. We see how media manipulation can affect real people in real time. School bullying now includes online posting of pictures that betray secrets, or embarrass their subjects. Instagramming and YouTubing parents expose their children in ways that regularly walk the line between creativity and exploitation—and get called out for it. TikTok depends on a very young audience transforming itself within a minute through makeup, costume, song, and dance. Because we believe those transformations are self-creations, they have only made us more wary of images which seem to impose any sort of sexuality on a baby, child, or teenager.
Today, too, we care at least as much about content as about form, as much about the backstory as the creative outcome. Our tolerance for the personal vagaries of artists has dwindled. Michael Jackson’s behavior around children tarnished his magnificent musical legacy; Woody Allen’s has done the same for his films. So what, this line of thought goes, if Cobain’s concept or Robert Fisher’s design were genius? A baby was still exploited. Some people got money from the cover; others didn’t.
I don’t doubt that the Nevermind album cover, which has been a background image in our visual culture since 1991, has had an impact on Spencer Elden’s life. Today’s values dictate all of our perceptions. The Kurt Cobain of the present moment, whoever they are, would not even have the same kind of idea again. (That said, in this case, Kurt Cobain’s genius has been proved through the ultimate irony. Thirty years later, the baby is swimming for money: Elden is asking for $150,000 at least from each of 15 named defendants.)
We desperately want to alter the past according to what we sincerely believe right now. I am among those who believe we have a more just vision of society today than we had in 1991. But that doesn’t make me think we can retroactively redo the past. Elden’s feelings about his infant fame in 2021 can’t change what Kurt Cobain meant back in 1991. Let’s change the future instead.