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Guitar Hero 5 and Bon Cobain

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A little bit of a blowup late last week, following the posting of this video on Youtube.

Looks like someone got the new Guitar Hero 5 and decided to test the “playable Kurt Cobain” feature to its limits.  No, really, you read that right – the icon of early 90s grunge music, the tortured, rebellious, tragic symbol of a generation – can be your avatar the next time you want to play a little Guitar Hero.  This video, made by a GH5 player who got creative with the “playable Cobain” figure (in order, I imagine, to critique the absurdity of it) made its way around the internet  fast, getting on the radar of music fans, the music press and what’s left of Nirvana too.

According to the Rolling Stone article linked above, surviving Nirvana members Krist Novoselic and Dave Grohl are among those unhappy with the image of digital Kurt Cobain singing and prancing along to other bands’ music – much less to the music of a band that many argue represents the anti-Nirvana.  If bands like Nirvana changed the face of pop music and culture in the early 90s, then Bon Jovi symbolized the kind of music and style – “hair metal” – that they pushed out.  You might find it tasteless and tacky.  Hardcore Nirvana fans and grunge devotees, as well as people who were in and around that “Seattle scene,” who still draw a lot of meaning out of Nirvana’s music and Cobain himself (as they understand him) could even find it offensive and infuriating.  But that horse has left the barn.

Who’s to blame for making this possible?  It’s an interesting question; do we point the finger at Activision (the makers of the game) for imagining and creating this feature?  Do we blame Courtney Love, who runs Kurt Cobain’s estate and controls his image rights, for signing those rights over without knowing all the possibilities ?

That’s a question for Activision, Love, the Nirvana guys, and their lawyers to bicker over.  What interests me more is the fact that this is possible.  It’s possible, in part, because the state of technology has advanced to the point that digitally-produced “likenesses” really look like the people they’re modeled on.  It’s not a little pixellated stick figure with long blond hair called “Kurt Cobain,” it’s a pretty good digital version of him, and yet we can make him do things completely out of line with what (we think) he would have done.  And it’s possible because people – any of us, but especially celebrities – can be and are converted into signs, or flattened into an image.  That image can be worth a lot, both culturally and financially.

We have already grown accustomed to commercials featuring long-dead celebrities endorsing today’s products, like Steve McQueen in an ad for a modern Ford.  The difference there is that the McQueen estate probably had a clear understanding of what would happen in the Ford commercial, and probably made sure that all the actions in it were in line with his character.  His image was controlled and protected.  Games are more free-form, more about play and experimentation and messing-around –  what Lawrence Lessig calls “Read-Write culture.”   Only now, that kind of messing-around can easily be spread beyond your living room.

Is it a big deal?  Or no big thing?  That’s up to you, I suppose.


Written by michaelhkoch

September 14, 2009 at 7:24 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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