Why I hate the Nirvana smiley face logo

I’m sure you’ve seen it on someone’s t-shirt: a roughly drawn smiley face with X’s instead of eyes and a protruding tongue. Together with the word Nirvana in its distinctive, elongated typeface – the font is Onyx, a popular one in the early 1990s – the effect on the viewer is striking.

Enlightenment? Or something else?

Right away the viewer notices that the word Nirvana, the Buddhist concept of the highest state of consciousness, is presented with levity and elegance, but the drawing of the conked-out drughead below is scribbled and rude, something that might have come from the margins of a high school notebook. The contrast might have been critical or aspirational; there’s no way to tell. Oh the irony!

But it never was intended to be the band’s official logo. It’s only official by default, helped along by the vast amount of consumer goods anointed with it.

Some bands, of course, design their logos right at the beginning. Peter Townshend created the Who’s shortly after the band formed, drawing from his experience as an art student (and American artist Jasper Johns.) It was perfect for the pop-art aesthetic he wanted to convey.

Guitarist Ace Frehley did the same for KISS, modeling the twin S’s after the Nazi Schutzstaffel symbol. The band were using it even before they were signed to a label, gluing it with glitter on low-necked t-shirts for screaming girls to wear at their first concerts. For getting them publicity and making them seem professional, it was priceless.

Nirvana’s distinct Onyx-fonted name was there from the beginning, at the top of the cover of their first album Bleach. But it was a choice by Lisa Orth, SubPop’s art director at the time, and graphic artist Grant Alden who created the band’s promotional materials. (Alden was paid a mere 15 dollars to create a band logo that has lasted almost 35 years.)  Though I’m sure the band had approval for the artwork, it’s unclear if they would have picked it for themselves. Nevertheless, the name Nirvana in the same font and style was carried over to their subsequent albums Nevermind, In Utero, and Incesticide. Likely by then it was trademarked with certain letter spacing and the like. So where did the Rave-inspired smiley face come from?

The truth is, it’s not clear.

So long ago

What is known is that it first appeared on a poster advertising Nevermind’s release at the Re-Bar, a Seattle club known for hosting grunge bands, in the fall of 1991. Some say Kurt himself did the drawing. Robert Fisher, an art director then employed at Geffen Records, Nirvana’s label, claims otherwise and that he was the one who created it. Both versions came to light in depositions resulting from a 2020 lawsuit by Nirvana LLC (the company that controls the band’s licensing) against fashion designer Marc Jacobs, who had the temerity to feature a variation of the smiley face in his 2018 Grunge Redux fashion line, with an M and J instead of the character’s X’ed out eyes and the word “Heaven” instead of “Nirvana.” Otherwise it was the same. Naturally the Nirvana camp called out unlawful use, and rightfully so.

The case is still up in the air. I do want to point out, however, that Fisher, even if declared the logo’s creator, did so while employed by Geffen, so Geffen would likely be the owner and the one to continue the lawsuit.

If the outcome is that no one could use Mr. Stoned Smiley Face, I’d be happy though.

Why? Because, frankly, it’s stupid and derivative. Rave culture was hitting the mainstream back then with all its silly excesses, including an affected childishness and a fondness for 1970s drug-culture nostalgia. Cartoon characters such as Mickey Mouse and yes, the bland yellow smiley face, were regularly printed on tabs of LSD, a drug which was making a comeback in rave culture. I don’t see what any of that has to do with Nirvana-the-band. Sure, the two might have shared a mosh pit, but music-wise they were completely different. Rave’s variation on turn-in-tune-on-drop-out was at odds with Nirvana’s more personal, intellectual approach.

I can’t see Kurt plucking such low-lying fruit. He was more intelligent than that to go for the cheap shot. I think, also, that he wouldn’t make fun of Buddhism like that either – that nirvana makes you a stoner, or that as a stoner, you read nirvana. Kurt had more respect for Buddhism, which he had studied, than that. He chose the name Nirvana as he did because it was something beautiful, compared to usual ugly names for punk bands like The Dead Kennedys or The Germs. I take it he believed in the sanctity of his art, no matter how harsh and dissonant it was, rather than saying “See? I don’t take this so seriously after all, ha ha.”

And even if Cobain did draw the image, it was meant to be a one-off advertising a night. Though it was later reproduced on some of the band’s official concert t-shirts, the image was never widespread in the Seattle of time – I know, because I lived there.

In fact, it was a number of years before you saw the smiley face at all with any regularity. Only within the past 10 or 15 has it been a constant.

A more appropriate logo, and one that was widely seen in the time that the band was actually around, was this one, from the cover of their 1993 album In Utero.

A more appropriate logo, and one that was more widely seen in the time that the band was actually around, was this one, from the cover of In Utero.

It’s shocking (hah, that’s similar to the name of a Jane’s Addiction album with similar art of a freakish female, or females) but also, because of the delicate angel wings, with a certain beauty. The see-through lady with her viscera exposed is, of course, a science classroom staple, a kit that was widely available in the 1970s designed to teach children anatomy. By the 1990s, it had been relegated to vintage shops, of which there were no shortage of in Seattle. The use of it touches on two qualities of the band. One is the ethereal yet visceral quality of it, the flaying of pain and exposing it to view, as art, just like the band’s music does. The second is that it’s a woman and not a man. Kurt had the highest respect for the female gender and, perhaps, saw a female sensitivity inside himself. “Look at me,” the see-through woman seems to say. “I suffer, but I am strong, and I am showing it to you.”

It’s also interesting how both images spring from the 1970s, the band member’s childhood years: the original yellow smiley was at its full power from the years 1971 – 1974. I wish see-through lady had been elevated to logo status over the stoner one, that is if there even is an official logo, and there may not be.

Now I’m nostalgic for a time when rock bands actually had logos…

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