Lover of ’90s grunge or not, you’ve probably seen some version of the iconic cover of Nirvana’s 1991 breakthrough album “Nevermind” at some point.
The image of a dollar bill dangling from a string before a naked baby submerged in water has been plastered everywhere since the triple-diamond-selling album brought alternative rock to mainstream recognition and established an iconic mood — a revolution, if you will — for its time.
But the baby behind the image, now a 30-year-old man, has something to say about the cover.
And he’s gone to court to do it.
According to the New York Post, Spencer Elden claims he’s suffered “lifelong damage” from having his naked, infant’s body plastered on the iconic cover, and has opted to file a child pornography lawsuit against late singer Kurt Cobain’s estate and the group’s surviving band members.
Elden claims the group violated federal child pornography statutes and “sexually exploited him” in branding its image during its up-and-coming stage.
The man whose baby portrait was used for the cover of Nirvana’s ‘Nevermind’ has filed a lawsuit alleging that the nude image constituted child pornography. https://t.co/yK8K4wyBLR
— NBC News (@NBCNews) August 25, 2021
“The band, photographer and record labels ‘intentionally marketed Spencer’s child pornography and leveraged the shocking nature of his image to promote themselves and their music at his expense,’ the suit alleges,” according to the Post’s report.
“The permanent harm he has proximately suffered includes but is not limited to extreme and permanent emotional distress with physical manifestations, interference with his normal development and educational progress, lifelong loss of income earning capacity, loss of past and future wages, past and future expenses for medical and psychological treatment, loss of enjoyment of life, and other losses to be described and proven at trial of this matter,” the suit added.
Elden, who was 4 months old at the time the image was captured, maintains that his family never consented to the photoshoot.
And, to make matters worse, his accusations extend even further, alleging that the group forced him to engage in “commercial sexual acts” and “went back on a promise to conceal his genitals,” the outlet added.
Nirvana fans are astonished by Elden’s legal move, I’m sure, but do we realize just how significant his takedown of the album, the band could be?
To capture the significance, let’s rewind 30 years.
Nirvana took the music industry by storm in 1991 with its “Nevermind” album, which propelled alternative rock to the mainstream with songs like “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and “Lithium.”
Until then, the musical landscape was dominated by leftover sounds from the late 1980s, and the not-so-subtle transition to the darker, moodier, seedier, more brooding tone of grunge helped set the scene for a full transition to a more “’90s sound” — one we often associate with the decade’s rock music today.
As someone raised with a love for the glamor, luster and excess of the late 1980s hair bands, I’ll always be a little bitter about the change, I’ll admit, but music is a landscape as malleable as time itself; it’s both a byproduct and sculptor of culture.
And “Nevermind” sculpted away.
The album sold millions, after debuting relatively low at 144 of the Billboard 200 in Sept. 1991.
But the tepid reception wouldn’t last.
“Two-and-a-half decades later, it’s nearly impossible to imagine a world without ‘Nevermind.'” Billboard reported for the album’s 25th anniversary in 2016.
“The album catapulted alternative rock — specifically the grunge subgenre fizzing in the Pacific Northwest — into homes across America.”
It’s worth pointing out here that Elden posed for a recreation of the original cover for that 25th anniversary — and even offered to do it naked, according to New York Post report from the time. That’s a fact critics of his current lawsuit have pointed out on social media.
Spencer Elden, who was famously photographed as a baby for Nirvana’s Nevermind album cover, is now suing the band for child sexual exploitation.
But just five years ago, he recreated the photoshoot for the album’s 25th anniversary. pic.twitter.com/JDN9lW5wjp
— David Lesch (@DavidLesch) August 25, 2021
<BUSTED! On the 25th anniversary: “I said to the photographer, ‘Let’s do it naked.’ But he thought that would be weird, so I wore my swim shorts,” Spencer told the New York Post.>
The Nirvana Nevermind album cover baby recreates the picture 25 years on https://t.co/bcpIhOVDxU
— B.L. Ochman – Masks Save Lives (@whatsnext) August 25, 2021
The Nirvana baby from the Nevermind cover is suing the band and claiming he suffered a lifetime of embarrassment over the album cover, but 5 years ago he recreate the photo (w/clothes) and revealed that he had the album name tattooed on his chest https://t.co/2VEzyInYPo
— Curt Yeomans🏳️🌈 (@CFYeomans) August 25, 2021
The impact of the album has lasted for 30 years and its even prompted us to consider Nirvana as the birthers of a final rock ‘n’ roll revolution.
But, fast-forwarding to today, where Elden’s lawsuit might tarnish some of the album’s success — or at least reframe some opinions of it — what social connotation can we give to the album aside from its transformation of the music landscape?
Elden calls to our attention his own grievances with the album cover that placed his image on store shelves, inside homes and online for decades, and makes fans consider if they’ve enjoyed the group’s music at his expense in some way.
As the child exploitation discussion unfolds, I wonder, though, how this entire ordeal might be received if the child featured on the album cover were a young girl instead (needless to say, one aspect of the image would’ve been very different).
Are we focusing specifically on the pornographic connotation that comes with flashing a baby boy’s genitals to the world via an album cover, or are we saying more about the injustice that comes with using an unauthorized and exploitative image for professional gain?
It can be both, of course, but I’m questioning if we would bat an eye if a young girl had been plastered on the cover instead. Given the angle, there would have been no genitalia visible, and viewers would be left with simply the picture of a naked infant appearing as neither male nor female — an image without sexual connotations in any healthy mind.
Regardless of what happens with the lawsuit going forward, this could still subtly change the context of one of the most definitive albums of the last 30 years.
It’s strange how things change, isn’t it?
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