Grunge Grudge

Does the Nirvana Smiley Face Mean Anything Anymore?

The band is suing Marc Jacobs for appropriating its iconic logo—but is the designer really devaluing it?

By Stefan Milne March 26, 2019 Published in the April 2019 issue of Seattle Met

Marc Jacobs’s high-fashion T-shirt design apes Kurt Cobain’s famous 1991 sketch.

When did the Nirvana logo die? Was it in 1991 when Kurt Cobain first sketched that x-eyed, lolling-tongued smiley face, like a happily deceased, or perhaps just utterly zonked, Mr. Yuk? Or in 1993 when Nirvana Inc. copyrighted the logo? Certainly it’d already long since expired by November 2018, when fashion designer Marc Jacobs replaced the logo’s eyes with “M J” and the “Nirvana” with “Heaven” and plunked the face on the label’s $115 “Bootleg Grunge Tee.”

Nevertheless, in December 2018, Nirvana LLC—an entity headed by surviving band members Dave Grohl and Krist Novoselic—sued Marc Jacobs for copyright and trademark infringement. The complaint claims “significant damages” for an amount to be determined at trial. But this wasn’t Jacobs’s first run at cribbing Seattle’s grunge fashion.

In 1992, Jacobs debuted his Grunge Collection for Perry Ellis, translating thrift store chic—flannel, granny patterned dresses, Dr. Martens, knit beanies—to the runway. Critics panned it and Ellis fired Jacobs, but the collection eventually rose in esteem. Vogue now deems it a “badge of cool.”

So for the 25th anniversary, Jacobs debuted Redux Grunge—bringing back 26 original looks and also appropriating Nirvana’s logo, which in that interim came to signify not only grunge’s poster child, but the genre itself. Or it did for a while. Nirvana, as its complaint states, has licensed the logo “on literally dozens of different shirts, hats, hoodies, bags, backpacks, glasses, wallets.” An Amazon search for “Nirvana smiley” yields many pages of results: seat belts, key chains, baby onesies, car license plates, a shower curtain, a pair of “best friends” necklaces, and an air freshener. At the high end of the spectrum, Nirvana has licensed merch, smiley included, to designer brand Fear of God: You could snag one of those T-shirts for, say, $1,500—as Justin Bieber did in 2015, to great cultural ire.

At some point, in this pummeling commonality, the band’s music and the smiley face parted ways. “That design and logo has come to symbolize the goodwill associated with Nirvana,” the lawsuit claims, later alleging Jacobs caused “a substantial loss of goodwill.” Yet, especially in the current Spotify musical economy, classic band logos occupy a strange place. Since Nirvana’s music, outside of some vinyl sales, is increasingly free, and since concerts are no more, the logo becomes self-reflexive. It signifies and sells not the band’s music, but itself. Not Nirvana, but that “goodwill.” The logo becomes—just like Marc Jacobs’s name stamped on an otherwise-standard iPhone case—“a badge of cool.”

Nirvana, and its crucible of charmed noise, endures with or without a T-shirt. The delightful inversion is that Jacobs’s theft—in terms of attitude, that nose-thumbing use of “bootlegged”—is more in line with the band’s image than Nirvana’s litigious response. When the happy face first adorned T-shirts, the backs read: “Flower Sniffin Kitty Pettin Baby Kissin Corporate Rock Whores.” A sellout with a wink. Or as Cobain put it: “I’m a liar and a thief.”

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