This week’s edition of “Are You F-ing Kidding Me” is brought to you by the naked baby on the cover of Nirvana’s breakout album Nevermind. From here on in let’s call him Nirvana Baby.
Nirvana Baby, aka Spencer Elden (who’s now a thirty-year old man) is suing the estate of Kurt Cobain along with Cobain’s former bandmates, his widow, and Geffen Records for child pornography. Elden is alleging the defendants, “knowingly produced, possessed, and advertised commercial child pornography” which caused him distress and a, “lifelong loss of income-earning capacity.”
To recap: Covid-19 cases are skyrocketing just as millions of kids head back to classrooms; Louisiana is sweltering and more than a million people don’t have power; Texas has criminalized abortions after six weeks of gestation (and allowing private citizens to sue any woman who gets one); California is on fire (again); and Florida ordered more than a dozen portable morgues on the same day its Governor refused to let kids wear masks to school. To say nothing of the fact that the Taliban is back in charge in Afghanistan and a Beavis and Butthead reboot is coming to screens near year you.
So when I heard that a grown man was suing the band who made him famous and trivializing one of the worst crimes there is, my first reaction was, come on Nirvana Baby, READ THE ROOM. I mean seriously dude, not now. I’ve been looking at your tiny penis (relax, you were four months old and swimming, I get it) for more than thirty years. But can ya hang on a little longer so we can sort out this worldwide pandemic and our flaming planet first?
Also, can we talk about the fact that you’re addressing a lifelong lack of privacy by launching a very public lawsuit? I mean, there’s no better way to get the entire world to go online and search the photo that ruined your life than to start suing rich and famous people over the photo that ruined your life.
The world has made me cranky, I see that now.
The cynics among us, myself included, will see Nirvana Baby/Elden’s lawsuit as frivolous and attention-seeking – a young man’s attempt to extend and leverage his 15 minutes of fame and make a few bucks in the process. But after my eyeballs nearly rolled right out of my head and I screamed “PUH-LEEZE” out loud at my cats, I started thinking about how I would feel if that was me.
More importantly, how would you feel if that was you?
Maybe people wouldn’t recognize you on the street, and maybe you could maintain your anonymity to some degree, but that’s not entirely the point. Because you would know. You would know that the entire world could see you at your most raw and vulnerable anytime at all without your permission.
Elden’s lawyer, Maggie Mabie, recently told the New York Times that her client “has no privacy” because “he hasn’t met anyone who hasn’t seen his genitalia.”
I’ll admit, I giggled when I read this but then I thought about how terrible that might actually be. It’s easy for me to assume baby pictures are no big deal because the only people who’ve seen buck naked baby Jen are family members, maybe some close friends, and whomever had the misfortune to sit in my parents’ living room in the 1980s and 1990s. Guys, if you squirm at the thought of Grandma, Uncle Bert, and your mom’s best friend cooing over photos of your itsy bitsy baby penis, imagine having it plastered on one of the best selling album covers of all time.
That might mess with a person’s head, right?
Spencer Elden was only 4-months-old when he was photographed by a family friend “swimming” naked in a pool in California. The photographer paid Elden’s parents somewhere between $200 and $250 for the image and it was then selected from among dozens of others before being digitally altered to add the fish hook and dollar bill. Though Nirvana was relatively unknown at the time, Nevermind went on to sell more than 30 million copies, making it one of the best-selling records of all time.
That’s like almost every single person in Canada seeing your junk.
In 2001, 2008, 2011, and 2016, Nirvana Baby/Elden participated in celebrations marking various anniversaries of the album’s release. In 2016, he complained about the album cover’s effect on his sex life, telling GQ Australia: “You’ll hook up with a hot chick, and then they figure out you’re not making any money from it and they’ll dump you.”
So somehow hooking up with shallow, gold-digging losers is Nirvana’s fault? I might have to call BS on that Spencer.
Is it possible this lawsuit is based on sour grapes? Sure. Is it possible Elden isn’t happy with how his life turned out and he’s trying to hold someone accountable for that? Absolutely. After all, he’s admitted to being frustrated by what he perceives as a lack of attention and acknowledgement from the band.
To be clear: I am against sexual exploitation of any kind, and crimes against children are especially heinous. And I know that plenty of victims make Herculean efforts to normalize their abuse, so it probably isn’t fair to use Spencer’s past words and actions against him. However, a naked baby is only sexual if we make it so. Just like how spaghetti straps and bare midriffs are only ‘distracting’ to middle school boys if we identify them in a sexual context a la dress codes. Nudity shouldn’t be synonymous with sex or sexuality but in our perpetually juvenile and hyper-sexualized culture it usually is, and I think Spencer Elden is taking advantage of that. It doesn’t mean he isn’t a victim in some way, but child pornography isn’t one of them.
According to Elden’s lawsuit, neither he nor his parents signed any legal document authorizing the use of his image on the album cover. However, the photographer, Kirk Weddle, has stated publicly that he was hired by the studio’s creative department and at the pool that day for the express purpose taking pictures for the Nevermind cover. It’s impossible to know who knew what thirty years ago, and we won’t know if there is legal grounds for a lawsuit until a judge makes that decision. But what is undisputed is that Spencer, like most four month-olds, had no say in what happened to him. It’s also likely his parents didn’t really think through what it meant to sell a picture of their naked child to a professional photographer.
Even if Spencer’s parents had known where the photo would end up, it’s highly unlikely they would have predicted how digital media would soon change everything about the availability and consumption of pop culture. Once found only on record store shelves, albums and their cover art can now be accessed online anytime, anywhere, by anyone.
So maybe that’s the lesson here. Maybe that’s the thing that turns this into a positive story and not another news item that makes my head hurt.
Should Spencer Elden’s story serve as yet another reminder that kids are entitled to their privacy, and that we, as parents, should do a better job of safeguarding their privacy?
Regardless of the lawsuit’s outcome, naked Nirvana album cover baby should serve as a cautionary tale for anyone who insists on posting compromising images of their kids on social media. Because one day that baby won’t be four months old, or eight months old, or three years old anymore. He’ll be going to college. She’ll be applying for jobs. What was cute as a toddler might be embarrassing and even devastating as an adult. The kids in today’s viral videos and images are like former child stars from movies and television, and if that doesn’t scream ‘cautionary tale’ I don’t know what does.
So next time you upload a cute photo of your child in a compromising position (I mean being naked or doing something dumb, not robbing a bank), think about how they might feel about it in five, ten, twenty years. I’m not saying don’t take the photo, I’m just suggesting we consider with whom we share it, and how. Young children can’t protect themselves so they need us to do it for them.
Nevermind cover image ©DGC Records
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