The Date: September 9, 1992
The Event: Kurt Cobain wears a Daniel Johnston t-shirt to the MTV VMAs
The Result: Thousands discover one of underground music's most underground oddballs
Back in 1992, what t-shirt you wore really mattered. That's the lesson we're to take if we're to study in one of alternative music's most beloved anecdotes. Few people remember much from the MTV Video Music Awards from 1992. That Van Halen's yet-to-be-appropriated-by-the-Republican-Party anthem "Right Now" cleaned up the major gongs is a fact that no one's bothered to etch into lore.
But the devoted fans of radical, underground acts have long memories, and the most mythological moment from the 1992 awards may not have been Nirvana urging to play "Rape Me" rather than their hit, "Smells Like Teen Spirit." It may have been what Kurt Cobain had on.
Cobain considered himself an unabashed lover of "pure underground music," and went out of his way to champion brilliant yet unheard-of acts like The Vaselines, The Raincoats, Os Mutantes, and Young Marble Giants. For these VMAs, Cobain chose to publicly declare his love for Daniel Johnston, momentarily sending Johnston into a bright public spotlight.
In 1992, in a pre-internet era, the ability to find out about fringe acts was limited to what your local record-store was like. Information was a limited commodity, and wearing someone's t-shirt made a statement long before last.fm profiles did the work for you. In this day and age, when the internet offers the possibility of everyone being an obscure music expert, there's no comparable act; if Jack White had worn an Ariel Pink t-shirt to the 2005 MTV VMAs, no one would've batted an eyelid.
Cobain, at that time, was possibly the biggest musical star in the world, an electric talent uniting underground and overground via the fury of his all-conquering grunge combo, Nirvana. Johnston, at that time, had just come out of an involuntary stay at a mental hospital, where the delusional, bipolar 'outsider' musician had been committed after trying to crash a small aircraft of which he was a passenger.
Johnston had been making his oddball, home-recorded cassettes of warped, quirky pop-songs for years, achieving a level of cult acclaim amongst the growing lo-fi movement. But, after Cobain's wardrobe choice in front of millions upon millions of viewers, suddenly the suits in the music biz, eager to try and 'catch' Kurt's cool, turned to Johnston.
Johnston signed to Atlantic soon after, but by the time Johnston's only major-label album, Fun, came out in 1994, Cobain was already dead. Cobain's legacy, since, has lived on in many ways, and the bands he championed have felt the positivity of that association even after he passed away. And, on one night, Cobain, if only on his chest, took the most underground of artists to the most overground of forums.