September has seen the launch of two updates to the "rhythm game" genre: The Beatles: RockBand and Guitar Hero 5. While both have so far received high praise from reviewers, it's the latter title that's attracting controversy over the inclusion of late Nirvana front man Kurt Cobain as a playable character. While The Beatles are also playable in their game the main distinction between the two is that The Beatles can only be used to play their own catalog of songs, yet Cobain can be the featured singer of everything from Rammstein's 'Du Hast' to No Doubt's 'Ex-Girlfriend.' It's this resurrection that has generated concern where Rock Band did not, most notably from Cobain's wife and the two surviving members of Nirvana.
Last week over a series of expletive-laden rants on Twitter, Courtney Love laid out her frustration and disgust with Guitar Hero, complaining that she never authorized Cobain's image for the game and intended to sue. Activison, the developer of the Guitar Hero franchise, countered that they did, in fact, have the necessary permission to include Cobain in their game, and Love's attorney later clarified that while permission was granted, the agreement in place did not permit Activision to use Cobain "in ways that denigrate his image."
As Kotaku points out, there's a huge contrast in the reaction to Cobain in Guitar Hero and The Beatles in Rock Band; none of the surviving family members for the deceased Beatles members are complaining, and fans of the group have largely approved of the game's depiction of the band. Krist Novoselic and Dave Grohl go so far as to say "It's hard to watch an image of Kurt pantomiming other artists' music alongside cartoon characters" and a quick search on YouTube gives lots of examples of what they meant. While Guitar Hero 5 ships with two songs from the Nirvana catalog, once Kurt Cobain is "unlocked" he can be used to play anything else, including songs that aren't even a part of Nirvana's particular genre. Many fans of Nirvana feel that it's this commercialization that is the most detrimental to his image, given his various opinions regarding the music industry that are felt to have contributed to his suicide.
In the end it's a matter of taste. Calls have been made for Activision to lock Cobain to only work on Nirvana's songs, but by this point the cat is out of the bag. While some take no insult with Cobain dancing along to Garbage or Coldplay, others find the representation offensive. The question is, where is the line between tribute and desecration?
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