Although the band came to an abrupt and traumatic end in 1994, Nirvana’s brief time in the music industry has left a lasting impression around the world, thanks to their second album skyrocketing them to fame. Released in 1991, Nevermind became an instant hit, changing the music landscape while remaining a classic album decades later. With hits such as “Smells Like Teen Spirit”, “In Bloom”, and “Come as You Are”, and one of the most recognizable album covers, nearly everyone is familiar with this record, whether they realize it or not.
Nevermind recently celebrated its 30th anniversary, with the album being reissued for the special occasion. Despite the celebratory milestone, Nirvana was hit with a lawsuit regarding Nevermind’s album artwork this past August. The famous cover image features a naked baby floating underwater, with a dollar bill dangling in front of him on a fishing line. Though a seemingly harmless image, the infamous baby, now 30-year-old Spencer Elden, is suing for a multitude of (ridiculous) reasons. Elden claims he has become “increasingly uncomfortable with how he came to be on the cover of ‘Nevermind’.” At four months old, Elden’s father made $200 by allowing the infant to be photographed underwater – the photoshoot lasted approximately 5 minutes, and the rest of history.
Over the last 30 years, Elden would commemorate his appearance on the album by recreating the image on the album’s 10th, 17th, 20th, and 25th anniversaries. These intentional recreations during the album’s milestones are clear indications that Elden is still trying to remain relevant and connected to Nirvana in any way possible. Elden’s desperation to remain relevant is also an attempt for him to earn a profit off of his appearance on the album cover. In a 2003 Rolling Stone interview, Elden, who was 12-years-old at the time, was telling the magazine about his framed platinum copy of Nevermind when he said “Every five years or so, somebody’s gonna call me up and ask me about Nevermind…and I’m probably gonna get some money from it.”
Elden’s hope of earning a profit became clear again in 2016 when he was interviewed about his recreation of the image for the album’s 25th anniversary, in which he made a comment about how he wished he’d get a quarter for everyone who has seen him as a naked child. In each interview leading up to the 30th anniversary milestone, Elden seems to be proud of his role in the iconic album. During the same 2016 interview, Elden said “It’s cool but weird to be a part of something so important that I don’t even remember.” To accompany this interview, Elden posed with the original album artwork beside the pool in which the original photoshop had taken place.
The repeated pattern of Elden recreating this image during every milestone and making some mention of a profit should have served as some indication that at some point, Elden planned on suing for what he seems to believe is rightfully his. Elden’s obsession with being the Nevermind baby also seems to have had an influence on his appearance, because at 30 years old, he maintains a grunge sense of style, has a Nevermind tattoo across his chest, and wears his hair in a way that gives him an uncanny resemblance to Kurt Cobain.
Given Elden’s 30 years worth of bragging about his involvement in such significant music history, it is surprising that his lawsuit lays on the central argument that the image is a form of child pornography. About a month before the celebration of the album’s 30th anniversary, Elden filed a federal lawsuit over the use of his image on Nevermind. This suit named 15 defendants, including Kurt Cobain’s estate, Cobain’s widow – Courtney Love, and the remaining members of Nirvana, Dave Grohl and Krist Novoselic. Among these defendants is also the photographer who took the original photo at issue. Elden is seeking $150,000 from each defendant, which could result in him winning over $2 million should he be successful in this case.
Elden makes some extreme arguments in this lawsuit, accusing the defendants of “commercial child sexual exploitation of him from while he was a minor to the present day… defendants knowingly produced, possessed and advertised commercial child pornography depicting Spencer.” Elden further asserts that he has suffered “lifelong damages” as a result of the use of his image, with such damages including “extreme and permanent emotional distress with physical manifestations…plus loss of education, wages, and enjoyment of life.” The complaint further alleges that the image was “sexually graphic,” as it depicted Elden to be a “sex worker – grabbing for a dollar bill.” This is quite ridiculous coming from someone who seems to jump at any chance he has to show off that he is the “Nirvana baby.”
Given the elements of a typical child pornography case and his own past behavior regarding Nevermind, it’s unlikely that Elden will be successful in this lawsuit. 18 U.S. Code § 2256(8) defines child pornography as “any visual depiction…where the production of such visual depiction includes the use of a minor engaging in sexually explicit conduct.” There is no “sexually explicit conduct” in the album artwork, and as some legal experts weighing in on the case have pointed out, babies are often naked, so the picture of a naked child isn’t necessarily anything out of the ordinary.
While sure, it must be frustrating to be naked on the cover of one of the most recognizable albums in the music industry and not receive any compensation, Elden may be grasping at straws with this case. It seems that his obsession with being the Nirvana baby has given him a sense of entitlement and false hope of profit. Not only would Elden have been unrecognizable had he not brought all of this attention to himself being the Nirvana baby, but the photographer compensated Elden’s parents and obtained their consent before the photoshoot. It will be interesting to see how this case plays out and whether Elden will receive any of the justice he seems to believe he deserves.