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Nirvana’s ‘Nevermind’ Still Provokes a Debate Over Decency

“Lascivious” or “edgy”? That’s the question raised by the lawsuit filed by Spencer Elden, now 30 years old, who as a baby was featured on the cover of Nirvana’s “Nevermind” album, swimming naked after a dollar bill that dangles before him on a fishhook. Elden argues that the image is pornographic and that, as an infant, he was forced to engage in commercial sex.

Still, even early on there were dissenters. Writing in the New York Times in 1994, the acclaimed fashion journalist Suzy Menkes pointed to the “Nevermind” cover art as part of a fashion trend that had become “uncomfortably close to kiddie porn.”

Menkes wasn’t pointing fingers; she was describing how fashion mimics “what is in the air.” Moreover, one suspects that for many of those who lauded the swimming baby image, “uncomfortably close” was part of the appeal. To be edgy is to dance along a forbidden line without quite stepping over it; or, if one does happen to dangle a toe on the wrong side, to jump back at once to safety.

I’m not decrying the heightened concern over child pornography; I’m wondering whether we should apply our standards retrospectively. Does the fact that an image was considered art three decades ago mean that society cannot change its collective mind and decide today that it was kiddie porn all along? The question’s uncomfortable. But Elden’s lawsuit might be the vehicle that forces an answer.

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