30 years after appearing on one of the most instantly recognisable album covers in history — Nirvana’s ‘Nevermind’ — Spencer Elden is suing the band, claiming that he was exploited and that the cover image is pornography.
Elden was four months old when the iconic photo was taken of him naked in pool with a one-dollar bill dangled in front of him. “It’s cool but weird to be part of something so important that I don’t even remember,” he told The New York Post in 2016. The album is one of the best-selling records of all time.
However, five years later, Elden has changed his tune and has filed a federal lawsuit against Kurt Cobain’s estate and his widow Courtney Love, along with Nirvana drummer Dave Grohl, bassist Krist Novoselic and several others, claiming that they all, in addition to Geffen Records, profited from his naked image, accusing them of “commercial child sexual exploitation of him from while he was a minor to the present day.”
According to Elden, he has suffered “lifelong damages” as a result of the image — which he says depicts him as “a sex worker grabbing for a dollar bill” — including “extreme and permanent emotional distress with physical manifestations”, plus loss of education, wages, and “enjoyment of life”.
The lawsuit claims that “Defendants used child pornography depicting Spencer as an essential element of a record promotion scheme commonly utilised in the music industry to get attention, wherein album covers posed children in a sexually provocative manner to gain notoriety, drive sales, and garner media attention, and critical reviews.”
Elden also claims that he was never paid for the imagery — although other reports suggest that he was compensated USD $250 — and that his parents never signed a release authorising the use of his image.
He now seeks USD $150,000 from each of the 15 defendants and has requested that the case goes before a jury, with his legal team issuing a statement saying that it comes down to the issue of consent — “something that our client never had the opportunity to give.” One of his attorneys also claimed that Elden has sought therapy for years in order to process how the album cover affected him.
“He hasn’t met anyone who hasn’t seen his genitalia,” she said. “It’s a constant reminder that he has no privacy. His privacy is worthless to the world.”
In 2016, Elden hinted that the image was starting to cause him concern saying, “Recently I’ve been thinking, ‘What if I wasn’t OK with my freaking penis being shown to everybody?’ I didn’t really have a choice.”
In 2007 he also said, it was “kind of creepy that many people have seen me naked. I feel like the world’s biggest porn star”.
Photographer Kurt Weddle, who took the photograph and is one of the 15 defendants Elden is now suing, told The Guardian in 2019: “I’m still in contact with Spencer. I used to think, ‘Man, when that kid is 16 he’s gonna hate my guts!’ He doesn’t, but he’s conflicted about the picture. He feels that everybody made money off it and he didn’t. I think he deserves something. But it’s always the record labels that make the money.”
Elden’s lawsuit alleges that Weddle “activated Spencer’s ‘gag reflex’ before throwing him underwater in poses highlighting and emphasizing Spencer’s exposed genitals” in order to “ensure the album cover would trigger a visceral sexual response from the viewer.”
None of the defendants have responded to the lawsuit as yet.