The Story behind Nirvana’s ‘Nervermind’ Album Cover and Why Spencer Elden Is Suing
The model, 30-years-old now, sued the band for violating federal child pornography laws and argued on child sexual exploitation.
In the said cover image, Elden, as a child, is underwater in a swimming pool with his genitalia exposed. The baby is enthusiastically swimming towards a dollar bill on a fishhook, making a statement on capitalism.
According to law, non-sexualized nude photos of infants are generally not considered child pornography. Elden’s lawyer Robert Y. Lewis, however, offered an unusual interpretation of the image.
He argued that it had crossed the line into child porn, explaining the inclusion of currency (dollar bills) in the image makes the baby appear “like a sex worker.”
"Defendants intentionally commercially marketed Spencer’s child pornography and leveraged the shocking nature of his image to promote themselves and their music at his expense," the lawsuit filed in the U.S. District Court’s central district of California read.
But how did he initially end up on the cover image of the hit album? There's a story for that!
The $200 Image's Story
In 1991, photographer Kirk Weddle, who was a friend of Elden's father Rick, called Rick to ask if he was willing to earn 200 bucks by showing up with his, then four-month-old, son in a photoshoot for the second album of Nirvana.
The answer was yes from the senior Elden, who used to help Weddle with sets and props for photoshoots.
"I was like, ‘What's up?’ And he’s like, ‘Well, I’m shooting kids all this week, why don’t you meet me at the Rose Bowl, throw your kid in the drink?' And we just had a big party at the pool, and no one had any idea what was going on," Rick recalled his conversation with Weddle during an interview with NPR in 2008.
Sometime later, Elden was reportedly sent a platinum copy of Nevermind and a teddy bear by Geffen Records.
Speaking with Time magazine in 2015, Weddle said, "It was a great concept – a baby underwater, unable to breathe, going after money on a fishhook. After Nevermind was a big hit, they came back to me to shoot the band underwater."
The Image Embarrassed Elden
Even though he was the poster boy of one of the most recognizable album covers of all time, the LA-based artist faced embarrassment throughout his childhood and even, at times, now.
In a conversation with GQ in September 2016, Elden said he wouldn't have been fine with such a photo shoot, but he had no choice when it was taken. He even shared that he was never proud of the picture and never brought it up with his friends.
"Friends used to bring it up more than I did because it’s not like you want to brag about your embarrassing naked photo. It’s never really been a huge bragging right because I don’t have much to show for it," he added.
Elden, who is now doing art shows and paintings for a living, also admitted that he didn't receive any royalties from Nirvana or its associated record companies.