Nirvana’s Nevermind has one of the most famous album covers of all time: a photo of a baby in a pool swimming toward a dollar bill on a fish hook. The band’s second studio album—which includes the hit songs “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and “Come As You Are”—was released in 1991, and the image became iconic. Now, Spencer Elden, who was the baby featured on the Nevermind cover, is 30 years old. He’s given interviews about the cover over the years and recreated the image for multiple anniversaries. But now, three decades later, he is taking legal action against the surviving members of Nirvana and other people associated with the Nevermind album, including an allegation that it is child pornography. Read on to find out why.
Spencer Elden has voiced mixed feelings about the Nirvana album cover over the years.
On the Nevermind cover, baby Elden is naked and swimming toward a dollar bill that was digitally added in later. In a 2008 interview with NPR, 17-year-old Elden said, “Quite a few people in the world have seen my penis. So that’s kinda cool. I’m just a normal kid living it up and doing the best I can while I’m here.”
In 2016, Elden recreated the image—with swim trunks—for the album’s 25th anniversary, something he had also done for the 10th and 20th anniversaries. He told the New York Post, “The anniversary means something to me. It’s strange that I did this for five minutes when I was 4 months old and it became this really iconic image. It’s cool but weird to be part of something so important that I don’t even remember.”
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Elden’s father has said the family was paid $200 for the photoshoot.
In the aforementioned 2008 interview with NPR, Spencer’s father, Rick Elden, said that he was asked to be part of a photoshoot by his photographer friend Kirk Weddle.
“[He] calls us up and was like, ‘Hey Rick, wanna make 200 bucks and throw your kid in the drink?,'” Rick told NPR. “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!”
The family said they found out Elden was on the album cover three months later when they saw a large photo of it at Tower Records.
Geffen Records later sent Elden a platinum record and a teddy bear.
Now, Elden and his lawyer claim the image is pornographic and they say his parents never signed a release.
As reported by Variety, Elden’s lawyer, Robert Y. Lewis, claims that the digital inclusion of the money dangling in front of him makes baby Elden appear “like a sex worker,” which he argues makes the image child pornography. As Variety notes, non-sexualized images of babies are not generally considered to be pornography.
The lawsuit also claims that Elden’s parents did not sign a release granting the image to be used for the album cover. “Neither Spencer nor his legal guardians ever signed a release authorizing the use of any images of Spencer or of his likeness, and certainly not of commercial child pornography depicting him,” the lawsuit reads, according to Variety.
The BBC reports that the lawsuit also claims that Nirvana said a sticker would be used to cover Elden’s genitals, but that didn’t happen. As Snopes points out, Michael Azerrad’s book Come as You Are: The Story of Nirvana reports that art director Robert Fisher also brought up the idea of censoring the image by airbrushing out the nudity. But late Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain said in a 1991 interview with Hot Metal that the only sticker he would use was one that said, “If you’re offended by this, you must be a closet pedophile.” The record company released the album without any censoring.
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Elden is asking for damages from multiple defendants.
The lawsuit claims Elden “has suffered and will continue to suffer lifelong damages” and that his “true identity and legal name are forever tied to the commercial sexual exploitation he experienced as a minor which has been distributed and sold worldwide from the time he was a baby to the present day.”
The lawsuit names 15 defendants, including the remaining members of Nirvana, Dave Grohl and Krist Novoselic; the managers of Cobain’s estate; the executor of his estate, his widow Courtney Love; photographer Kirk Weddle; and existing and defunct record companies.
Elden is asking for at least $150,000 from each defendant. Best Life has reached out to some of the defendants—Universal Music Group, Love, Grohl, and Weddle—for a comment, but has not yet received a response.
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