Something magical happened at last week’s Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony for 2014. And—sorry, lifetime enlistees of the KISS Army—it wasn’t Paul Stanley making up with his famously sworn enemy Peter Criss.
It wasn’t Bruce Springsteen crying for the E Street Band members who’ve shuffled off to the Stone Pony in the sky. And it wasn’t even Courtney Love giving a long and loving hug to former Nirvana drummer Dave Grohl, a man she’s been in a vicious war of words with since Billy Corgan had hair.
No, the magic we’re talking about was the four songs performed by a briefly re-formed Nirvana for the band’s Rock and Roll Hall of Fame ceremony. Kurt Cobain wasn’t there because he made the stupid decision to join the 27 club at the height of his powers. Still, you know that somewhere in a Leonard Cohen afterworld he took time to take the R.E.M. vinyl off the turntable, slip on a cardigan, and tune in to a show famous for its touching moments.
The interesting thing about the four songs that Nirvana performed—“Smells Like Teen Spirit”, “Lithium”, “Aneurysm”, and “All Apologies”—was whom they performed them with. If Hollywood had been writing the script, the band’s three surviving members would have shown up with a who’s who of Seattle’s class of ’91: think hometown heroes Eddie Vedder, Chris Cornell, Mark Arm, and Tad Doyle.
Instead, Nirvana picked wisely, enlisting a cast that Cobain would have loved. Former Runaway and original tuff grrrl Joan Jett took the reins for “Smells Like Teen Spirit”. Oddball art star Annie Clark (aka St. Vincent) was on the mike for “Lithium”. Kim Gordon proved once again why she’s the koolest thing on the planet when she stepped up for “Aneurysm”. Lorde provided the most spine-chilling moment when she poured everything into “All Apologies”, a song written before she was born.
That Nirvana went the all-X-chromosome route would have pleased Cobain immensely. His major accomplishment wasn’t kicking down the doors that separated the underground from the mainstream. And to get a handle on the true magnitude of what he did on that front, consider the charts before Nirvana sparked a palace revolution.
In 1989, the top Billboard singles included offerings from Chicago, Poison, Bette Midler, and Paula Abdul. And let’s not forget Debbie Gibson, Warrant, and Roxette. The sick thing is that a shortlist of releases that year includes the Beastie Boys’ Paul’s Boutique, Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Mothers Milk, and the Pixies’ Doolittle.
Cobain changed the face of the mainstream, to the point where the above “alternative” records are considered essential classics today. But his greatest gift to pop music was what the singer (who famously described himself in his suicide note as a “sad little, sensitive, unappreciative, Pisces, Jesus man”) did for female artists. Pre-Nirvana, successful women in commercial music were mostly pinup autobots like Gibson and Abdul. Nirvana shoved one of the founding rules of punk—that anyone can form a band, even if they happen to be female—right down the throat of America.
In the immediately post-Nevermind world, the charts were suddenly bum’s-rushed by strong, independent women, like Courtney Love, Gwen Stefani, Shirley Manson, Kim Gordon, Babes in Toyland, and the gloriously unwashed L7. That crashing of the mainstream left a booming legacy that today includes everyone from with-a-bullet shit disturbers Perfect Pussy to freak-flag fliers like Florence + the Machine. All play by their own rules.
Cobain was one of those sensitive dudes who love girls more than guys; one of his famous quotes was: “I like the comfort in knowing that women are the only future in rock and roll.” Those words couldn’t have seemed more prophetic last week as you listened to an entire auditorium sing along to the Lorde-led “All Apologies”. While it was Nirvana’s night, it was the women who stole the show.