Nirvana In the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame: What Would Kurt Have Thought?
A punk purist at heart, the guy was famously ambivalent about mainstream success, often contradicting himself within the same sentence when pressed on the topic. At one point, he said of 'Nevermind''s massive sales, “I can’t come to any conclusions at all,” so it’s anyone’s guess how he’d feel about recognition from the Rock Hall.
We can assume he’d at least partly share the public gratitude shown by Nirvana’s surviving members, Dave Grohl and Krist Novoselic. An avid Beatles fan, Cobain was wildly ambitious -- there’s really no other explanation for the huge, (relatively) polished sound of 'Nevermind.' And the Rock Hall appointment signals a deep impact on the culture that, at least early on, he clearly wanted for his band.
But on the other hand, he might feel more indicted than inducted. The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame claims to “collect, preserve and interpret the impact rock has made on our world,” but it's long been accused of close-minded bias and commercialism. Big-name inductees equal better ratings, after all. It doesn’t always vibe well with the classic anti-establishment punk ’tude, an issue that came to colorful life back in ’06, when the Sex Pistols responded to their nomination with a barely coherent handwritten letter calling the institution a “piss stain.”
The Hall’s inductee-election process, long shrouded in secrecy, only two years ago started to include fan votes, which now count as a single ballot. This means popular opinion accounts for a whopping less-than-one-six-hundredth of the total voting pool, otherwise dominated by industry insiders.
So whatever the Rock Hall is, it’s no voice of the people. One can imagine Kurt viewing the whole organization as supportive enough but way behind the curve and outside the real action, not unlike that old janitor dancing along with his mop in the 'Smells Like Teen Spirit' video.
Cobain never reconciled popularity with his prior notions of integrity, and so he just owned the contradiction. He laid it bare in the public eye, made it part of his persona.
Conventional wisdom says his suicide in 1994 had to do with the suffocating pressures of fame, and this may be tragically true. But before his troubles consumed him, he was also able to greet all that attention with a sense of humor and amusement. This was, after all, the guy who wore a shirt reading “Corporate Magazines Still Suck”… on the cover of Rolling Stone.
“I should feel really guilty about it,” he said in the accompanying article, speaking of the band’s move to a major label. “I should be living out the old punk-rock threat and denying everything commercial … and not really making an impact.”
He greeted the loss of his punk purity with both a sigh and a wink at how silly the whole idea is to begin with.
One thing we can all agree on: Nirvana getting placed in the rock pantheon is a no-brainer. As music legends go, they have it all: critical adoration, massive sales and major cultural impact. That was clear once 'Nevermind' lead single 'Smells Like Teen Spirit' seared through the Top 40 like a hot iron in late 1991. From the first notes of that expectant guitar intro, it’s still incredible. Those coal-black riffs! That verse-chorus switch! Those fire-breathing vocals! Very, very few rock songs roar and thrill like this thing. Similar to Bob Dylan's 'Like a Rolling Stone,' you can hear music history pivoting inside it.
Nirvana’s best songs were a transcendent collision of prior styles. The music of their obvious influence Black Sabbath pulled you down, down into a heavy-metal swamp, but Nirvana took that same sonic sludge and kicked it into the air, whipping up a punk frenzy that lost none of the weight or grandeur of a song like 'Iron Man.' Ozzy Osbourne liked to sing right on the guitar line, but the chorus of 'Teen Spirit' puts Cobain miles above it, reaching his highest shrieks (“entertain us!” that immortal demand) at the lowest guitar tones. The wild contrast exhilarates.
On 'Nevermind,' all that arresting noise got miraculously funneled into pop. The album is, for all its intensity and anguish, catchy as hell. 'Teen Spirit,' 'Lithium,' and 'Come As You Are' are roaring contradictions, with the band turning some of most anti-commercial sounds in rock ‘n’ roll -- John Lennon’s primal scream, the Velvet Underground’s sooty guitars -- up into big dark bows. It’s a genius paradox; you embrace conformity and come out all the more subversive for it.
As comic book writer Grant Morrison once said, “the coolest, shiniest, sexiest, darkest, scariest thing you can be is pop.” Nobody showed that like Nirvana.
And yet, the same commercial viability that made their music so great also sped up its integration with mass culture. Nirvana sounded like no one else when they came out, but pretty soon everyone sounded like them, and it was a damn easy blueprint to copy. These days, the slickest, most corporate rock sounds a lot like Nirvana. That doesn’t diminish the quality of their music, but it does diminish its provocation. The famous Nirvana songs still sound terrific, but you no longer get the sense that this music is roughing things up, since it’s been so replicated.
And maybe that’s the hardest thing to swallow about this Hall of Fame induction -- it just reinforces how “over” the excitement of Nirvana now is.
Today, a once-revolutionary sound comes off as merely influential. CNN.com’s article on this year’s inductees said, “The final choices, announced Tuesday, include angst-ridden alternative rockers Nirvana and big-haired, makeup-slathered pop metal band KISS.” Cobain would probably gag at the lazy categorization, since just months before his death, he was lamenting to Rolling Stone that “We have been labeled… Grunge is as potent a term as New Wave. You can’t get out of it.”
How sad that he never did get out of it, never lived to see the gratification of an evolving, long-term career like bandmate Dave Grohl’s.
There’s something confining about a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction. It seems to say to the artist, “We get you. You shook things up once, but that was a long time ago. Your work is now fully understood and cataloged.” This is a tough message for Nirvana, a band that once stood so starkly apart from the mainstream and ruptured it so perfectly. Yet it’s also easy, given how past-tense they already seemed by the late ‘90s, in the wake of Cobain’s suicide and grunge’s replacement by boy bands atop the cultural zeitgeist. To modern eyes, Nirvana the band is vivid and fascinating but entirely removed from the present, like some ancient bug fossilized in sap.
But as the saying goes, we’ll always have the music. Nirvana’s best songs have been xeroxed too many times for their own good, but they still rock harder than nearly anything you’ll put your ears to. And every year (especially this one, thanks to their induction), a new young audience gets turned on to the band’s power, blown away for the first time by the opening 1:40 of 'Smells Like Teen Spirit,' that ultimate punk-metal-pop fusion.
That’s the real value and legacy of Nirvana.