Nirvana, Gender, Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Musing

Never say never I guess…Given the three musicians involved have reached whatever state of peace required to allow them to approach the work they formulated with their friend Kurt Cobain, there seems no obstacle to more activity going forward. For a long time, this is just my feeling, I think there was a pretty reasonable taboo at the idea of original members of Nirvana playing Nirvana songs simply because the originator of the vast majority of the music had shut the door so firmly on his way out. It’s hard to explain to a fan in their teens that time really does make these things fade but here we are twenty years later and I’ve not noted anyone reacting negatively to the presence of Dave, Krist and Pat on a stage together playing as some unnamed form of Nirvana. Partially this is because of the gentle way in which they edged toward it over the years – everyone was used to Pat and Dave in Foo Fighters, then the occasional appearances by Krist made the idea of them altogether seem less of a jump, eventually a Nirvana song dropped in casually here and there showed it wasn’t such a heavy thing anymore if a song built by Kurt appeared under different guise but with the stamp of authority provided by at least some of its originators. There were some murmurings about the decision to play with Paul McCartney but in general the choice of songs, the way the individuals spoke about the performances, the fact they were playing a new song intended for a specific one-off project – it all put things in that interesting space where it both was and wasn’t a Nirvana reunion, it was implicit but not made explicit which made it easier to focus on whether the new song was any good, whether the concerts looked like fun, rather than having an overt argument over the idea of a Kurt-less Nirvana. The Rock and Roll Hamm of Fame show and the aftermath performance were the lengthiest ‘Nirvana’ set these guys had played in twenty years, the timing was pretty well perfect, there was an occasion that provided some justification for doing it and they made such a point of making it ‘different’ from a Nirvana performance that its simply been accepted as an impressive thing. It’s like slowly squeezing out a spot (sorry for the metaphor!); rather than excessive pressure then POP! and a big mess, they’ve eased it and worked at it over years with no great drive or aggressive attempt to force a result and the result has been a smoother, less painful, less dramatic experience – sheesh, we just saw a band that died twenty years ago do something that back at the time we thought would never happen! And I barely looked until now!

Nirvana’s commitment to gender politics was always present back at their peak – over and again its possible to add up the ways in which they brought the issue to the fore either explicitly by supporting pro-female events (Rock Against Rape, Rock for Choice, Home Alive), by drawing female-fronted bands on stage (Calamity Jane, L7, Shonen Knife…) or by simply stating their views when given the opportunity in interview – or implictly, for example in Cobain’s original feeling that there should be a Girl and a Boy side to Nevermind, the dress wearing on the In Bloom video, the female imagery deluging In Utero, various lyrics, video imagery and components… The conversion of Nirvana’s hits into female vocal performances was a superb choice in terms of providing a true surprise within the performance the other week, turned a historical occasion (apologies for the hyperbole) into a quick summation of some of the strong female figures of past and future (note Joan Jett’s strong links to the Seattle scene – she fronted a post-Mia Zapata version of the Gits in order to help raise money for the Home Alive organisation), plus it showed a continued desire to foreground the subject of women in music. That Krist has used that as a springboard for a wider commentary on the roles open to women in society and their treatment is a step that 1992-1993 Nirvana couldn’t have made because they’d simply have been pointing people to the works of others while, now, in 2014, Krist was able to point to work done by an organisation in which he is personally involved and committed. I guess sometime I should write a piece purely talking about the subject of ‘personal connection’ as a guiding principle in Nirvana’s music and activities.

Here’s the actual report produced by Fair Vote – a worthy piece of work. In general gender issues are a pretty fascinating area, I sometimes get this sense that there was a deliberate effort to demonise the phrase ‘feminist’, to eliminate the positivity within the phrase and to endlessly link it to conflict and aggressive tactics and attitudes rather than to the rational and well-argued points being made. The repetitive focus on more controversial (thus entertaining) individuals, to ignore the matter under discussion in favour of coverage of shock tactics or harsher soundbites – there’s been a thirty year effort to drive the issue of female participation in society into specific boxes and to legislate so that organisations can claim compliance with the letter of the law rather than having to truly consider the right/wrong of a female individual for a role.

The music industry certaintly has done a phenomenal job of reverting to type; the Nirvana era came complete with quite a number of female acts and personalities but ended up focusing on the rather ideological side (Riot Grrl) or the stripper-ish side (Hole) – women were pushed back into the channel of being able to coo softly over gentle songs, the idea of ‘women who rock’ still remained in a ghetto rather than mingling on the same streets as the mainstream. The replacement of hair metal with hip hop as the dominant American music – and that music’s subsequent merger with most other music forms in the charts – brought the music industry back to a position where the dominant gender philosophy is that of an unsophisticated nineteen year old. A friend of mine went to a DMX concert a decade ago and was thrilled to be picked out of the audience to come ‘meet’ the artist. She was queued with the girls then each one was led to a room individually. She dissolved into tears when told she was expected to give oral sex to a bouncer and that the same was expected of her when backstage – “what did you think you were back here for?” she was asked as if she was the one who had the problem or who had the weak grip on reality.

There could be a fair study done of the remarkable way in which pro-female soundbites stretching back to the Spice Girls’ “Girl Power” phrase have been slaved to a visual and lyrical language in which a woman’s power is deemed to lie in her ability to titilate, entice or please men. In some ways that is equality – speaking in the same language as the male stars who rate their value in terms of their attractiveness to and ability to dominate women. I guess what’s sad is that people expected ‘equality’ to mean something more than sexual boasts – that it could mean being better than the low expectations of male behaviour. The bit that’s disturbing, however, is not the expression of the artists but the industry built up entirely to select, mould and propagate those female images – there are entire organisations whose sole purpose is to locate marketable female flesh, ensure that body shapes only sustainable via surgery are prioritised, that choreographed dry-humping is substituted for dancing, that lingerie substitutes for clothing and that appropriate press releases are issued all wrapped in the language of female empowerment. That’s what’s worrisome, it isn’t about a female artist saying one thing or another, wearing one thing or another, it’s about the way in which they’re converted to manufactured product with the ‘wrapping paper’ plastered with the kinds of imagery and ideas that the average pimp could get behind and that wouldn’t look out of place in the lyrical philosophy of an Eighties hair metal band. Ah well, I digress.

Oh, so, anyways, i’ve not been around these past weeks – a family medical emergency means I’ve been at the parental home in Spain. It did make me chuckle that Nirvana seemed to follow me there anyways. I didn’t get to go to the Charles Peterson exhibition but my bus back through Malaga yesterday did take me past this familiar image…How nice…



One thought on “Nirvana, Gender, Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Musing”

  1. Thought it was a good tribute. Much better than i expected from a Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame induction and thought all the performances were pretty good. Annie from St. Vincent’s Lithium cover was a bit bland but thought the rest ; Joan Jett , Kim Gordon , and Lorde were all great and rather fitting tributes for different reasons . I got spine-tingles just hearing those songs played again by the band again and thought it was a great reminder of how melodic and strangely powerful Nirvana songs were -Lorde’s version of All Apologies was very good with Krist on accordian. I was so pleasantly surprised when heard Anuerysm kick in as well earlier. The choice and idea of all female vocalists was a great one. Theres nothing worse than hearing male vocalists trying to emulate Cobain and ive always thought most Nirvana cover songs are usually strangely better covered by women vocally – Sinead O’Connor back in 90s springs to mind.
    The aftershow secret gig looks great from clips ive seen (J Masics!) and hope footage of the whole of that gets out. It was filmed properly apparently so lets hope so in one way or another.
    Mike Stipe’s induction speech was good also.
    All in all i thought was a surprisingly great tribute to a still sorely missed band and a rather touching and tasteful tribute to Cobain himself who is to us old enough to remember still missed quite a lot. I was impressed how something i was so initially cynical about ended up IMO a really good and touching tribute…not something i expected from a Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame induction.

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