In Defense of a Woman Fronting Nirvana

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Tonight Nirvana will be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Given his unabashed nerdiness over music history, I’ve decided that Kurt Cobain would think this is at least a little cool. Moreover, I think he would be flattered to hear that his praises will be sung by likes of Michael Stipe and, if the latest entry in the Rock Hall rumor mill is to be trusted, Joan Jett.

As we detailed in length when he was announced as Nirvana’s induction speaker, Stipe would make a perfectly apt stand-in for Cobain in the context of a live performance. Not only were they both poster boys of the mainstream’s embrace of the underground, Stipe and Cobain were friends who had intended to collaborate musically. But now the Foo Fighters Instagram would have us believe that it’s not Stipe who will be singing with Nirvana tonight. Instead, Ms. “I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll” — who, criminally, isn’t even in the Rock Hall herself — will be singing in place of the man who in many ways eschewed the fame that rock ‘n’ roll provided him.

The seemingly random collection of instruments in the photo above could mean anything in the context of Grohl’s Foo Fighters, who are touring and recording after a brief hiatus. But as Stereogum first pointed out, the bass belongs to Krist Novoselic, the guitar to touring Nirvana member Pat Smear, the drum set to Grohl — and the stickered Melody Maker belongs to Jett. Grohl and Jett have a brief history: a recent song written together (her “Any Weather”), a Jett cameo at a 2012 Foo Fighters show, that kind of thing. So it’s not out the question, nor is a performance; Novoselic has all but firm confirmed on Twitter that he’ll be performing.

Some fans may be scratching their heads over the idea of Jett standing in for Cobain. Kurt was forthcoming about the bands he loved and found influential to his musical style, and Jett was not mentioned among them, at least not in interviews or notes he penned. But Kurt, I feel, would celebrate a strong woman taking on his songs. He remains one of the most vocal feminist allies that mainstream rock world has ever seen. What other band on the brink of fame has told fans who “in any way hate homosexuals, people of different color, or women” to “leave [them] the fuck alone”?

Cobain wasn’t afraid to wear a dress in a music video just as all eyes were on Nirvana. He was, in his own words, “definitely gay in spirit.” Subversion of gender roles was at the center of what differentiated Kurt’s worldview, what made him such an ideal leader for a movement populated by white dudes. The proof is in how Kurt lived (married to the leader of a feminist rock band, friends with Kathleen Hanna) and what he sang about (in case of “Rape Me” and “Polly,” it was sexual abuse).

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5-e_OHMeX70]

“It’s sacred ground,” Grohl has said of performing Nirvana songs with a different singer. “If we were ever to do something like that it would have to be right because you want to pay tribute. There’s a reason Foo Fighters don’t do Nirvana songs.”

Jett is a non-obvious choice during a night of obvious-choice tributes, but what’s more important to focus on is that she was a Cobain fan. As Billboard points out, Jett said in 1996, “[Kurt] was a great guitar player and a great singer… I used to listen to [Nirvana] all the time… day and night. This should make, at least, for something genuine, from one gender-bending rock star to another. And hey, at least it’s not Paul McCartney!

(The 2014 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony will air May 31 on HBO.)