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A Few Thoughts on Nirvana’s Induction Into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame

By Conrad Amenta | 13 April 2014

Nirvana made pop music, both in the sense that Kurt Cobain wrote songs that were structured and arranged in fairly traditional ways and played on traditional instruments, and in the sense that his music was very popular. So I won’t presume to suggest that the band was credible in the sort of unimpeachable way we talk about emerging subcultural or underground trends being credible, or in the way we sometimes consider bands with an explicitly political agenda, like Pussy Riot, to be credible. On the surface of it—say, if you’d never heard Nirvana’s music before, but you’d just read their Wikipedia entry—Nirvana seem like exactly the sort of band that should be a first-ballot Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee. They sold a lot of records. They’re stylistically distinct. They distill a genre that influenced many other bands. They were important in the sense that they provide convenient shorthand to describe a particular period of rock’s history.

But when you get to thinking about the sound of Nirvana—not the structure, and not the historical footnotes, but the animalistic, visceral, wounded howl of Kurt Cobain’s voice and his stubborn refusal to say much of anything specifically—there’s something about their induction that feels wrong. In a lot of ways, Cobain’s lyrics predicted South Park morality: everything is stupid, and nothing, including what I’m doing right now, is exempt from mockery. There was a stubborn refusal to engage, a cynical, even nihilistic approach to living that negated concepts like politics and idealism.

Chuck Klosterman’s recent essay on Kiss and that band’s induction into the Hall got me to thinking about the Hall’s function and the various problems associated (but perhaps not associated enough) with imbuing countercultural figures with institutional credibility. Klosterman argues that Kiss exemplifies the true face of rock music: not the myth of rock—which is to say, its idealized, romanticized self—but the venal, hedonistic, commercialized, compromised, misogynistic, stupid, sex-obsessed, addicted true face of rock music. Kiss are absolutely obnoxious, offensive, and very, very dumb, but they are self-consciously so, which is important, because they simultaneously embody and reflect rock’s true values back at itself. To hate Kiss (as, I admit, I do) is to disclose that you hate a lot of what makes rock music rock music (which, again, I admit I do). Which is why Kiss had such a hard time getting into the Hall of Fame all of these years. For a rock institution to honor them would be to admit to less-than-flattering things about the genre it was established to honor.

Which leads me to believe that the Hall of Fame’s function is to maintain and enhance the mythology on which rock, or at least rock historians and critics, thrive: the notion of an individualistic, culturally relevant, politically engaged, meaningfully progressive, and aesthetically vibrant school of art. Rock can sometimes be some of those things; it’s very rarely all of those things; most of the time it’s none of those things. But instead of honoring those incredibly rare intersections of rock’s mythological components by leaving them be, or perhaps honoring the change they made possible, the Hall cannot help but institutionalize by its very nature. It make diverse elements relatable, common, and similar to one another, sacrificing the individual act, which may have approached some of those aspects of rock’s idealized myth, at the altar of rock and roll itself. The Hall privileges the myth over the freedom to be different. It takes bands that are sometimes about something and makes them about nothing, except rock and roll. This isn’t anything new—it’s a tale as old as church frescos and gallery exhibitions. Curation destroys nuance.

Which is why Nirvana’s surviving members could have done something truly significant and honorable by refusing to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. As a band whose music was basically about how everything is stupid and life isn’t worth living, Nirvana could have negated the importance of the Hall. Instead, the remaining members of Nirvana played some music with Joan Jett, a woman best known for her anthemic testimonial to a love of a thing whose routines she was enacting in the process of professing that love. Nirvana, like Jett, ate their own tail right there in front of everyone, and disappeared completely from relevance once and for all.

Watching Dave Grohl and Krist Novoselic on Jimmy Fallon recently, I was struck by how thoughtless the two sound in telling old Nirvana stories and what it means to enter the Hall of Fame. Being in the band, and being in the Hall, are experiences that are, like everything else, just pretty cool, and to be accepted without question or ever leaving one’s mark on the experience itself. Grohl and Novoselic have always seemed like affable guys, so it’s no wonder their collective reaction to their initiation was to be stoked. But it’s telling that another experience referenced in the interview was when they were asked by Weird Al Yankovic for permission to parody “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” There’s no order of values here; where once everything was stupid, now everything is acceptable. They chose to participate in that for no other reason than that a celebrity wanted them to, and in keeping with their underlying belief that nothing has meaning (even what is supposed to be their biggest and most culturally relevant song) they agreed. Grohl and Novoselic fail to see that their refusal to participate can imbue a seemingly worthless thing—one’s independence—with some value.

I suspect that, at least near the end of his life, Cobain understood the value of not participating in a way that Grohl and Novoselic don’t. We can imagine that Cobain’s suicide was the ultimate act of opting out from the compromised conversation that rock enthusiasts, or at least those who wonder what rock music is supposed to be, have among themselves. We can imagine that his death was ultimately representative of a principle, poorly articulated but viscerally felt, in Nirvana’s angry and profoundly alienated music.

Please understand here that I’m not trying to valorize or advocate for suicide, be it as an artistic statement or for personal reasons. What I’m trying to suggest is that if rock music—the institution or the individual—valued engagement with issues beyond its own mythology, then someone like Kurt Cobain may have felt they had more than a binary choice: to be a stupid, compromised rock star, or to refuse to participate. Cobain was left with an irreconcilable contradiction. He had an audience, but nothing meaningful to say to them, perhaps even because he had nothing meaningful to say. The rock myths on which he was weaned were totally bereft of nourishment. It’s all right there in his suicide note: “All the warnings from the punk rock 101 courses over the years, since my first introduction to the, shall we say, ethics involved with independence and the embracement of your community has proven to be very true. I haven’t felt the excitement of listening to as well as creating music along with reading and writing for too many years now. I feel guilty beyond words about these things.”

That Nirvana is now inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame settles, for me, the argument that Kurt Cobain left unresolved when he committed suicide: whether or not this very popular band could have found a way to embody the countercultural, anti-institutional, punk rock ethos to which it aspired. In 2014, 20 years after Cobain’s death, what could have been an occasion to interrogate the underlying mythologies that feed this commercial enterprise was instead occasion for yet another series of glitzy events, token sympathy, and false connectedness. Instead we got two nice guys who don’t seem to overthink anything, celebrating their final and total incorporation into the status quo. It seems like such harmless fun, which is to say, not like something that has any sort of burning platform or pressing agenda.

For those of us who grew up in the ’90s and who now, in our mid-30s, look back at our teenaged years and wonder what it all meant, we finally have our answer: nothing in particular.