Why Nirvana’s feminist statement rocked the establishment

The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame usually has about as much as common with the primal urgency of real, genuine rock and roll as masturbating alone into a crusty sock does with the felt reality of human love. It tends to be a chance for very rich old men to pat other very rich old men on the back and congratulate them on how many CDs they managed to shift before some bastard invented mp3s and kicked the arse out of the whole business. It’s like people looked at the rebellion and power of rock music and decided that what it really needed was an institution with a lengthy list of rules about who or what should be considered ‘great’. And guess what? It was usually rich old men. Fuck that.

This is what made it so surprising when Dave Grohl and Krist Novoselic used the occasion of Nirvana’s induction into the canon of rock to do something actually cool. Twenty years on from the death of arguably the greatest frontman to ever strike a guitar in anger, they invited four singers to take his place for one night only: Kim Gordon, Joan Jett, St Vincent and Lorde.

These provocative, leftfield choices span genres and generations – they’re 60, 55, 31 and 17 respectively – but you’ll have spotted they do have one thing in common: they’re all women.

Let’s put this in the context of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame: out of the 304 bands, artists and other assorted honourees who have been inducted into the Rock n’ Roll Hall of Fame, 266 of them are entirely male. There are only 38 bands or artists with at least one female member, making up just 12.5% of the acts. The Hall of Fame has found room for half a dozen “sidemen” and session musicians deemed to have played on enough recordings to make them notable, but not for Nina Simone, Kate Bush, Salt-N-Pepa or Siouxsie Sioux.

Guess who else isn’t in the Hall of Fame? Joan fucking Jett. When the former Runaways singer and guitarist took to the stage at Brooklyn’s Barclays Centre – the woman, lest we forget, who gave the world ‘I Love Rock’n’Roll’ – to join Nirvana to tear through ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ she was reminding everyone in the room just how narrow-minded a place the Hall of Fame has always been.

Without wanting to put words in the mouth of a man long gone, it’s easy to imagine that Kurt would have got a hell of a kick out hearing those four women singing his words. As St Vincent herself said of Nirvana on the night: “Those guys were feminists in the early ’90s, when it wasn’t hip to be, and they were rad and forward-thinking. If you’re going to play these songs again, do it from a little bit of a different angle.”

If a guy ever tells you a man can’t be a feminist, punch him in the cock. Kurt loved the Riot Grrl movement. He was inspired by artists like PJ Harvey, Marine Girls, The Slits and Joan Jett, and in turn he’s inspired a generation that includes St Vincent and Lorde. He was proud to be a feminist and so am I. It’s probably time the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame caught up.

Originally published in NME, 19 April 2014.