Credits, clockwise from upper left: Tony Nelson, publicity photo, publicity photo, Steve Cohen
Clockwise from upper left: St. Vincent, Joan Jett, Lorde, and Kim Gordon
Ahead of Nirvana’s induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame last week, rumors swirled about the band’s frontman for the ceremony. Any vocalist they chose would inevitably — and unfairly — face comparisons to Kurt Cobain, but a curveball flew in as four frontwomen took the mic.
Joan Jett, Kim Gordon, St. Vincent’s Annie Clark, and Lorde all brought their own distinctive vocal talents to the four-song set that closed down the induction ceremony at Barclays Center. The choice was an affectionate nod to Cobain’s career-long dedication to women’s rights and causes, and shook up the night.
But how did these women fare singing four Nirvana anthems that in many ways defined a generation of music fans? We graded the results.
Joan Jett was called on to start off the mini-set, and drew the night’s toughest assignment by having to sing Nirvana’s biggest breakout hit, “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” But Jett didn’t shrink under the pressure — as if! — and her fiery, weathered vocals perfectly suited the venom and menace of the song. Plus, it helped to have Dave Grohl behind her beating the holy hell out of his drums. Jett fared a bit better during the chorus than she did during the verses — where her vocals took on the smoky grit of Kurt’s widow, Courtney Love — but she mostly nailed Nirvana’s outsider anthem with a poised coolness that has made us all to love her for years.
Ex-Sonic Youth star Kim Gordon has a long history with Nirvana, as the bands toured Europe together while Nevermind was blowing up back home and throughout the world (a tour captured in the brilliant documentary 1991: The Year Punk Broke). She fronted the band for one of their more blistering blasts, “Aneurysm,” with a voice that sounded passionately ragged, and which fit the song perfectly. Seeing Gordon dance around the stage while Nirvana was tearing things up around her was a definite highlight of the night, and felt cathartic in a way.
St. Vincent’s Annie Clark was an inspired choice, while also further clarifying the generational MO of Nirvana’s short set. Not only does Clark have the guitar chops to wail away with Pat Smear, but anyone who penned the brilliant lyrics, “Oh, what an ordinary day/ Take out the garbage, masturbate,” certainly won’t blush singing the lines, “I’m so horny, that’s OK… my will is good” to the thousands of fans who packed Barclays. The band had also warmed up by this point, and this version of “Lithium” absolutely slays. Even though some people in the audience had no clue who Clark was (“Annie Clark…from the Vincents?”), after this fiery performance they’ll hopefully seek out her own inventive work and never have to ask who she is again.
The selection of Lorde to sing the set’s final song, “All Apologies,” justifiably raised quite a few eyebrows. After all, she was born two years after Cobain died. But the choice makes perfect sense when you look at the eras of rock represented by the vocalists throughout the performance. Plus, it shows how a new generation of fans process the work and legacy of a band who had burned out long before they ever began engaging with music. As was the case with Jett, the song selection was a tough one for Lorde, as many diehard fans so closely tie this song (and its stunning performance on Unplugged) to Kurt’s death.
Quite frankly, Lorde doesn’t really have the personality, the inherent anguish, or the vocal chops to truly pull this song off. She tried admirably, I’ll give her that — but this was the only song that felt a little flat. Perhaps when a professionally shot/mixed version of Nirvana’s set surfaces that will change, but for now the sentiment behind Lorde’s selection spoke much louder than her actual performance.
In the end, the night was ultimately about Nirvana, and the music that they made together that forever changed the musical and cultural landscape. How nice is it to see and hear that Courtney Love has brought her long-simmering feud with Dave Grohl and Krist Novoselic to an end, and officially buried the hatchet (for now) with both of them. Nothing like acceptance into an artificial club to bring people together, right?