After reuniting in 2012 to record a new song with Paul McCartney as their lead singer, the surviving members of Nirvana pulled off the only thing last night that could qualify as even more surreal: the “Smells Like Teen Spirit” group performed with an actual teenager. Seventeen year old Lorde, the high school girl from New Zealand who has risen to pop stardom over the past year with her songs Royals and Team, took the stage at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony with Nirvana members Dave Grohl, Krist Novoselic, and Pat Smear to perform the band’s classic hit All Apologies.
Nirvana “reunions” have been sparse since the death of frontman Kurt Cobain and the subsequent demise of the group twenty years ago. Grohl has gone on to become better known as the frontman for his own group Foo Fighters, with Smear joining him on and off, and Novoselic finally appearing on a Foo Fighters album in 2012. The three teamed with McCartney to record “Cut Me Some Slack” for the soundtrack to the documentary Sound City, but aside from a Saturday Night Live appearance, the lineup was ultimately a one-time thing and never did include any performances of any classic Nirvana songs.
But Nirvana’s induction into the Rock Hall last night was a different matter. The context required that Nirvana songs be performed, which all but ruled out McCartney by default. So whom would Novoselic and Grohl tap as their frontman this time? Speculation over the past year pointed to everyone from fellow Sub Pop veteran Chris Cornell of Soundgarden, to Cobain’s mentor Michael Stipe of R.E.M. – And while Stipe did show up to give the induction speech, Nirvana proceeded to take the stage with a series of female singers in tow.
They recruited the hard rocking Joan Jett to sing Teen Spirit, along with Lorde, Kim Gordon of Sonic Youth, and St Vincent, each delivering their own versions of Nirvana’s hits. In hindsight it was the only move that made sense: asking any contemporary male rock singer, even the likes of Cornell or Stipe, to get up there and try to mimic Cobain would have come up short by any measure. By tapping all women, Nirvana ensured that each song would automatically sound different than Cobain’s versions. And by tapping Lorde, they reintroduced Nirvana’s legacy to her teenage fans.
It was a gamble which could have backfired. Would these veteran rockers in their mid forties look silly performing with a high school kid who hadn’t even been born yet when the song she was singing was popular? Could Nirvana be taken seriously with a singer who is several years younger than even Cobain’s daughter Frances Bean? But the understated performance, which quickly spread to YouTube as fans in attendance raced to record and upload it, instead reveals that a song like All Apologies is indeed as timeless twenty years later as we all thought it would be when it first released.
With Grohl married to Foo Fighters, and Novoselic having largely stayed away from the full time music industry for the past two decades, one has to wonder if last night’s induction was indeed the last hurrah for Nirvana reunions. But then again, which each such reunion turning out to be that much more surprising and surreal than the last, anything is possible.