by Dan Moore
Most music fans seemed to greet the news that Paul McCartney would be fronting what appeared to be a reunited Nirvana at the 12.12.12 Hurricane Sandy benefit concert with a mix of insistent cool-detachment and curiosity. Nirvana fans--at least the ones who use Twitter--greeted the news that Paul McCartney would be fronting what appeared to be a reunited Nirvana with an angry insistence that no, Paul McCartney would never, ever be fronting a reunited Nirvana.
I understand the denial, and it's fundamentally accurate; I'd be just as disapproving if Kurt Cobain were to tour as Wings with Linda McCartney, Denny Laine, and two people less famous than Denny Laine. But the anger--I think that's a byproduct of a phenomenon the McCartney collaboration has nothing to do with. It's a push back against the pop music inevitability that Nirvana will someday be as anodyne and unthreatening to future music fans as 70-year-old, guitar-shredding, suspenders-wearing Paul McCartney is now.
The analogy isn't perfect, which is why a subset of those protest-tweeting Nirvana fans insisted that things would be okay if only John Lennon were the pop genius standing in front of Dave Grohl. Paul McCartney was always The Cute One, after all--always derided as the lightweight, always disappointing people who were looking for "Happy Xmas" and not "Wonderful Christmastime."
But the guy up on stage tearing into "Helter Skelter" to the kind of polite-awe response rockers of a certain age get when they nail their own part was also the 26-year-old writing "Helter Skelter," getting willfully abrasive and aggressive all of five years removed from "I Want to Hold Your Hand." He was The Cute One, but he'd also pushed a really effective pop band into making Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band; three years before he wrote the sickly-sweet medley at the end of Red Rose Speedway he wrote the one at the end of Abbey Road.
Kurt Cobain will never write a great, completely un-revolutionary pop song like "Coming Up" or "Dance Tonight," let alone a successful cipher like "Spies Like Us," but that doesn't mean Nirvana isn't destined for the same transition from pop-radical to pop-cornerstone--it just means that we won't have the way people react to Kurt Cobain and Wings's "Silly Love Songs" to point out the changing way people react to "Smells Like Teen Spirit."
This is a popular factoid on those college-entrance surveys that come out every year: The kids who listened to "Smells Like Teen Spirit" when they were 16 are closing in on 40, now, with kids of their own. Their kids have always heard "Smells Like Teen Spirit" like they had always heard "Eleanor Rigby." It's not going to make them rebel or tune out, and it's not going to frighten these kids' parents. It's not going to hit them as The Sound of Their Generation because it isn't.
It's just good pop music with an appealing message and--yes--a dreamy lead singer.
I got this from Kurt Confessions, a Tumblr in which people who are Kurt Cobain fans--not just Nirvana fans, Kurt fans--write Post Secret stuff about him, specifically, and Courtney Love, and their daughter. There are more like it: "Whenever I'm really upset, I put my hand on my poster of Kurt's chest and if I concentrate hard enough, it's like I can feel his heartbeat"; "The fact that Kurt Cobain didn't try to be attractive makes him that much more appealing."
It's really affecting, actually, and it's proof that Nirvana--like the Beatles, who've generated Beatles diehards every year since 1962--will last as a cultural force. But they won't last as a counter-cultural force, because nothing does. People will always believe themselves to be Nirvana people, arrayed against the masses who don't like 2 Broke Girls, and those new Nirvana kids will be furious about Paul McCartney playing grunge riffs. But "Oh well, whatever, never mind" has already joined "All you need is love" on the list of radical statements that also sell well screenprinted on Beefy-Ts in the Wisconsin Dells.
That's how pop music works: You change the way it sounds forever, and then the thing you were working against--the thing you threatened--transforms itself in your image and disappears. Everyone else--the Monkees, Nickelback, even the next set of innovators--assimilates those changes, and then you're a beloved institution. Nirvana fans old and new do not want to see Nirvana become a beloved institution, and since Kurt Cobain is not around to slow down, to release some failures, they'll never be forced to come to terms with it. But it's already happened: Kurt Cobain is already The Cute One.
You can ask Tumblr.