Last Thursday night at Brooklyn’s Barclays Center (sorry, Cleveland), the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inducted a slew of artists, including folk legend Yusuf Islam (Cat Stevens), country pop singer Linda Ronstadt, pop duo Hall & Oates, band manager Brian Epstein and Springsteen compadres the E Street Band. However, the most important moment of the night came with Nirvana’s induction in their first year of eligibility. Everybody has considered Nirvana a shoo-in member of the Rock Hall since the moment the band ended with Kurt Cobain’s tragic death 20 years ago. But in that 20 years, the Rock Hall has changed tremendously.
Over the last several years, music fans have criticized the Rock Hall voters for their questionable choices and snubs which kept classic artists like Rush and KISS out of the hall for nearly twenty years after they first became eligible and which have kept artists like Deep Purple, Joan Jett and the Runaways and Stevie Ray Vaughan from getting the recognition they deserve as important figures in rock history. Others point to the selection of hip hop and pop acts to join the Rock Hall ranks as a troubling lack of focus on their original goal, which is stated on their website as “existing to collect, preserve and interpret the impact rock has made on our world.” I personally don’t see this multi-genre reach as that much of an issue – artists like Beastie Boys and even Public Enemy have rock elements that warrant their inclusion, and even Madonna has been a big influence on pop and modern rock over the last few decades. But rock fans have been left disappointed nonetheless because these hip hop and pop acts take the place of their favorite bands. Many have also argued that the Rock Hall is now irrelevant, but I think there is no more important music institution. Regardless of the inductees, the establishment is sacred for its tremendous documentation of music history and role as the designated arbitor of musical legitimacy. Luckily, the induction of Nirvana this year has the potential to set the Rock Hall back on track.
Nirvana’s induction has the potential to change everything for future Rock Hall inductions. Even though there is no way they would not have been inducted, the band brought several inconsistencies to light during their speech. Their performance alone can also pave the way for the Rock Hall to return to their original goal of preserving history. First and foremost, the way the Hall chooses who gets inducted from particular bands is flawed. This year, original Nirvana drummer Chad Channing (and several past members of KISS) was not inducted despite drumming on Bleach and creating some of the drum lines for Nevermind, which Dave Grohl pointed out by mimicking the intro to “Breed” during his induction speech. The Hall’s explanation was that they wanted to induct the lineup of the band that was most recognizable at the peak of the band’s history. This explanation comes just two years after the Hall decided to induct Josh Klinghoffer who was guitarist for the Red Hot Chili Peppers for only one album (he played rhythm guitar for the band for several years, too) and exclude Dave Navarro who was with the band for just as long during their pre-2000 heyday. Pat Smear was also inducted this year as part of Nirvana, despite only being with the band for their last six months.
The other important part of the Nirvana induction was who the band chose to perform with them during the ceremony. Rock and pop’s leading ladies took the place of Cobain, with St. Vincent, Kim Gordon of Sonic Youth, Joan Jett and Lorde all towing the mic for a song each. (All of them, except Lorde, also performed with the band at their exclusive aftershow which helped Carrie Brownstein relive the 90s.) Whether this was an intentional statement by the band or not, these choices draw attention to these incredible musicians who may not have intensely popular followings like a Guns N’ Roses or a Neil Diamond, but who all have left an indelible print on history. Two of them have been eligible for the Hall for some time as well – this performance will most definitely convince the Rock Hall to reconsider their exclusion.
Because of this, the Rock Hall faces an important challenge. Toeing the line between influence and popularity can be difficult. Luckily for Nirvana, they embody both of those characteristics. However, with the massive proliferation of bands that started to form in the early 1990s, trying to distinguish the “best” from the most popular can become really difficult. The Replacements, Pixies and Sonic Youth can be considered some of the most influential bands on Nirvana and many other grunge and rock acts, so by default, those two bands should be inducted, right? Nirvana seems to think that Sonic Youth deserves some recognition by bringing Kim Gordon to the ceremony this year. But then would bands like Joy Division and Pavement deserve recognition? Like these other rock groups before them, Joy Division and Pavement influenced many bands even up until the present-day, but they’ve only managed to achieve comparatively cult followings and haven’t really been in the public eye as much as Green Day, who becomes eligible next year.
I really do not envy the Rock Hall’s job of having to choose only a few bands every year to join the ranks of music legends. It’s an incredibly difficult job and there will always be some kind of disagreement. I can’t imagine what the Hall will look like once the 2000s become eligible just 10 years from now, with too many pop and rock acts, indie and major label, to count. Nirvana’s induction has the potential to be a turning point for the Hall by helping to bring attention to those underrepresented bands that influenced tons of acts after them, much like KISS, who the Rock Hall claims inspired just as many kids to pick up the guitar and drumsticks as The Beatles.
Nirvana inspired me to pick up the guitar and Kurt inspired me to feel however I wanted and be okay with it. The first song I learned to play on guitar while singing along was "Lithium," followed shortly by "Polly." Without Nirvana, who knows if I'd care as much about music. Hopefully others have the chance to see their inspirations honored in a similar way.