Nirvana’s Feminist Legacy and Breaking Through Sexist Norms

Jess’s Team Pick:

It is the 20th anniversary of Nevermind, the generationally unifying masterpiece that essentially redefined MTV and pop music, brushing aside pop mainstays like Whitney Houston and Michael Jackson in favor of the Seattle grunge/alternative rock era, dominated by Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, and Stone Temple Pilots.

Nirvana released just one follow-up album to Nevermind before Kurt Cobain committed suicide in 1994. I remember sitting in my parents’ kitchen reading the newspaper – my mind sufficiently blown. I LOVED Nirvana. Something inside me connected with Cobain’s hurling, pained lyrics in a very unique way.

The Daily Beast interviewed several women around my age to uncover why Cobain felt so accessible to girls like me, and discusses his lasting influence on women’s alt rock in Nirvana’s Secret Feminism:

“…The first human faces you see in the video for “Smells Like Teen Spirit” belong not to the band members, but to a group of heavily tattooed women dressed like anarchist cheerleaders, a swift but brutal rebuttal to all the images of acceptable femininity that your average suburban teenager lived with at the time. Forget the hair metal groupies or the bubbly beauty queen cheerleaders. For girls watching this video, it was a revelation: You could instead choose to be a badass.

…For fans, Nirvana often proved a gateway drug to discovering music that had female musicians to go right along with the feminist sentiments. Tara cited Nirvana as the reason she fell hard for alternative rock, bringing her to Tori Amos, Liz Phair, Hole, and Babes in Toyland.

A generation of women grew up clutching Nirvana records and moved on to clutch guitars—or otherwise see themselves as musicians instead of just fans—fulfilling the Northwest rock scene’s feminist vision, a vision that moved mainstream because of Nirvana’s popularity.”

…So much of the music made by men at the time that was popular was all about how women were basically just holes to fuck… Cobain “felt like a guy who viewed women as people.”

Did you know that riot grrl Kathleen Hanna inadvertently gave Kurt Cobain the title idea for “Smells Like Teen Spirit?”

Read the entire article on The Daily Beast: Nirvana’s Secret Feminism.

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Jess is a pop culture junkie living in New York City. She enjoys endless debates about The L Word, Howard Stern, new techy gadgets, DVR, exploring the labyrinth of the Lesbian Internet, memoirs, working out, sushi, making lists, artsy things, anything Lady Gaga touches, traveling, puppies, and nyc in the fall. Find her on Twitter @jessxnyc or via email.

Jess has written 267 articles for us.


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    Nirvana was very much a gateway drug for me, just like the article talks about. I was in my very early teens and it first got me into grunge (briefly), through which I found punk and Riot Grrrl which had a profound effect on me. Also, when I was younger for many reasons I won’t go into here I felt very much that men were The Enemy and that I couldn’t trust them and they were dangerous. When I read some interview where Kurt proclaimed himself a feminist, it really had an impact on me and made me realize that things weren’t necessarily the way I felt they were or at least they didn’t have to be.

    It’s strange to think about what an impact that band has had on me, considering I never really listened to their music all that much! It’s not that I disliked it, it’s just that I found other stuff I liked a whole lot better. But they were still important to me.

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    Kurt changed my life with his insightful and surreal music and lyrics. I only wished he could have stuck around to make more to listen to for future generations. I was compelled to compose a portrait of him In Memoriam recently on the anniversary of his death on my artist’s blog at Drop in and tell me your memories of his music and how it’s affected you.

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    There was an article about Nirvana in the mainstream, openly right wing newspaper we get at home today. It did not mention riot grrl or Kathleen Hannah or women at all. Autostraddle for the win.

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    The liner notes from Insecticide said “if any of you in any way hate homosexuals, people of different color, or women, please do this one favor for us-leave us the fuck alone! Don’t come to our shows and don’t buy our records.”

    So Kurt loved ladies and the homos.

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    Thanks, this was extra awesome! I had never thought of them this was but it makes a ton of good sense. I’m on a music high after seeing the Foo Fighters play last night, and Dave announced the 20 year anniversary right before he sang his tribute to Kurt, “My Hero.” Soo fucking awesome!

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    Didn’t Kurt claim he was bisexual in The Advocate once? Also, he would wear dresses in some concerts – he was really into playing with gender.

    I’ve also read that “In Bloom” was about the right-wing, bigoted jerk fans Nirvana started to acquire after they were getting big in the local music scene – who completely missed the point of their music and image.

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    Nirvana sucks. Always did. Maybe not quite as bad as regular pop music, but Dave Grohl held every smidgen of talent that appeared in Nirvana. True story. Kurt Cobain is the most overrated guitarist/ singer/ lyricist in the history of music.

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    I loved Nirvana. One of the first songs I learned on guitar was Smells like teen Spirit. With what was going on in my life at the time I just felt like screaming and thats what I got from Nirvana. Once at the end of a show doing a Nirvana cover I smashed my guitar to peases at the end of the show… Yes that really did feel good ; )

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