Nirvana is a legendary grunge/rock band, made up of Kurt Cobain on vocals and guitar, Krist Novoselic on bass, and Dave Grohl on drums. Nirvana has won a Grammy for Best Alternative Music Album, multiple MTV Awards, sold over 52 million copies of their albums, and had two of their albums peak to the number 1 on the US Charts. But they are not just another bestselling rock band, they’re a band with a good conscience and a social agenda.
When most people hear Nirvana, the only thing they think of is Kurt Cobain’s tragic suicide, or their hit single “Smells Like Teen Spirit”. What most people aren’t aware of is their constant pushing of progressive ideals and feminist ways of thinking.
In a time where music was dominated by white, macho male bands, rock ‘n’ roll was represented by the sexist, homophobic, and racist attitudes of redneck rockers. Nirvana was not only an alternative option to the typical rock sound, but alternative in idealogy as well. In interviews and journal writings, they constantly spoke in favor of LGBT+ and women’s rights, as well as people of color. They defied gender roles by dressing in skirts and dresses to public outings, even performing a concert in January of 1993 in women’s attire. In one interview, Kurt exclaims that he “would like to get rid of the homophobes, sexists, and racists in [their] audience. [He] knows they’re out there and it really bothers [him].” He once said that he “is definitely a feminist. [He] is f***ing disgusted by the way women are still treated. It’s 1993 and some people still think we’re in the 1950’s. We need to make more progress. There needs to be more female musicians, more female artists, more female writers. Everything is dominated by f***ing males and [he’s] sick of it!”. In the liner notes of their album, Incesticide, they wrote “If any of you, in any way, hate homosexuals, people of a different color, or women, please do this one favor for us – leave us the f*** alone. Don’t come to our shows and don’t buy our records.”
As an avid artist and music lover in high school, Kurt grew up isolated by peers amidst a town full of macho, jock-type guys. The hypermasculinity and ostracization that was so prevalent in his hometown of Aberdeen, Washington led him to appreciate all the minorities, and associate with the people who got picked on or deemed as “lesser” in high school. Being alienated from the cultural expectation of masculinity, Cobain identified with the marginalized gender, racial, and sexual minorities instead. This hatred for close-minded macho white guys accumulated throughout his childhood, and not only led to the rebellious, teen-angst grungey vibe of his music, but attributed towards his progressive belief system.
Growing up listening to heavy metal and classic rock, Kurt soon became aware of the adamant sexism present in these genres and strived to make sure Nirvana didn’t concur with those same principles. Before lumping Nirvana into the same group as a band like Guns ‘N’ Roses, think twice about how similar they really are. Guns ‘N’ Roses perfectly fits the sexist redneck rocker archetype that Kurt Cobain and Nirvana so viciously steered away from. Nirvana and Guns ‘N’ Roses had many public feuds and at one show, Kurt told the audience that “[Axl Rose] is a f***ing sexist and a racist and a homophobe, and you can’t be on his side and be on our side. [He’s] sorry that [he] has to divide it up like this, but it’s something you can’t ignore.” His firm opposition towards Axl Rose of Guns ‘N’ Roses clearly exhibits his unyieldingly liberal stance on civil rights.
Nirvana rejected the rock stereotypes of their generation in multiple ways, whether it be through dress, music, or beliefs. By sporting flannel and skirts as opposed to leather jackets and bandanas, they didn’t look the part of a typical rock band. Their music was also a wave in a new direction, identifying more with the alternative/grunge sound as opposed to classic rock ‘n’ roll. They also constantly performed for civil rights benefits, exposing their activism through their music and entertainment. They played at a benefit that opposed Measure 9, which was a statewide ordinance that prohibited protections for LGBT+ people in the state of Oregon. They gave a statement about their performance to the press, saying that “Measure 9 goes against American traditions of mutual respect and freedom, and Nirvana wants to do their part to end bigotry and narrow-mindedness everywhere”. In a time where the LGBT+ community was facing much opposition amidst an AIDS epidemic, Nirvana’s open words and actions in favor of LGBT+ rights were revolutionary. In September of 1993, Kurt Cobain and wife, Courtney Love, performed at Rock Against Rape, a concert benefiting First Strike Rape Prevention, an LA Based Non-Profit Organization. They also raised over $50,000 for the Tresjnevka Woman’s Group, a Croatian organization that assists “ethnic cleansing” rape victims, which was a big issue in Eastern Europe at the time. Nirvana adamantly opposed rape, with Kurt describing it as “one of the most terrible crimes on earth and it happens every few minutes. The problems with groups who deal with rape is that they try to educate women about how to defend themselves. What needs to be done is teaching men not to rape.” They recognized the faults within the system and knew that teaching women to avoid getting raped was a form of victim blaming. The insight that this group gave about rape culture almost 25 years ago are more relevant today than ever.
Many stores have recently been selling copies of Kurt Cobain’s journals and through his writings, many of his feminist ideals have been brought to light. In one piece, he states that “the Afro American invented rock and roll and yet has only been rewarded for their accomplishments when conforming to the white man’s standards. [He] likes the comfort in knowing that the Afro American has once again been the only race that has brought a new form of original music to this decade (hip hop/rap)”. He clearly recognizes the internalized racism heavily present in the music industry and in our nation as a whole, and actively speaks against it. He has also said many times that he thinks male rock and roll has been exhausted, and that “[he] likes the comfort in knowing that women are the only future in rock and roll”. His blunt feminism is refreshing as opposed to the misogynistic views of most rock bands. In another piece, he writes that “all isms (sic) feed off one another but at the top of the food chain is still the white, corporate, macho, strong ox male. Not redeemable as far as I’m concerned. I mean, classism is determined by sexism because the male decides whether all other isms still exists (sic)” His thoughts about how white male privilege works is right on the spot, and well ahead of his time. His writings are truly a work of genius, and only further proves that Kurt Cobain was undeniably a true social justice warrior.
Many of Nirvana’s lyrics also exhibit their liberal voices, with songs Polly, Rape Me, Sappy, Been a Son, and Territorial Pissings to name a few. Polly and Rape Me are both adamantly anti-rape songs, but are tragically misunderstood. Both songs are in the point of view of a rapist, as if to put a mirror on the face of rape culture in a satirical way. But unfortunately, many media outlets and fans alike have misunderstood the blatant sarcasm present in the lyrics. Sappy is about the constraints and refines that come with being a woman in a world dominated by male oppressors. This song is a lesser known record, but the feminist meaning behind the lyrics are obvious. In Territorial Pissings, Kurt sings “Never met a wise man, if so it’s a woman”. This brilliant lyric speaks for itself. In Been a Son, Nirvana again speaks satirically, with many of the verses being common forms of judgement that people have prevailed upon women, such as victim-blaming and slut-shaming. These lyrics are meant to show people the double standards and just pure criticism that is strewn upon women purely because they are female. Nirvana loved to spotlight and slightly exaggerate the ideals of the oppressors in their lyrics in order to clearly show the bigoted realities of society.
Nirvana’s countless performances for civil rights related benefits, various writings on the importance of minorities, and opposition of macho rock standards makes them one of the leading feminist voices in the music industry to date. Not only were they an iconic band with passionate songs and musical integrity, but they were able to use their fame to their advantage by bringing the issues of the marginalized to the faces of millions. Through the tragic demise of Kurt Cobain, we mourn not only the end of an awesome grunge band, but the loss of a powerful progressive voice.