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.
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