Could Nirvana really be about to replace Kurt Cobain? This month marks the 20th anniversary of his tragic death and also the induction of Nirvana into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (April 10). Since bands inducted into the Hall of Fame play at the ceremony itself, it is no surprise the internet is aflame with rumours since the recent tweet from the band’s former bassist, Krist Novoselic, that seemed to indicate he has been practising Nirvana songs.
This seems to run contrary to the previous comments by former drummer (and now Foo Fighter) Dave Grohl that Nirvana songs were, “sacred ground”, but could the fact that the Hall of Fame induction is to be conducted by Cobain’s friend Michael Stipe suggest a change of heart?
Whether it happens is one issue – we’ll see on the night – but just as interesting is the question this raises about authenticity and reverence for musicians. Can Nirvana be Nirvana without Cobain?
Paul McCartney’s live shows have long featured Beatles songs, but with a noticeable skew towards those on which he was the primary composer: he avoids “John” songs. Other musicians are less reticent. Queen have played occasional live shows as “Queen + Paul Rodgers” (with the latter taking the unenviable task of filling Freddie’s shoes), and of course both Pink Floyd and The Rolling Stones have continued despite losing original members.
According to music psychology theory, this lack of authenticity ought to reduce the audience’s enjoyment of the show. Research shows that people tend to instead prefer the prototypical version of any artistic object.
We find it easier to correctly classify prototypical versions of things (e.g., a chair with four legs, not three) because we recognise them more easily, and this makes it easier for us to operate within the day-to-day world. To put this in crass terms, it confers an adaptive advantage if you can correctly and quickly recognise the furry object running quickly towards you as a dangerous sabre-toothed tiger rather than your pet cat.
Similarly, we prefer the best-known version of a group’s line-up because it is easier to recognise and classify. You are hard-wired to like the “classic” line-up of a band because it rests on the same psychological trick that stopped your ancestors from being eaten by mammoths.
But even the notion of authenticity itself is subject to changes in fashion. The current popularity of “new folk” mirrors the Celtic pop movement of the 80s and the American folk movement of the 60s in suggesting that sometimes audiences demand the real thing, but will at other times accept the “diet” Hollywood version.
Kurt Cobain, John Lennon, or Freddie Mercury, though, are clearly special cases. The fact that Nirvana, The Beatles or Queen simply can’t ever reunite means we’re prepared to overlook the lack of authenticity and will happily settle for second best.
Tribute acts, such as The Bootleg Beatles, illustrate how even an impersonation of the real thing can be good enough simply because it reminds us of how great the original was. And that to me sounds like a great reason for Novoselic and Grohl to recruit a stand-in singer for the Hall of Fame induction.
It might not be the real thing, but it might also be close enough to remind us just what we are missing.