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The brave way Nirvana punished a sexist audience in 1992


The music of Nirvana owes more to punk than its minimalist, dirt-driven guitar lines. While punk and post-punk bands like Sex Pistols, Siouxsie Sioux and The Banshees, and The Cramps revelled in a self-conscious nihilism, their dismantling of the sexist, racist, and establishment structures at the heart of the music industry, belied their belief that a better world was indeed possible. In the 1990s, groups like Nirvana picked up where punk had left off. Kurt Cobain frequently spoke out against sexism and sexual violence against women, with Nirvana’s song ‘Polly’ offering a shocking insight into the danger’s women face in doing something as simple as attending a concert.

Unusually for a public figure of Cobain’s stature, the Nirvana frontman’s emphasis on gender politics wasn’t there merely for the benefit of the press. He didn’t fight sexism by making grand declarations in front of rows of photographers and media personnel – rather, he tackled the issue on a much smaller scale, ensuring the fight for gender equality (which many supposed ‘post-feminists’ in the ’90s believed had already been won) was taken to the places that it mattered most. That’s what lead Nirvana to make a startling decision at a 1992 concert in Buenos Aires, where they decided to play a particularly creative setlist, much to the anger of the 50,000 people who were there.

Recalling the concert in a later interview, Kurt Cobain explained: “We brought this all-girl band over from Portland called Calamity Jane. During their entire set, the whole audience… was throwing money and everything out of their pockets, mud and rocks, just pelting them. Eventually, the girls stormed off crying. It was terrible, one of the worst things I’ve ever seen, such a mass of sexism all at once”.

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Seeing how Calamity Jane had been forced off stage, Kurt Cobain threatened to cancel Nirvana’s upcoming set. But Krist Novoselic, the band’s bassist, had a better idea. Rather than not play, he suggested they go out there and confront the audience face to face. When Nirvana took to the stage, they immediately began mocking the audience, playing a selection of B-sides and rarities where they would have performed tracks like ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ and ‘Come As You Are’.

According to Cobain, Nirvana “ended up having fun” and laughing at the audience, who were submitted to all manner of torturous games. Before every song, for example, Nirvana would play the intro to ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ only to stop and play something entirely unknown. “They didn’t realize that we were protesting against what they’d done,” Cobain said. “We played for about forty minutes, and most of the songs were off Incesticide, so they didn’t recognize anything.”

For Cobain, the experience of punishing the sexist crowd proved to be one of the best gigs of his life, offering Nirvana the chance to play material they never would have had the opportunity to otherwise. “We wound up playing the secret noise song (‘Endless, Nameless’) that’s at the end of Nevermind,” he continued, “And because we were so in a rage and were just so pissed off about this whole situation, that song and whole set were one of the greatest experiences I’ve ever had.”

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