Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain was a rockstar who was a couple of decades ahead of his time. In a pool of bands such as Guns ‘N’ Roses and Aerosmith, who dominated the rock landscape, Nirvana was a breath of fresh air and not just from a musical perspective. Cobain was a different kind of frontman, one who initially stuck out like a sore thumb in a pool of misogyny and helped change the attitude of rock music.
Now, we’re not here to try and suggest that Kurt Cobain wasn’t affected or even a fan of Led Zeppelin’s jams. The band would have undoubtedly affected Cobain’s artistic vision, whether he admitted or not. But the singer took umbrage with a particular facet of the band’s outward perception.
Cobain wasn’t your typical rockstar, and Nirvana dealt with topics that bands like Led Zeppelin would have stayed a million miles away from. An example of Cobain’s forward-thinking approach to music was the track ‘Rape Me’, which was about as heavy-hitting as a song can get. But the Nirvana singer felt compelled to spread awareness on the prevalence of this subject even further. Detailing the meaning behind the track, Cobain told SPIN: “It’s like she’s saying, ‘Rape me, go ahead, rape me, beat me. You’ll never kill me. I’ll survive this and I’m gonna fucking rape you one of these days and you won’t even know it.'”
The subject comes up again on the track ‘Polly’ from Nevermind. In a 1993 interview, Cobain delved deeper into where his passion for fighting for equality came from, revealing: “I couldn’t find any friends (at school), male friends that I felt compatible with, I ended up hanging out with the girls a lot. I just always felt that they weren’t treated with respect. Especially because women are totally oppressed.”
It is no shock that Cobain couldn’t bring himself to ignore some of the outdated misogynistic messages that were prevalent in Led Zeppelin’s work. Even though he, alongside Dave Grohl, was a fan of the music that Robert Plant, John Bonham, Jimmy Page and John Paul Jones created — some of the lyrics utterly repulsed him.
“Although I listened to Aerosmith and Led Zeppelin, and I really did enjoy some of the melodies they’d written, it took me so many years to realise that a lot of it had to do with sexism,” Cobain remarked to Rolling Stone in 1992. “The way that they just wrote about their dicks and having sex. I was just starting to understand what really was pissing me off so much those last couple years of high school.”
“And then punk rock was exposed and then it all came together,” Cobain continued. “It just fit together like a puzzle. It expressed the way I felt socially and politically. Just everything. You know. It was the anger that I felt. The alienation.”
These remarks were supported by the author of Cobain based-book Serving The Servant and former Nirvana co-manager Danny Goldberg in 2019 when speaking about the icon with Forbes. “First of all, I agreed with him about that. Secondly, I think he was torn: I think he liked the music. He liked Led Zeppelin’s music—and AC/DC,” Goldberg remarked.
“But the lyrics were not something that he felt comfortable with, for exactly the reason that you said. And I think I quote him saying something like that in the book, and I wanted to do it because it’s central to who he was as artist,” he added.
As Goldberg says, these values were central to exactly what Kurt Cobain was as an artist. He proved that you could still be the archetypal rockstar, who everyone grew up dreaming of being, without jeopardising his moral compass. He proved that rock music could be a profound entity without compromising quality.
Since the birth of Nirvana, rock music has never been the same, and we have Kurt Cobain to thank for that as he tackled a new aspect of society that had been overlooked for so long.