When Nirvana and Pearl Jam Stood Up for Feminism

In the early 90s, the two biggest bands in the world took a forceful stand for women’s rights

Feminism and rock music have always had, at best, a spotty relationship. There was the horrific Led Zeppelin “mud shark incident,” 1980s hair metal (all of it), and even punk — with its ideal of complete inclusion — has had an awful history of misogyny.

Unfortunately, there hasn’t exactly been a ton of music that counteracts this ugly strand of rock’s history. Very few rock songs that have championed women’s empowerment have become bonafide hits. During the Women’s Liberation Movement there was Helen Reddy’s “I Am Woman” and Jeannie C. Riley’s “Harper Valley P.T.A.”, both of which hit the top of the charts. There was also countless songs in the 90s that people related to as quasi-feminist anthems — No Doubt’s “Just a Girl,” Alanis Morrisette’s “You Oughta Know,” and Meredith Brooks’ “Bitch,” to name a few — but these weren’t exactly political in any explicit sense. And that’s about it when it comes to feminist hits.

The most famous wave of feminist rock was the Riot Grrrl movement, led by Kathleen Hanna and her band Bikini Kill, originating in Olympia, WA in the 1990s. But as influential as the movement was and despite the massive amounts of media coverage it received, it was basically an underground scene. Unless you count Sonic Youth and Hole — both of whom were associated without being full-on Riot Grrrl bands — L7’s “Pretend We’re Dead” is the only thing resembling a smash to come out of the movement.

What’s often forgotten, however, is that Nirvana and Pearl Jam were feminist through and through. As the years go by, their very public attacks against sexism in the early 90s look even more remarkable than they did at the time. They were the two biggest bands in the world and they stood up for feminism in ways that today would set the internet on fire. And they were men! But they welcomed the challenge, practically egging on anyone who disagreed with them.

Although they’re mostly remembered for destroying hair metal and making mainstream rock respectable again, they should be recognized for using their platforms as the two biggest bands in the world to stand up for women’s rights. No one else on that big of a stage has come close in rock history.

“She scratches a letter into a wall made of stone. Maybe someday another child won’t feel as alone as she does.”

Pearl Jam’s performance of “Porch” on MTV’s Unplugged is one of the most famous moments in the series’ legendary history. Revisiting it now, it’s quite surreal — you realize how absolutely unproduced rock music was at the time. Could you imagine a major label band on their way to a diamond selling debut album allowed to act like complete goofballs on national TV today? You have Eddie Vedder falling off his stool, doing the drunken falling all over the place thing he used to always do (seriously, what was that?), drummer Dave Abbruzzese sounding ridiculously out of place because he’s playing as loud as he would at a normal plugged-in concert, and Jeff Ament rocking out on the bass drum, also acting like he was playing in an arena. This was exactly the type of behavior that led Kurt Cobain to once insult Pearl Jam as a band who was “pioneering a corporate, alternative and cock-rock fusion.”

But through all the buffoonery, Eddie Vedder made one of the most famous pro-feminist proclamations in popular music history by writing “pro-choice” on his arm in magic marker.

This may not seem like a big deal, but remember the absolute media sensation Beyoncé caused by simply having the word “feminist” displayed behind her at the 2014 VMAs? Imagine how impactful Vedder’s performance was 25 years ago, when abortion was infinitely more taboo than it is now.

Equally important as the Unplugged moment were Vedder’s lyrics themselves, which regularly dealt with feminist issues. As one writer puts it, “songs such as ‘Why Go,’ ‘Daughter,’ and ‘Better Man’ are as feminist as anything Bikini Kill ever put to tape.” Vedder was known for singing songs from the perspective of women, as he tried to present their point of view in an empathetic light. Even though men trying to tell the stories of women can be problematic — and this was a point of contention around the Riot Grrrl movement — Vedder’s sensitivity to feminist issues and his desire to place them in the public eye should be applauded.

Kim Gordon performs at Nirvana’s Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction in 2014 | photo: Getty
“He’ll keep you in a jar and you’ll think you’re happy.”

When Nirvana was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2014, everyone was wondering who was going to fill in for Kurt Cobain during their performance. Rather than select one person, the surviving members chose four different people — all women — to each perform a song. For many people, having women sing the songs of one of the most beloved male rock stars in history was a peculiar choice. But the band loved the idea and claimed that having only women perform the songs “would be a good tribute to Kurt and what Nirvana was about.”

Although most people didn’t realize it at the time, Nirvana had deep connections with the Riot Grrrl scene. Most famously, Bikini Kill’s Kathleen Hanna came up with the title for “Smells Like Teen Spirit” because Kurt smelled like the deodorant his then-girlfriend — BK drummer Tobi Vail — was wearing. But Nirvana’s feminism went far beyond this cute anecdote. Kurt constantly played around with gender roles in public—his wearing a dress in the “In Bloom” video is probably the most famous example. Kurt’s lyrics were even more intense and direct than Vedder’s when it came to feminist issues. His songs dealing with gender roles (“Been a Son,” “Sappy”) and rape (“Polly,” “Rape Me”) can be extremely uncomfortable for any listener. He even attacked Guns N’ Roses frontman Axl Rose in the press for his sexist and homophobic lyrics.

From Nirvana’s performance of “Lithium” at the 1992 VMAs.

Although there’s a lot of talk about how much Kurt hated fame, his popularity wasn’t the real issue. What he really hated was what came along with being the biggest band in the world: having complete assholes as fans. In 1992, he told Spin “I would like to get rid of the homophobes, sexists, and racists in our audience. I know they’re out there and it really bothers me.” He tried to weed them out of his audience by any means necessary — his approach would be way too confrontational for major record labels today. In the liner notes to Incesticide, Kurt expressed how furious he was that his fans were using his lyrics in hideous ways. He tried to drive away anyone in his audience that was prejudiced in any way. He wasn’t afraid to use insults, either.

“At this point I have a request for our fans,” Cobain wrote. “If any of you in any way hate homosexuals, people of different color, or women, please do this one favor for us — leave us the fuck alone! Don’t come to our shows and don’t buy our records. Last year, a girl was raped by two wastes of sperm and eggs while they sang the lyrics to our song ‘Polly.’ I have a hard time carrying on knowing there are plankton like that in our audience.”

It’s unfortunate that Nirvana and Pearl Jam’s feminism has become a minor footnote in their respective legacies. As stated earlier, no other artists of that stature — especially no male rock stars — have stood up for feminist issues in such direct and powerful ways.

Perhaps some of the disconnect can be credited to the general climate of the early 90s—a moment when rock bands were selling millions of records, were plastered all over the media, and were allowed to generally do and say whatever they wanted. Sonic Youth and the Riot Grrrl bands were constantly pushing feminist issues into the foreground and bands were regularly asked to take public stances on these topics. But record labels and MTV were simply cashing-in on the exploding “grunge” scene, thankfully without yet knowing how to control or sanitize it.