THE BLOG

How Nirvana Taught Me To Look Past Misogyny

02/27/2014 05:36 EST | Updated 04/29/2014 05:59 EDT

Hervana, an all-female Nirvana cover band, was one of those ideas where the name came first - thanks to a tweet -- and was too irresistible not to run with.

Who doesn't love a good pun? And the chance to pick up my guitar and play with other people after a few years of making electronic music alone in my basement was tempting. Most importantly, paying homage to the legacy of a band I loved so much seemed like it would be a good time. And so our alter egos -- Skirt Cobain, Miss Novoselic, Dave Grrrl and Pap Smear -- were born.

Nirvana's music was my entry point into the world of rock 'n roll, like so many people of a certain age. I learned to play guitar armed with a messy binder of Nirvana, Hole and Smashing Pumpkins tabs. The songs still hold up after 20 years, evidenced by the growing army of teenage Nirvana fans - who hadn't even been born yet when Kurt died -- discovering the band in recent days.

But it wasn't just the band's addictive combination of punk sounds with pop hooks that makes them so deserving of tribute. It's their oft-forgotten fight for the rights of marginalized groups - especially women and queer people - that has earned them a place in Hervana's hearts.

Kurt was incredibly vocal about his hatred of misogyny and was always willing to go against the current in the macho world of 90s mainstream rock. Perhaps most memorably, he appeared on MTV's male-dominated metal show, Headbangers Ball, in a satin yellow ballgown. (It was far from the only time he donned a dress in public - see the "In Bloom" video and countless photo shoots.)

The band also played the very first Rock For Choice pro-choice benefit concert, a move that earned them death threats from anti-choice protesters. Kurt's feminist convictions got him into confrontations more than once. He called out Guns 'N Roses' Axl Rose both publicly and privately for his misogyny, racism and homophobia, nearly coming to blows backstage at the MTV Video Music Awards.

Dig into the history of Nirvana and you'll find countless examples of Kurt's activist leanings. In case those actions went unnoticed, he spelled it out in no uncertain terms of the liner notes of b-side collection Incesticide. "At this point I have a request for all our fans," he wrote. "If any of you in any way hate homosexuals, people of different colour, 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." Elsewhere in the notes, he mentions kissing bandmates Krist Novoselic and Dave Grohl on Saturday Night Live, "just to spite the homophobes."

It was allyship not otherwise found in major label rock and brought visibility for anti-discrimination principles to a wide audience.

With riot grrrl spreading throughout the underground and Kurt using his celebrity status to advance the cause in the mainstream, Seattle and the surrounding area in the 90s helped pave the way for many musicians.

That's not to say there haven't been challenges. During my time studying audio engineering, where I was one of three women in a class of 20+ people, I stood within earshot as a classmate said, "The girls are only here for affirmative action, to keep the school open." Never mind that Hervana's bass player (Erin Saunderson aka Miss Novoselic) and I regularly scored top marks in our classes. According to our classmate, by virtue of our gender, we didn't belong there.

While those moments are frustrating, bands like Nirvana are reminder not to dwell on them and instead focus on the amazing things happening in Toronto and beyond.

There's Rock Camp for Girls, getting the next generation of female musicians hooked on writing, playing and recording from a young age. There are female-fronted bands criss-crossing the continent in vans every week -- or tour buses, if you're Beyonce's all-female backing band, The Sugar Mamas. ("I just wanted to do something which would inspire other young females to get involved in music so I put together an all-woman band," Queen Bey explained.) And there's my current obsession Tacocat, a feminist poppy-punk band who describe themselves as "equal parts Kurt and Courtney" and whose new single "Crimson Wave" is the catchiest song about periods you'll ever hear.

Nirvana shaped the rock landscape in a powerful way within a short time frame. Hervana celebrates a legendary band, both for their timeless music and their commitment to making space for diverse viewpoints in the music landscape and the world at large.