Why Shouldn’t Miley Cyrus Smell Like Kurt Cobain?

I will readily admit that I do not tend to keep up on much of anything that Miley Cyrus does. Her Twitter dis was too much for me to bear. Therefore, I was a bit surprised at myself for clicking on Stereogum‘s brief piece on her recent cover of “On Melancholy Hill” by Gorillaz. (Hey, it was listed as one of the site’s “most commented” articles when I made that particular trip around the Internets. Whatevs.) In any case, while I was reading the article, I took the bait and searched out the apparently now-sort-of-(in)famous clip of Cyrus covering Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit”. Dig the DIY footage below:

As should be expected, this performance elicited all kinds of caterwauling from the Nirvana faithful. The outcry is perhaps best captured in the comments to the TMZ post about Cyrus’s cover of the sacrosanct grunge anthem.

Here’s the thing, though: Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain nicked the title of his most famous song from the name of a deodorant marketed at teen girls. It’s called Teen Spirit. Get it—smells like teen spirit? So, really, why shouldn’t Miley Cyrus cover “Smells Like Teen Spirit”? What holy commandment is she, a young female performer, violating by stealing back Cobain’s inspiration?

Sure, these questions will probably result in the usual defenses of the “authenticity” of Nirvana/Cobain and the evils of Cyrus’ massively fabricated teen pop. Those defenses are, um, pretty lame, though. If Cobain’s work taught us anything it was about the shifting ways that gender can signify — and about how ignorant rock journos can be about these matters: “It’s a ball. Headbanger’s Ball.” Duh.

To put it another way, didn’t Cobain perform as a teenage girl? Why, then, can’t Miley perform as a grunge rocker?

Likewise, what many people see as Cobain’s crowning artistic achievement, his unplugged performance of “Where Did You Sleep Last Night?”, toys with the very sense of authenticity that it supposedly embodies. Yes, Cobain seems anguished during the performance. Yes, his final cry seems like he’s reaching deep down inside himself for some kind of preternatural, almost pre-linguistic kind of representation. Yes, he looks near death at the end of the performance—and sure enough, he would die shortly after it.

Still, the song was not his. It was Lead Belly’s. As such, Cobain’s appropriation of it speaks to the way that authenticity is always shifting—is always in flux—particularly when it comes to matters of music performance, something that by its very nature is—um, what’s the word?—performative and is not in essence authentic.

If Cobain did inspire an entire generation (and, quite obviously, he did), then we really should be receiving Cyrus’ performances in a much more educated fashion than we are (we should also admit that Cyrus has as much of a right to claim that inspiration as any skuzzy lo-fi band). If you think she sucks, then fine: think she sucks. If you think she is the Devil, then fine: think she is the Devil. However, if you think that she has committed the unholiest of unholy acts by tearing through a fairly decent version of “Smells Like Teen Spirit”, then, well . . . Kurt, what’s the word for that point of view?