Wanted dead or alive

Nirvana as the rock gods they never wanted to be

What’s most striking about the video for Nirvana’s recently unearthed final song, “You Know You’re Right,” is that it’s exactly the kind of video the band never would’ve made during its lifetime.

A violent, visual cacophony of images spliced together in lightning-fast succession, the video merely dresses up the fact that it’s really Bon Jovi’s “Wanted Dead Or Alive.” Not literally, of course, but the clip is clearly in line with a style maddeningly popular with hair-metal bands of the late ’80s: the Rock God Footage Reel. It involves a series of cliched poses — the band rocking out live, smashing its instruments, clowning around backstage — plus plenty of footage of devoted fans, shot in “gritty” black-and-white and/or slow motion. Poison’s “Every Rose Has Its Thorn”; Motley Crue’s “Home Sweet Home”; and now, there it is in “You Know You’re Right.” Kurt Cobain bathed in stage lights, singing tenderly; Dave Grohl shirtless, sweaty, pounding on the drums; Krist Novoselic swinging his bass over his head in super slo-mo.

Wasn’t this the sort of shit Nirvana supposedly rendered irrelevant? The group was hailed as the antidote to the worship-mongering that surrounded bands like Poison and Motley Crue. They were clearly uncomfortable being glorified as rock stars. At least Cobain was.

Consider the videos Nirvana made while it was still around. In “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” the band performs in a dingy high-school gym, to an audience of teenagers and one aging janitor who seems to dig the beat. It’s no coincidence the teens are made to look like zombies, acting “stupid and contagious.” The song took a cynical view of its status as a teen anthem long before it even became one.

“In Bloom” dissects rock celebrity even further, parodying the Beatles’ appearance on the “Ed Sullivan Show” by setting Nirvana on a similar-looking program, performing to an audience of hysterical, shrieking girls. The video exaggerates the dual nature of Nirvana’s uneasy relationship with its own stardom. It pans back and forth between what you see on the surface — three clean-cut boys happily performing their hit for the screaming throngs — and what’s going on underneath: cross-dressing freaks thrashing uncomfortably in their own skin.

The surreal “Heart-Shaped Box” video features an emaciated, elderly man strapping himself to a cross, only to be pecked by crows. Cobain’s heavy-handed metaphor for the way he felt put-upon by his status as a rock messiah? Well, Novoselic once called it, “Kurt’s last testament.” Regardless, it’s pretty clear Cobain didn’t view his deification as a good thing.

Per the much-publicized terms governing Kurt Cobain’s estate, it can be assumed Grohl, Novoselic and Cobain’s widow, Courtney Love, gave at least their cursory approval to the “You Know You’re Right” video. It seems unlikely, though, that they offered any actual creative input. The video’s director is Chris Hafner, whose experience includes a couple of posthumous videos for another dead icon, Tupac Shakur. Hafner seems to have raided the vault of Nirvana’s record label, pulling out recordings of old concerts, interviews and videos, then edited them together with all the grace and style of a crystal meth addict. Effort is made to synch-up the visual imagery with the ebb and flow of the song itself. But all the quick cuts create a disorienting aesthetic jumble.

Hafner no doubt came up with the Rock God Footage Reel concept not as an intentional affront to the band’s legacy, but rather because it could be done quickly and cheaply. And what else could he do with a band no longer together? The way the group — Cobain in particular — has been lionized by fans and media, it’s unlikely Hafner even thought twice about it.

But it’s an affront nonetheless. And while it’s silly to blame a video made eight years after the band’s demise for bastardizing Nirvana’s legacy, if nothing else, it’s further evidence that even those charged with nurturing that legacy — the record company, Cobain’s estate — have lost sight of the things that defined the band.

Despite what inheritors like Bush or Creed might suggest, this band was about far more than feedback-laden guitar chords, tight, dynamic songcraft and angst-ridden lyrics. Nirvana brought a punk-rock ethos — a contrarian spirit and determination to follow its heart — to mainstream America.

Perhaps that was a move destined for disaster from the beginning. But for a brief moment in time, Nirvana upped the stakes in popular music. Rock mattered. By turning Nirvana into another hallowed rock dinosaur — worshipped with the same breathless reverence as the Bon Jovis and Poisons the group was supposed to replace — the stakes have effectively been lowered again.