Originally published on Forbes.com.
In the 19 years since Kurt Cobain’s death, the concept of what the band Nirvana means has gone through somewhat of a cultural dilution. “Smells Like Teen Spirit” has been covered by Miley Cyrus (the 1.0 version) and the Muppets, for example. For some, these attempts to make the song relevant for today’s youth have weakened Nirvana’s identity as hard rockers screaming out against the mainstream.
But now the remaining members of Nirvana (drummer Dave Grohl, bassist Krist Novoselic and touring guitarist Pat Smear) have decided to resurrect the band and, more importantly, take control of what it means. In 2012, they joined Paul McCartney at 12-12-12: The Concert for Sandy Relief in a performance featuring a new song “Cut Me Some Slack.” Last week, on July 19th, they played again with Paul McCartney during the encore of his concert in Seattle. The joint set included a Little Richard cover and three Beatles songs.
Why is Nirvana joining forces with Paul McCartney for the supergroup now dubbed as “Sirvana”? One answer may be to remind the world just how hard they rock. The business world offers many examples of companies who found their brand diluted over time, especially following the departure of their leader. “When I got back,” said Steve Jobs on returning as Apple’s CEO after more than a decade’s absence, “Apple had forgotten who we were.” In the early 1980s, Harley Davidson had to resurrect the company’s original “retro” appeal after a decade of brand dilution. Lego also turned itself around in 2004 by restoring their core identity around play with simple bricks.
A recent study published in The Academy of Management Journal explores the means through which an organization can resurrect a collective identity that has been diluted. The paper’s findings shed light on what Nirvana is doing right with this series of performances.
Here is how it works: to resurrect an identity, you need to orchestrate experiences that evoke the core identity that the organization would like to reinstate. In the case of Nirvana, these experiences are live performances on prominent high-profile stage. Although they have not played any previous Nirvana songs, they are tapping into the core features of the Nirvana brand: Grohl, Novoselic and Smear crank out high energy punk rock with Nirvana’s signature roaring guitars and pounding drums, while McCartney screams out ear-friendly melodies. Although on the surface Nirvana and the Beatles appear to be opposite ends of a continuum, Cobain had in fact been a huge Beatles fan and incorporated their influence into his songwriting, especially in the emphasis on simple and accessible melodies. In the documentary Classic Albums: Nirvana Nevermind, Grohl says, “Musically we just wanted it to be almost like children’s songs. I remember we would always make that analogy, we would always tell people that the songs were intended to be as simple as possible.”
Likewise, Paul McCartney has been rocking hard in recent years in what appears to be an effort on his end to keep up with the state of music today. In a musical environment in which punk is just as mainstream as the Beatles ever were, the two acts – Beatles and Nirvana – have come full circle.
Nirvana recreated the emotional experience associated with their original identity. In this way, they influenced the way people talk about who they are. This is indeed what has been happening around the new Sirvana performances, which have been described as “ripping” and “raging.”
Last week’s show’s location in Seattle is also important, as it evoked that city’s own recent past as pivotal to rock n’ roll history. According to professors Howard-Grenville, Metzger, and Meyer, the authors of the identity resurrection study, “It is the shared emotional response to an orchestrated experience, not simply shared attendance, that deepens residents’ and fan’s understanding of symbols, bringing the past into the present.” By rocking hard in Seattle, McCartney and Nirvana actively shape their audience’s representation of who they are.
Whether Nirvana decides to release new music remains to be seen. What’s clear, however, is that last week’s performance has left the world with a desire for more. Watch Sirvana’s scorching rendition of “Helter Skelter” below.