By March 12, people in the U.S. finally realized that the coronavirus pandemic was going to massively disrupt our lives. The NBA had suspended its season the day before, and Major League Baseball scrapped its plans for opening day. Travel from Europe to the United States was called off. Waves of panic shopping took toilet paper, bread, and spaghetti sauce off of supermarket shelves.
The music industry faced a massive disruption, too—SXSW had been canceled the week before (on March 6), Coachella announced that it would be postponed until the fall, and major artists like Tame Impala, Chris Stapleton, and Kiss scrapped their tours. And Post Malone, the Grapevine-raised son of a Dallas Cowboys executive, played to a packed house March 12 at Denver’s Pepsi Center, where tens of thousands of fans gathered for what would be the final date of his “Runaway” tour. (Refunds for fans concerned about the spread of the disease were not available.)
Getting more video from inside @pepsicenter. Thought I was seeing empty seats for @PostMalone in the middle of COVID-19 outbreak. Turns out… it’s packed. So much for social distancing. #9News pic.twitter.com/8uPbHN0lEi— Ryan Haarer (@RyanHaarer) March 13, 2020
The entertainer, born Austin Richard Post, didn’t perform again until last Friday, when he and a four-piece band that included Blink-182 drummer Travis Barker, gathered—from a safe physical distance of well over the CDC-recommended six feet—in his Salt Lake City home to play a fifteen-song set made up entirely of Nirvana covers. Billed as a fundraiser for the World Health Organization, the set featured Post performing in front of a Bud Light-stocked bar (naturally, given the artist’s endorsement deal with the band) and wearing an oversized floral housedress in an homage to Nirvana bandleader Kurt Cobain, who famously challenged gender norms by performing in a dress (a look also mimicked by former Texas Senate candidate Beto O’Rourke on the cover of his early nineties band Foss’s debut EP). Post and Cobain don’t have much else in common, though, and it’s weird to see the songs by a band as famously anti-corporate as Nirvana performed in front of Bud Light product placement. Still, the band did a serviceable job of playing most of the songs, and for a good cause.
Nirvana’s songs aren’t hard to play, and Post sang the faster, more aggressive songs in the band’s catalog well, eschewing his usual autotune stylings for a throaty roar that made punky jams like “Breed,” “Drain You,” and “Territorial Pissings” work. There aren’t a lot of songs that are more fun to goof off playing than “Lithium” or “Frances Farmer Will Have Her Revenge on Seattle,” and Post and his band seemed like they were having a good time, treating the set more as an informal jam session—the delay between songs could run a few minutes—instead of a tight, televised concert. (That looseness felt more like sloppiness when they covered Nirvana’s slower songs, as they played rough, off-tempo versions of songs like “Something in the Way” and “Heart-Shaped Box.”)
Still, there’s something weird about seeing Post Malone pay tribute to Nirvana, of all bands. Cobain, who died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound in 1994, was an imperfect voice for his generation—he struggled with addiction and health problems, and was in a famously destructive marriage—but he came from a radically different school of thought than Post, who was born more than a year after his death. The wave of punk rock that Cobain cut his teeth in viewed “selling out” as the ultimate sin of rock and roll, something that immediately stripped an artist of all of their integrity. Meanwhile, Post Malone’s face is on Bud Light cans. Cobain’s addictions drove him to an early death at an age not much older than Post is now; years later, Post paid tribute to him while playing guitar in front of a fully stocked home bar. Cobain wrote in the liner notes to the band’s compilation album Incesticide that fans who “in any way hate homosexuals, people of different color, or women,” should stop buying Nirvana’s records or coming to its concerts; in his concerts, Post likes to introduce his song “I Fall Apart” as “to the stupid bitch that broke my heart” before leading the crowd in a chant of “Fuck that bitch! Fuck that bitch!” While Courtney Love and Nirvana bassist Krist Novoselic offered kind words in support of Post’s cover set on social media, Post Malone’s general attitude toward women and rock and roll hedonism is more akin to, say, that of Axl Rose—whom Cobain loathed—than the man whose songs he sang on livestream. (That the livestream was a fund-raising success, bringing in a reported $2.8 million, is nice, but it doesn’t mitigate those things.)
Time has a flattening effect on music, though. Cobain may have wanted to control who bought the band’s records and concert tickets, but ultimately he didn’t have that ability. The band’s logo has become one of the more commercialized icons of the past few decades—it was tough avoiding the smiley-face image at a Hot Topic, at least when the malls were open—and posthumous greatest hits and live collections further commodified the band’s work. Now, the songs Cobain wrote are just famous pieces of classic rock history, and if Post Malone is so moved by a song like “Stay Away” that he gets the title of it literally tattooed on his face, he can perform it, too. You can learn how to play every song Cobain ever wrote without ever reading the liner notes to Incesticide, and Cobain’s gift for combining a perfect pop hook with the aggression of punk rock can speak to you, even if the messages he hoped to use his fame to spread never did.
We can hope that Post picked a little of that up. Maybe there are some sexist, homophobic Post Malone fans who reassessed their views at the sight of their hero wearing a dress as he sang about a fan who “likes to sing along, and he likes to shoot his gun, but he knows not what it means.” But in the end, having the sort of immense fame possessed by someone like Kurt Cobain—or Post Malone, for that matter—means that anyone can take the parts they like from it, and leave the rest behind. The songs, especially the louder, faster, angrier ones, sound good in most anyone’s hands. That’s what makes them so enduring.