A rebellious reputation isn’t going to damn you if you’re a rock star, and one way to attain that badge of “dishonor” is to simply play the songs that they don’t want you to. Look at Jim Morrison singing a censored line from “Light My Fire” when The Doors went on The Ed Sullivan Show in 1967, or Elvis Costello when he abruptly changed lanes on Saturday Night Live and launched into “Radio, Radio,” allegedly causing Lorne Michaels to throw up a one-fingered response during the entire performance.
If you’re a charitable sort, you could say that Nirvana halfway joined that select club during the 1992 MTV VMAs, but the reality is that they settled for a lesser act of defiance in the midst of a less than stellar night for a band in the middle of their climb toward eternal icon status.
It’s such a cliche to say it, but gosh, you guys, it’s hard to remember a time before Nirvana existed. In 1992, however, you could still see the pink fog and the high hair from the before times lined up in the audience at the VMAs. Nirvana’s Nevermind had been sent to us to destroy that status quo, or at least push it off-balance, with Kurt Cobain, Krist Novoselic, and Dave Grohl riding the success that came from the somewhat surprising collective selection of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” as the flannel-shirt-clad angsty teenager’s anthem of choice. Nevermind, which had debuted at No. 144 on the Billboard 200 chart in September 1991, held a place on those charts for a little more than five years, usurping Michael Jackson’s Dangerous on Jan. 11, 1992.
To say that Nirvana’s success wasn’t directly tied to their presence on MTV would be lunacy, but it was an uneasy alliance at times, with MTV refusing to air “Smells Like Teen Spirit” before finally relenting and giving it a test run on 120 Minutes, their alt-rock show.
By the summer of 1992, though, the network had long-since seen the benefit of being in the Nirvana business. and eagerly gave the band a performance slot on the VMAs, though there were still concerns about the content the band wanted to put on MTV’s airwaves.
“Kurt wanted to play the tune ‘Rape Me’ and was adamant about it. The MTV people were upset. We were being asked from all corners not to. I thought we should play something off Nevermind, do the gig, and leave. Easy, right? No. Kurt was very stubborn and refused to play another tune. There was quite a swirl around this issue.