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Who’s the Real Winner in the Nirvana/Pearl Jam Rivalry? Unfortunately, the Foo Fighters

The fall of 1993 was a major moment for rock rivalries. In September of that year, Nirvana released In Utero, their highly anticipated album after their major breakthrough, Nevermind. Less than a month later, Pearl Jam put out Vs., their highly anticipated album after their major breakthrough, Ten. While it would’ve been completely reasonable to be a fan of both bands, that’s not how it played out. You were either a Nirvana/Kurt Cobain guy or a Pearl Jam/Eddie Vedder guy.

What was exciting about that era was that it seemed as if we were gearing up for a legitimate rock band face-off not seen since the Beatles vs. the Stones. In both cases, you had two great rivals — each capable of dynamic music — but different enough sonically, thematically and spiritually that who you pledged your allegiance to spoke to the type of person you were. Generally speaking, Beatles people preferred melodies, optimism and love, while Stones fans dug guitars, danger and sex. Likewise, the Nirvana v. Pearl Jam debate boiled down to a personality quiz. Nirvana people loved sarcasm, subversion and art; Pearl Jam fans liked sincerity, big sentiments and mainstream arena rock. And because Cobain didn’t like Pearl Jam — at his kindest, the Nirvana frontman called them “a safe rock band … that everyone likes” — it only exacerbated the sense that you had to choose a side.

Of course, as music critic Steven Hyden points out in his book, Your Favorite Band Is Killing Me, the debate became something different after Cobain’s suicide in 1994. “[T]he rivalry didn’t die so much as evolve into a benign contrast between two ways of navigating success,” he writes. “Cobain will always be a romantic figure because he was cut down in his prime. But Vedder found a way to survive. Pearl Jam’s story of long-term endurance is more poignant precisely because Nirvana exists as an alternative path to early destruction.”

Picking winners and losers in such rivalries is a waste of time, but it’s worth pointing out that, if there were an ultimate victor in the Nirvana vs. Pearl Jam showdown, it’s neither band.

It’s actually the one that rose from the ashes of the feud: Foo Fighters.

As most know, Foo Fighters is the band Nirvana drummer Dave Grohl started after Cobain’s death — first as a solo project before transforming them into a legitimate group. From their 1995 self-titled debut to their new album, Concrete and Gold, the Foo Fighters have proved to be one of the most successful, long-running rock groups at a time when rock music isn’t nearly as popular as it once was. In fact, when Rolling Stone recently declared them “America’s Biggest Band,” it was hard to accuse the magazine of hyperbole. No other American rock group looms as large in the popular culture. Sure, maybe Radiohead or U2 have greater legacies, but they don’t have the band-next-door warmth that has been the Foo Fighters’ M.O.

In a sense, they’re the perfect amalgam of what people loved about Nirvana or Pearl Jam — they’re everyman rockers who also have the bulletproof Cobain cachet.

When Foo Fighters originated, Grohl not only had to wrestle with the loss of his friend and former bandmate — he had to talk about that grief endlessly while promoting his new band’s music. “I think about Kurt every day, and I miss him,” Grohl said in 1995. “And I realize that I miss him. But at the same time things keep going, and I’ve got to make sure that things keep moving for me. I don’t know if this band makes anyone else feel better — I just know I have to do it for myself. I have to feel like I’m moving forward.”

For the last two decades, that’s the line that Grohl has walked, knowing damn well that, initially, a lot of Foo Fighters’ fans were Nirvana fans who couldn’t let go of that group. Grohl had to try to be his own man while separating himself from Cobain — but while also not seeming like he was consciously trying to put Nirvana in the rearview mirror.

The initial records, Foo Fighters and The Colour and the Shape, duplicated the verse-chorus-verse formula that Cobain rode to riches, but the more the Foo Fighters went along, the more Grohl developed his own voice. Later records conveyed a sincerity and arena-ready sound that didn’t much resemble Nirvana’s punk-ish aesthetic. And in the process, the Foo Fighters produced a string of hit albums and alternative-rock smashes, even earning Grammy nominations for Album of the Year for 2007’s Echoes, Silence, Patience & Grace and 2011’s Wasting Light. They’ve now won 11 Grammys and are as respected as any rock band in the music industry — which was clear when the Oscars asked Grohl to perform during the ceremony’s “In Memoriam” segment.

But don’t those accolades sound like the kind of sell-out nonsense that Nirvana would have mocked back in the day?

By comparison, Pearl Jam has only won two Grammys, and their recent albums haven’t sold as well as the Foo Fighters’. Meanwhile, Grohl has been everywhere in recent years. He made a documentary about Sound City Studios, he put together an HBO series in which he went to different American music cities to record and his mom even published a book about raising a rock-star son. In his public appearances, he exudes a dorky-dad vibe — he turned 48 in January — and likes being the fun-lovin’ dude who can get close buddies like Beatle luminary Paul McCartney to play on his new record. Nobody, however, thinks of Foo Fighters’ music as being particularly risk-taking. Frankly, Cobain’s old diss of Pearl Jam — that they’re “a safe rock band … that everyone likes” — could easily apply to Grohl’s group.

And yet, Grohl and his band have never had to deal with the backlash and critical taunting that have long plagued Pearl Jam. To commemorate the 20th anniversary of Ten, L.A. Weekly published a snarky piece entitled, “Pearl Jam Are the Most Boring Band in 20 Years.” When the band was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame earlier this year, Vulture ran an article sticking up for the band with the defensive headline “Pearl Jam Might Not Be Cool, But That Doesn’t Mean They Aren’t Great.”

With the release of Concrete and Gold, Foo Fighters won’t have to worry about such cultural brickbats. Fairly or not, Grohl was never expected to live up to Cobain — or Vedder. And so, he just did his thing, making music that connected with a large audience that he never really challenged. But because we will always associate him with Nirvana, we give him and his band a pass when, if Vedder and Pearl Jam were in the same situation, we never would.

I’m not saying people should hate on the Foo Fighters’ music — or Pearl Jam’s or Nirvana’s, for that matter. But everything that Hyden writes about the “two ways of navigating success” overlooks how Dave Grohl ended up with the best of both worlds. He gets to lead America’s biggest band. He gets to enjoy plenty of industry clout. And he never had to get involved in the art-versus-popularity battle that informed the Nirvana/Pearl Jam debate.