The night's final performance presented a heavy question: Who can stand in for Kurt Cobain as Nirvana's lead singer? No one, really. But the Hall of Fame's choice of four very badass women to join Nirvana's surviving members onstage – Joan Jett, Sonic Youth's Kim Gordon, St. Vincent and Lorde – was a brilliant way to honor the late hero's feminist cred and create an unforgettable rock & roll moment.
The tribute opened with Jett's tight, snarling "Smells Like Teen Spirit." The sheer emotional intensity of seeing Dave Grohl and Krist Novoselic play that song for the first time in 20 years was huge – it probably could have been an instrumental and had the same heart-stopping power. Jett nailed her performance. But let's be real: Hearing Grohl and Novoselic smash through their majorly historic parts (that drum intro, that bassline!) was the real "holy shit" moment.
The next three songs offered no shortage of those. Gordon was the only one of the tribute singers who actually knew Cobain well – Sonic Youth were crucial mentors for Nirvana, and they memorably toured together in 1991. Fittingly, she was the one who most channeled Cobain's menacing energy. Gordon screamed herself raw on the raging "Teen Spirit" B-side "Aneurysm," seeming just on the knife's edge of a complete freak-out, which is exactly how that song should be performed. This was no time for calm.
Next up, St. Vincent (a.k.a. Annie Clark) had a star-making moment. The accomplished indie singer-guitarist has been playing a great "Lithium" cover at her own concerts lately, but damn if it doesn't sound 1,000 times bigger and better with Grohl, Novoselic and Pat Smear backing her. She owned that song, and she made it look easy. Much headbanging could be observed on the floor.
Jett, Gordon and Clark returned a few moments later to join Lorde on the MTV Unplugged version of "All Apologies." Lorde wasn't even born yet when Cobain died, but she's clearly absorbed his music. She did a deft job of singing that eternally haunting song with the feeling it deserves. It was a sweet, sad reminder of what the world lost with Cobain's death, and the ways that his legacy continues to reverberate around the world – from Seattle to Brooklyn to Auckland, New Zealand – two decades later.