When it comes to albums of the 1990’s that were not only extraordinarily profitable but helped shape the ideas and cultures of the time, it would be a grave error to omit the contribution of Nirvana’s 1991 album Nevermind. The original album sold over 24 million copies worldwide since its release, not to mention the millions of copies remastered, deluxe, and anniversary editions of the album have sold. Nevermind brought grunge and alternative rock into the mainstream, not just commercially but ideologically as well. Drawing on themes of romance, masculinity, and family dynamics, Nevermind is Kurt Cobain’s bold statement of non-conformity. Non-conformity has always been a popular theme in music that resonates with the listeners of its era, Nevermind and alternative music in general presented ideas specific to feelings of restraint experienced by late baby-boomers and generation x youth in the early 1990s. Nirvana did not become popular because the music sounded fun; like any band it was the things they sang about and the cultural ideas they presented that resonated with listeners.
There are many different interpretations of the songs on Nevermind, looking for deeper meaning in Cobain’s lyrics. There are so many, that even Kurt Cobain once stated, “Why in the hell do journalists insist on coming up with a second-rate Freudian evaluation of my lyrics, when 90 percent of the time they’ve transcribed them incorrectly?” (qtd. in Cross 182). The first issue presented, naturally, are being able to listen to the lyrics themselves. The nonsensical nature of Cobain’s writing, his slurred singing, and the fact that Nevermind’s liner notes did not include lyrics, made it difficult for listeners to initially understand what the songs were about. As memorable as the opening guitar riff of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” has become, many disc jockeys at the time were hesitant to play the song simply because they had no idea what it was about (Cross 204). Even with the lyrics provided, the nature of Cobain’s songwriting was not easy for all to comprehend. Dave Marsh, a disc jockey at the time, referred to “Smells Like Teen Spirit” as the “Louie Louie” of its time because of the way it reveled in its incoherence. When Marsh was provided with the lyrics, he stated ‘Worst of all, I’m not sure that I know more about ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ now than before I plunked down for the official version of the facts” (Marsh 206).
Getting to the meaning of Kurt Cobain’s lyrics and what made them relevant for listeners in the early 1990’s becomes much simpler by looking at the conditions under which the songs were created. According to Nirvana’s drummer, Dave Grohl, Cobain believed that “Music comes first and lyrics come second’ (Classic Albums). As such, most of the lyrics were written in the studio and not planned in advance. In interviews about “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” Kurt Cobain is not consistent about the meaning of the song, but he is consistent about the musical intent and his influences. “I was basically trying to rip-off The Pixies…. We used their sense of dynamics, being soft and quiet and then loud and hard” (qtd. in Fricke). Cobain knew what he wanted musically, but lyrically he was never certain. According to Grohl, “Just seeing Kurt write the lyrics to a song five minutes before he first sings them, you just kind of find it a little bit hard to believe that the song has a lot to say about something” (Azerrad 214). Knowing that Cobain wrote the lyrics quickly and at the moment of recording makes interpretation easier as they are his immediate thoughts. Instead of being couched in metaphor or containing deeper meanings, the lyrics of Nirvana’s songs are immediate and direct, whatever Cobain could suddenly think to create a rhyme. Only a few songs on Nevermind were written to a specific topic, the rest were Cobain’s immediate musings. The song “On a Plain” clearly shows Kurt Cobain’s songwriting method as the opening line is “I start this off without any words,” which is followed by some random musings about heroin addiction.
This is clear with the song “Something in the Way.” Long thought to be about Cobain’s own experiences with homelessness as the song is about a homeless person living under a bridge. This was cleared up with the 2001 biography Heavier than Heavy which asserts that it would have been impossible to live under any bridge in Cobain’s native Aberdeen, WA as the Wishkah River would have swept anyone away. “Something in the Way” was something Cobain saw written under a bridge and the song is just his immediate imaginings about the man who might have wrote that.
One of the most prominent thoughts running through Nevermind is Bikini Kill drummer Tobi Vail whom Cobain was dating just before recording the album. According to Kathleen Hanna, lead singer of Bikini Kill, her and Kurt vandalized an abortion clinic in Olympia, WA in August of 1990. Kurt had spray-painted the words “God is Gay” (a lyric that later appears in the Nevermind song ‘Stay Away”). Returning to the motel, Hanna wrote the words “Kurt smells like teen spirit” on the walls, referring to his relationship with Tobi Vail who wore Teen Spirit brand deodorant; Hanna meant to imply that Vail marked Cobain with her scent (Karavoulias).
References to Vail appear frequently throughout the songs on Nevermind. The song “Lounge Act” deals directly with their break-up and Cobain’s jealousy with lyrics such as “I’d like to, but it couldn’t work / Trading off and taking turns” and “I’ll go out of my way to prove I still / I still smell her on you.” According to biographer Charles Cross, the line in “Smells Like Teen Spirit” of “She’s over bored and self assured” is directly about Vail. Of the song “Lithium” Cobain said, “I did infuse some of my personal experiences, like breaking up with girlfriends and having bad relationships” (qtd. in Morris 53); one of those “bad relationships” being with Tobi Vail. “Lithium” is about a fictional person who, after a break-up, turns to religion as a last resort to keep himself from suicide – the title itself referring to Karl Marx’s statement that religion is the “opiate of the masses” (Azerrad 218). The song combines Cobain’s experiences with Vail as well as his thoughts on religion with lyrics such as “I’m so lonely, but that’s okay, I shaved my head / And I’m not sad / And just maybe I’m to blame for all I’ve heard / But I’m not sure. I’m so excited, I can’t wait to meet you there / But I don’t care.” Those lines, while comparing religion to a cult (“shaved my head”), express discontent about ending any romantic relationship.
While “Lithium” gives Cobain’s non-conformist statements about religion, many of the songs on Nevermind address Kurt’s own views about masculinity. Cobain’s ideas of hegemonic masculinity and gender roles were explored earlier with the song “Mr. Moustache” on Bleach (Azerrad 152) which is about parents raising their children to be “macho” men. Kathleen Hanna even referred to Cobain as a “fellow feminist” (qtd. in Karavoulias), and those feminist ideas are present in songs such as “In Bloom,” “Breed,” and “Territorial Pissings.” “In Bloom” is about the uncertainty of gender roles in adolescence (Azerrad 218). Lyrics like “And he likes to shoots his gun / But he knows not what it means” and “Bruises on the fruit – tender age in bloom,” express Cobain’s disapproval with traditional ideas of masculinity. “Territorial Pissings” condemns masculinity identities as stupid with “Never met a wise man, if so it’s a woman,” and pleads to “Gotta find a way – a better way,” than masculine ideals.
“Breed,” while addressing masculinity and family dynamics, contains Cobain’s non-conformist views on romance with “We don’t have to breed / We can plant a house / We can build a tree.” Cobain wrote the song “Polly” after reading a newspaper article about a 14-year-old girl in Tacoma, WA that was kidnapped, raped, and tortured in August of 1987 (Rocco 243). Interestingly, “Polly” is told from the point-of-view of the rapist who states “I want some help to please myself,” furthering Cobain’s views on romance.
Of the song “Drain You,” Cobain said that, while mostly made up on the spot, the first line of “One baby to another says I’m lucky to have met you,” was particularly important to the interpretation of the song (Cross 233). Biographer Charles Cross takes that to be about Tobi Vail and interprets the song with the idea of their emotionally draining relationship. However, Cobain’s mother was 18 when she became pregnant with Kurt (Azerrad 75), a baby herself. Many of the lyrics deal with the relationship between a mother and her unborn child, specifically:
With eyes so dilated
I’ve become your pupil.
You’ve taught me everything
About a poison apple.
The water is so yellow
I’m a healthy student.
Indebted and so grateful-
Vacuum out the fluids
Such lyrics bring to mind the still-forming eyes of an unborn child, in yellow amniotic fluid, and hearing childish fairy tales such as Snow White (poison apple). “Drain You” looks at the parasitic nature of an unborn child who says “It is now my duty to completely drain you,” and aligns with Cobain’s non-conformist views of family dynamics. It certainly fits more with the songs such as “Sliver,” about a child’s experience of babysitting.
Nevermind offered new songs covering a variety of topics but all of them focused on Cobain’s own version of non-conformity. By singing about romantic or family relationships, the damning effects of masculinity, Cobain’s expressions of non-conformity resonated with a generation that felt oppressed by society. In Buddhism, the term Nirvana refers to an ultimate state of release and liberation. Nirvana, the musical group, offered a similar experience for its listeners with its voice of non-comformity, a realization that one doesn’t have and shouldn’t follow the norms society has set for them. For the listener, the music was a liberating feeling that “Yes, someone else gets it,” and hope that others would “get it” as well.
I first listened to Nevermind (and everything else Nirvana) when I was 12. Two years later Kurt Cobain committed suicide. My peers and I were never absolutely certain what Kurt Cobain sang about; most of that material, especially his drug use, went over our heads. There were things we could relate to, however, easily recognizing the negative aspects of forced masculinity, at an age where gender roles were the means of schoolyard oppression. Myself and my peers found a kindred spirit with Nirvana’s music, a sense that someone else understood how miserable the world was. While Kurt Cobain didn’t intend to make a teenage revolutionary anthem with “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” that’s what the song became. His music resonated so strongly with teenagers at the time that when Cobain died, MTV spent the next week reminding viewers of the phone number for the Suicide Hotline and urging them to call that number and reach out if they needed help. People related to Cobain’s message of non-conformity, gave people hope that these oppressive mores weren’t so permanent. His suicide robbed people of that hope, indicating that society had won out, death was the only means of escaping the crushing oppression of conformity.
Nirvana’s music speaks to everyone else differently. Cobain’s ideas of oppression and non-conformity are ever-present, but the means of understanding them vary from song to song and listener to listener. Like the Buddhist concept of Nirvana, no two people achieve enlightenment in the same manner. Kurt Cobain didn’t have a message to deliver to people, he just wrote what he happened to be feeling. This happened to be the same way people in 1991 felt, and continue to feel as Nirvana’s music continues to find new appreciation with successive generations.
Azerrad, Michael. Come as You Are: The Story of Nirvana. Doubleday, 1994
Cross, Charles. Heavier Than Heaven: A Biography of Kurt Cobain. Hyperion, 2001. Print
Classic Albums—Nirvana: Nevermind [DVD]. Isis Productions, 2004.
Fricke, David (January 27, 1994). “Kurt Cobain, The Rolling Stone Interview: Success Doesn’t Suck”.Rolling Stone. Online. http://www.rollingstone.com/music/news/kurt-cobain-the-rolling-stone-interview-19940127.
Karavoulias, Terry. “The Story Behind Smells Like Teen Spirit”. UpVenue. 2016. Online. https://www.upvenue.com/article/1467-the-story-behind-smells-like-teen-spirit.html
Marsh, Dave. Louie Louie. Hyperion, 1993. Print
Morris, Chris. “The Year’s Hottest New Band Can’t Stand Still.” Musician. January 1992. Print. 52-55
Rocco, John (1998). The Nirvana companion: two decades of commentary: a chronicle of the end of punk. Schirmer Books.
Stromblad, C. (2012). Nevermind: How I found freedom in Nirvana. Kill Your Darlings, (9), 147.