Nirvana were a grunge band formed in Seattle in the late 1980s, with frontman Kurt Cobain, bassist Krist Novoselic and drummer Dave Grohl. They are known for kickstarting the “grunge genre” and their metal, indie and punk influences brought grunge into the mainstream. Their first album that included Dave Grohl on the drums was called “Nevermind” and was released on September 24th 1991, which flung the trio’s careers into the stratosphere. Nirvana later released their final album, “In Utero” in 1993, a year before lead guitarist and singer, Kurt Cobain, sadly took his own life.
Due to Nirvana’s rocker image and heavy sounding music, the messages that Cobain wanted to express were often overlooked. Many of the songs that Nirvana released were packed with themes mainly involving equality between genders and homosexual rights. These themes were often neglected or in some cases even misinterpreted. In this blog, I will be exploring the main themes and messages that Kurt Cobain and Nirvana expressed and how they communicated these liberal and progressive ideas.
Firstly, I will discuss the songs featured on Nirvana’s sophomore album, Nevermind. Released in 1991, Nirvana’s best-selling album was met with huge success, sparking a new generation and genre of music. This music was not only new, but revolutionary, due to its progressive messages. The song “Polly” perfectly encapsulates everything Nirvana stood for, by raising awareness about how awfully women are treated. In an interview with NME in 1991, when asked about his views on women in society, Kurt spoke out, stating that he “always felt that they weren’t treated equally, and they weren’t treated with respect”. These views are further exacerbated in the song. “Polly” is a song retelling the story of an abduction of a 14-year-old girl, who was tortured with a blowtorch, a razor and a whip and was raped by Gerald Friend, a middle-aged man. The song is told from the perspective of the rapist. The song is full of messages that exhibit the hideous behaviour committed by Friend. The emotive language used by Cobain really brings home his feminist views, with stand-out lines including “let me clip your dirty wings”, giving the impression that the rapist doesn’t want the girl to escape. Krist Novaselic also spoke out about this song, expressing his utter disgust at the incident and giving the impression that more people need to know about the awful crimes that are committed against women on a daily basis. He stated that “the only chance she had of getting away was to come onto him and persuade him to untie her. That’s what she did, and she got away. Can you imagine how much strength that took?” As I mentioned earlier, however, the message of this song was lost amongst many people and many people took it for face value. This became extremely apparent when reports of two men who were attacking a woman whilst reciting the lines of the song, indicating that the meaning had been entirely lost on them. This obviously devastated Kurt and Nirvana as was the opposite effect he wanted his songs and his music as a whole to have. Kurt later responded to the two men, by calling them “two wastes of sperm and eggs”.
Although Polly is the most overtly feminist song on the album, there are also many other songs on “Nevermind” that tackle many other issues. For example, in the song “Come As You Are” the lyrics “come doused in mud, soaked in bleach” are uttered. These lyrics can be seen as Kurt attempting to promote the idea of anti-drugs in his songs, as the phrase “if doused in mud, soak in bleach” was previously used in a 1990’s Seattle anti- heroin campaign. Cobain was often very vocal about his drug habits, however, he condoned the use of them, by often calling them “stupid” and boring”. The lyric “come doused in mud, soaked in bleach” was similarly misinterpreted.
Nirvana, as a result of these frequent misinterpretations, therefore, wrote a song about these misinterpretations and the ever-present gap between the band and their audience. The song, “In Bloom” was crammed with messages that Kurt stood for, ranging from the band-audience gap to the environment. Firstly, the chorus of the song overtly and directly references the idea of this gap when Kurt sings “He’s the one who likes all our pretty songs, and he likes to sing along, and he likes to shoot his gun, but he don’t know what it means”. It is clear from the lyrics and the way in which Cobain is singing the song that he is airing his anger at the people, mainly men, with the repetition of the male pronoun “he”, for blindly “singing along” to his songs without understanding the relevance of the social messages behind their lyrics. As the song progresses, Kurt Cobain references the state of our environment with the line “We can have some more, nature is a wh*re”. This gives the impression that we take our environment for granted as we keep taking and taking, without giving anything back. This message is further reinforced when the line “bruises on the fruit” is sung. This again highlights our abuse of nature. This message, along with all of Cobain’s other messages are almost more relevant now as they were, with regards to our deteriorating environment and our awful treatment of women.
Cobain’s feminist attitudes can be clearly heard on “Nevermind’s” seventh track, “Territorial Pissings”. The line “Never met a wise man, if so was a woman”, is briefly sung by Cobain just before the chorus of the song. This concretes Kurt’s ideas of equality. When asked about this lyric, Kurt responded with “I’m definitely a feminist. I’m f***ing disgusted by the way women are treated”
In a compilation album released in 1992 by Nirvana, titled “Incesticide” a strongly feminist song called “Been A Son” stood out which grabbed many fans attention. The song is sung from the point of view of a sexist father who resents and attacks his daughter, simply for being born a female. The lyrics highlight the ridiculous prejudices held by this this fictional character. The chorus, “she should have died when she was born, she should have worn a crown of thorns, she should have, been a son”. This repetition of the female pronoun “she” combined with the graphic imagery of a baby dying when “she was born” shows how disgusted Kurt was with the treatment of women.
Nirvana’s final album “In Utero” is without a doubt the most feminist of their albums, packed with artwork and songs that air their feminist beliefs. However, one song in particular, “Rape Me” is obviously the most feminist out of all of Nirvana’s songs. Instead of side-stepping the issue of rape, Nirvana immediately begin to address this issue. This song caused copious amounts of controversy with its questionable title, however, if you listen to the song, it is very clearly an anti-rape song. The song begins with the lyrics “rape me, rape me my friend”, indicating that it is often the people closest to us that rape. The chorus “I’m not the only one” highlight how common this awful crime is. When asked about the controversial track, Cobain responded with “the problem with groups who deal with rape is that they try to educate women about how to defend themselves. What really needs to be done is teaching the men not to rape. Go to the source and start there”. This reinforces and highlights Cobain’s strong anti-rape messages he aimed to portray in this song.
Nirvana didn’t only just express their views through their song lyrics, but through their actions as well. On the sleeve of the album “In Utero”, Nirvana wrote “If you’re a sexist, racist, homophobe or basically an a**hole don’t buy this CD. I don’t care if you like me. I hate you”. This illustrates how politically driven Cobain was, showing that he would even go to the extent of telling his bigoted fans that he hated them, as well as telling them not to buy the record and ultimately make him money. This isn’t the only time where Nirvana has put their beliefs before money. The band were offered to tour with the popular band “Guns n Roses”, however they declined due to the lead singer, Axl Rose, being known as sexist and racist. This again demonstrates how Nirvana were not willing to sell out. The band also decided to headline a show, called “Rock Against Rape”, which again shows their progressive attitude.
Ahren Bailey, Year 12.