Kurt Cobain wrote lyrics that resisted straightforward interpretation. This article should have stopped there. Told you not to bother working the song meanings out because no respectable punk would sweat over semantics. Nevertheless, we persist. Kurt had a way of dumping hopeless emotions into anthems celebrating angst and apathy. Even without knowing what Teen Spirit smells like or who Polly was, Nirvana songs are a feeling. See if you feel any different once you know how he came up with them...
About a Girl
One of Kurt’s songs with a very specific origin and subject matter - his then-girlfriend, Tracy Marander. Tracy and Kurt moved in together in 1987 and were smitten, but About A Girl was written when their relationship was going downhill. While Tracy supported Kurt’s music and art, she also wanted him to find a better job and help with rent money. His solution was to move out and live in his car. She asked him why he’d never written a song about their relationship. So, this was his response, summed up in the lyrics “I can’t see you every night (for) free”.
Don’t look too deeply here: ‘I'm a negative creep and I'm stoned!’ isn’t figurative. In a nutshell, it’s a first-person narrative which turns angsty cynicism and self-doubt into a darkly riotous assault of the senses. Although, Nirvana did get some grief from the Seattle scene about the lyrics “Daddy’s little girl ain’t a girl no more”, which was eyebrow-raisingly close to Mudhoney’s “Sweet young thing ain’t sweet no more”.
Smells Like Teen Spirit
The ultimate grunge anthem came to Kurt when his friend Kathleen Hanna from riot grrrl band Bikini Kill spray-painted "Kurt Smells Like Teen Spirit" on his wall. Kurt thought she was referring to his anarchism, but she was actually referring to a deodorant for girls. Kurt wasn’t actually aware this deodorant existed until months after the song was released.
Come As You Are
This is a song of acceptance - a song that welcomes in all misfits and outcasts, showing there’s room for everyone. Growing up, Kurt felt excluded from the ‘cool’ kids. He sang about this small-town small-mindedness in Bleach’s “School”, following with this track as an open invitation of inclusiveness. “And I swear that I don’t have a gun” is Kurt’s way of saying he isn’t a threat.
Polly is based on a harrowing true event. In 1987, a young girl was abducted by a man called Gerald Friend after a punk gig in Tacoma. She was raped and tortured, eventually escaped, and Friend was imprisoned. Kurt took the song on several journeys, conscious and disturbed by the real-life horror behind the subject. He settled with lyrics that formed the rapist’s point-of-view, which is what makes the song all the more chilling - or, in the words of Bob Dylan, had “guts”.
Don’t let the sunshine-pop melody fool you, Sliver is an eye-opening account of a sad, confused childhood. From the mention of being dropped off at different relatives for dinner to screaming “Grandma take me home”, it’s a visceral childlike feeling many can relate to. Kurt described how he felt after his parents’ divorce to the LA Times in a 1993 interview: “I was a seriously depressed kid. Every night at one point I’d go to bed bawling my head off. I used to try and make my head explode by holding my breath, thinking, if I blew my head up, they’d be sorry”.
A sweetly-strummed song about inhaling glue, with the purpose of enjoying a mutual couple’s hangover. It’s hauntingly beautiful - a Beatles-tinged whisper about being happy… only, Kurt wonders if he’s truly content or simply lacks brain cells. Relatable and genius.
To make her romantic interest in Kurt clear, Courtney Love asked Dave Grohl to give Kurt a heart-shaped box with a tiny doll and trinkets inside. While the song does seem to be examining their relationship (albeit through use of metaphors such as cancer, umbilical cords and ‘meat-eating orchids’), Kurt told interviewers that the lyrics came to life from watching terminally ill children on TV. Courtney has a different interpretation: she tweeted Lana Del Rey (who covered the song in 2012), saying Heart-Shaped Box was actually about her vagina. We’ll let you make your own mind up for this one.
Frances Farmer Will Have Her Revenge On Seattle
Born in 1914, Frances Farmer was a Hollywood actress who was punished for her political beliefs and broken down by the media machine. She began to drink heavily and was eventually committed to a mental institution.
While inside, the crushing conditions she was forced to live under, which included being raped every night, drove Frances insane. This song is less of a story and more of a premonition: Kurt imagines Frances returning as fire to “burn all the liars”. He reflects and empathises with her and the destruction of fame, with the lyrics “I miss the comfort in being sad”.
While most rockstars were ego-tripping over themselves, Kurt was making sure Frances Farmer did indeed have her revenge on Seattle. A true feminist with a big heart, he exposed the atrocities Frances experienced - and made sure everyone remembered her.