In Utero was not Nirvana’s response to sudden fame; its core narrative was a lashing out at media intrusion and perceived aggression toward Kurt Cobain’s family, the circumstances that made up his life in late 1992, not to the arrival of fame late the previous year.
Incesticide was Nirvana’s key comment on fame. People forget that as a visual artist as well as a musical one, Kurt Cobain communicated not just through lyrics. So, his record label want fresh product in the market to take advantage of the Christmas sales opportunity and Kurt Cobain responds…
…Think about the response. The season of family together and good cheer; Kurt Cobain calls the album Incesticide. Having selected a title unlikely to please the average parent, one specifically focused on destructive families, he then demands (and receives) control over the artwork. He seized the chance and created a cover picture of a damaged child trying to seek attention from a blank-eyed and neglectful parent figure. With a wonderfully dark humour he chose the vapid clichéd image of the rubber ducky to fill the back cover — a mass marketed product decorating a compilation put together primarily as commercial fodder. It’s little wonder the record’s working title was Filler — it was there to plug a gap between Nevermind and its successor without detracting from Nevermind’s stratospheric sales.
So far that year he had begun refusing to play any of the games demanded of him by success. Nirvana barely performed after February; he managed one proper day’s work in studio before late October (again another distracted one day of work); he did his best to not talk to the media; he even started a fight with MTV over his right to play a song they found offensive. Incesticide fits perfectly into that pattern as another statement of how much enjoyment he was taking from fame.
The liner notes were the next component of the album to receive focused attention. In it, Kurt swears repeatedly (“a big ‘fuck you’…” begins one sentence), tells any fan with views he finds offensive to “leave us the fuck alone“, cites annoying homophobes as a favourite moment of the year; and ends it with a mention of a horrendous rape and a quick line about “two wastes of sperm and eggs.” Again, this isn’t going to thrill anyone at his record label but he does it anyway.
The contents of the album were already uncompromising enough but, in mid-to-late 1992, all the elements that he could twist out of shape were used to create the least heart-warming Christmas gift imaginable. It’s intriguing that the album contained Sliver, Been a Son, Beeswax and Downer, all making direct (and negative) comments on families – but then, that’s not exactly an uncommon element of his music oeuvre.
So, in conclusion, Christmas 1992, a hearty fuck you from Kurt Cobain to all the families out there and to the demands of life on a record label — here’s the what your kid was going to want under the tree.