Kurt Cobain and Lyrical Meaning

Posted: December 9, 2012 in Analysing Nirvana Songs, In Utero 1992-1993, Incesticide

There’s a late 1993 interview on YouTube in which Kurt Cobain, when asked about the meaning in his lyrics, straight up denies his lyrics have any meaning raising his hand in the air and declaring “swear to God brother…”

If he means, “I don’t intentionally write meaningful stuff” he would still be playing loose with the truth; he admits over and again to songs having a story line or an autobiographical element, he just refuses to do so in a uniform way or without disclaimers. If he means “my songs have no meaning” then he’d be either (take your pick) wrong, lying or willfully self-deceptive. It’s a well known fact that, at least after his early writing visible on Incesticide, Kurt often mashed lyrics together at short notice. Again, however, that wasn’t a uniform writing pattern. There’s no evidence of how long the songs written in late 1990-early 1991 took to write but they were written at home, in private, not in the run up to album recordings or on the spot at rehearsals.

Also, the key point is that ‘meaning’ isn’t automatically entangled in authorial intent. If an artist writes a song and deliberately makes it about a specific topic (i.e., Sweet Child of Mine was written, deliberately, as a wistful love song hence the focus of all the lyrics) then fine, its about that topic but it doesn’t mean that the images used aren’t tied to other ideas in an artist’s work. The other way to void meaning would be to do a William S. Burroughs style cut-up in which all lyrics are found and thrown together from other sources – the author doesn’t write any of them. But even Burroughs arranged those cut ups into narratives and stories that he did, deliberately, construct. Therefore authorial meaning was returned to words that didn’t originally have any.

In the case of Kurt Cobain, the fact that he wrote fast, that he wrote things on the spot, actually brings us closer to interior meaning. Why? Because all the words and images poured onto pages came from his internal world without being warped or corrupted by deliberate intention – these words and images were what spilt out of him.

This is why, when studying Kurt Cobain’s life and works, the same themes occur again and again whether in lyrics, in diary entries, in his suicide note, in the authors he payed homage to or in his art work. He didn’t deliberately set out to write more songs about rape than about heterosexual sex – but that’s what came out when he sat down. He didn’t mean to write numerous songs in which the character is restrained, bound, under control – but that’s what came out.

A good comparison would be to query the meaning of a quality film. The Godfather is a film about the Mafia. Well, yes! True! …But it’s also a film about the bonds of family, about inheritance, the corrupting of good intentions…And on top of that it’s a film displaying Hollywood’s love affair with glamorous violence and crime, its relationships with organised crime (the tale is that the word Mafia is never used because the makers were pressured by associates of local crime families) and also the influence on screen portrayals of crime can have on individuals who have modelled themselves on it since then. Kurt Cobain’s lyrics aren’t Transformers; all surface explosions and no depth. Kurt Cobain’s lyrics bear comparison to detailed cinematic work.

The quest for meaning has given too much credibility to his own statements regarding his ‘meaninglessness’ while simultaneously every Nirvana fan looks at In Utero and can add up countless personal references and links to other songs in the Nirvana catalogue. Its part of the reason I adore Kurt Cobain so much; I think he’s, inadvertently, one of the most psychologically honest artists ever to breach the mainstream world and the linkages and connections between songs written across his entire career are quite stunning to behold.

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Comments
  1. jeswcollins says:

    I seem to remember seeing somewhere Kurt commenting on the meaning of “In Bloom,” in particular the line “knows not what it means.” He said something funny, that the song was about himself. He sings his own lyrics but he “knows not what it means.” Have you seen that interview? I’d love a link to it if it’s online somewhere.

    • nsoulsby says:

      Shucks, never seen that one. He’s quite a fascinating lyricist in that sense that his lyrics say one thing, his interviews often say another, then even better the explanation he gives for the lyrics often is just as disturbing or bizarre as the original line so he may as well not have bothered explaining! 🙂

      I would be unsure whether to take the comment that the line is about him as a joke, or as a genuinely revealing truth…Another lusciously doubled quotation. Thanks for sharing!

  2. Bobby says:

    I completely agree with you. I put a comment on youtube that there was no way he could have just randomly put anything in his lyrics, and someone called me a not so nice name. He wasn’t a fool. Nothing against Grohl, but Grohl seems to me a fool even having witnessed Cobain write and commenting Cobain’s lyrics had absolutely no meaning. Just look at Grohl’s lyrics, which are mundane and atrocious. The meaning is in arriving at Beauty. You can’t write a song like In Bloom on shear luck and achieve a multitude of contradictory feelings, which seem to all work together, by haphazardly sticking anything together. Try it yourself. Cobain had an awareness and sensitivity to what worked, even if he wouldn’t reveal this.

    • patrick says:

      I think drain you has a very distinct and haunting meaning. Once said you’ll never listen to it the same…

      Assuming anyones still here or cares to know?

      • nsoulsby says:

        …What do you think the meaning is?

      • patrick j says:

        This is a song about abortion. Mom’s having twins and doesn’t know it. The procedure happens and one of the babies survives paying homage to the lost fetus who allowed it to live unbeknownst to mom or the dr.
        —–
        During the bridge of the song listen for the squeaky noise effects. Those are actually baby toys brought to studio by kurt for the recording. Notice the underwater quality of that stretch. Listen for the back and forth effect and suction sound of the vacuum. Listen to the diminishing scream of the baby as its pulled away.

        Kurt hauntingly exposes us to the actual abortion through the surviving baby’s point of view. A concept song. Kurt recreates an abortion for our ears. Evil genius. It makes the babies scattered throughout his album art more chilling.

      • nsoulsby says:

        Like the precision of the thinking and the lyrical unity with Cobain’s very specific universe of imagery. I can go with this. What led you to this?

      • patrick j says:

        I’ve always been horrible at deciphering lyrics by ear. About a week ago I randomly decided to start looking up old nirvana lyrics while listening to the songs. I realized Drain you was about abortion a long time ago but didnt know i was listening to an abortion. It just clicked once I had the lyrics infront of me ,and when it clicked there was no doubt (for me) what the bridge is intended to be.

    • Personally, I think Grohl wasn’t being an “idiot” so much as faithful to the narrative. He was taking Kurt’s lead, as Kurt often protested that his lyrics meant nothing. I find the Grohl often did this. There’s little question to me that he was more of a rock dude until he joined Nirvana and was, or allowed himself to be, influenced by the other members and just went with the persona Nirvana required, everything from eschewing machoness to “tut tut, fame is so difficult” (notice how he never had this problem subsequently). I’m not saying this made him a phony, so much as a chameleon. In short, I don’t know that Grohl necessarily literally meant that the writing means nothing – Grohl also repeatedly called Kurt a genius while Kurt was alive, and there’s no sense that he didn’t really mean that. If he was a genius, the songs meant something too.

      Note that in the Azzerad book, Kurt quotes Dave’s father as suggesting that there’s some psychological meaning behind the fact that the first three Nevermind songs mention guns. Kurt says it’s an accident, or there’s no meaning that he can discover, although he’s tried. And although I suppose it’s possible that Grohl’s dad told that to Kurt himself, I doubt it, most likely he told it to Dave who told it to Kurt. In other words, they discussed the lyrics and the fact that everyone was trying to find meaning in them. But since Kurt’s own perception was that it was far from deliberate, I think that is what Grohl went with. If Kurt had insisted that an alien spirit possessed his body five minutes before the recording and he finished the lyrics through a process of automatic writing, I have a hunch that Grohl would have gone with that, too.

      • nsoulsby says:

        My feeling would be that, to some extent, that’s just what friends do for one another – you back up and reinforce your comrade regardless of what’s going on behind the scene; you learn where to moderate yourself a bit rather than just being their full on opponent over and again…Then, you speak truth when you’re alone with one another. I dunno. Your description is right – that Grohl clearly thought an awful lot of Cobain, that his endless positive vibe side came out more after but he was always jolly…

  3. patrick j says:

    and forgot to mention…im a twin so i’d be more prone to consider it.

  4. Patricia says:

    Patrick j I do believe you are absolutely spot-on, about this. Drain you is one of my favorite Nirvana songs, but I never interpreted the song the way you have. going to go listen to it right now. Thanks so much for sharing this.

  5. Gareth says:

    This article is kind of way too freudian there are interviews where Kurt said that the music is what he loved, the lyrics were always put in at last minute. (Interviews with the band will confirm that Kurt himself sometimes sang different things in practice because he had an idea of how the lyrics were meant to fit in but not what the lyrics meant).
    There are several interviews where he criticized people for trying to decipher his lyrical meanings, eventually he just said whatever you make to make of it, then goo ahead.

    Sorry but this was confirmed over and over by Kurt himself and the band.

    • nsoulsby says:

      Hi Gareth, there are substantial quantities of Cobain lyrics that were clearly and evidently not made up at last minute, plus my suggestion is not that “x song means y” it’s that the images that are within someone’s mind have significance: it’s the point of an inkblot test, what is it that is most prominent in someone’s head when they’re not thinking? Also, you’ve pointed out the contradiction: Cobain slammed out the music relatively firmly…But the lyrics took him far more time and energy with far diversions – it doesn’t suggest a man who underappreciated the significance of words.

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