The former Cobain line is extremely well known. Just like the famous “here we are now, entertain us” from Smells Like Teen Spirit it’s a flippant statement Kurt Cobain claims to have used regularly as a default — “I hate myself and I want to die” in response to inquiries about how he was feeling in 1992, “here we are now, entertain us” when arriving at parties. In each case he liked the line so much he incorporated it musically; one as a song title, the other as a stand-out chorus line. Despite his claims that lyrics were irrelevant or unrevealing, the truth is a significant number of the words, phrases and ideas he incorporated were very personal even if unanchored from any overall narrative or theme — the Curmudgeon/Oh the Guilt examples being another case (https://nirvana-legacy.com/2013/03/25/reaction-to-fame-and-the-name-game-1992-1993/). I believe that there’s one more example that has been thoroughly overlooked.
I Hate Myself and I Want to Die was a response specific to 1992 though Cobain was unclear whether he was simply taking aim at the social expectation of having to say “fine” in response to the pleasantry “how are you?” (a topic he’d already taken on in Blew and Come as you Are); whether it was a consequence of his much-vaunted stomach pain; a reaction to his lack of enjoyment of fame and the demands of high-level professional musicianship; or just him being snot-nosed and bratty with those he didn’t feel like being nice to.
The response flipped, however, in 1993 to assurances to all-and-sundry about his pride in being a father, to the cessation of his stomach problems (Rolling Stone, January 1994: “my stomach isn’t bothering me anymore…I’m eating…It just raises my spirits”), to the kinds of positive forward-looking plans with which he ended the band’s official biography, Come as you Are by Michael Azerrad. He told writer David Fricke in early 1994 “I’ve never been happier in my life” and a year earlier explained to the L.A. Times “I knew that when I had a child I’d be overwhelmed and it’s true…I can’t tell you how much my attitude has changed since we’ve got Frances. Holding my baby is the best drug in the world.” Surrounding that with the resumption of touring in October 1993 (having played only 21 shows in eighteen months since March 1992) and with the constant barrage of declarations of love toward his wife, it’s almost possible to believe that the sarcasm-infused aggression of 1992 was over and done.
The problem is that the ‘flip’ initially arose from the deepest calamity the new Cobain family were to experience in their early days; the danger that their drug abuse was going to lose them their baby. The PR-exercise that took place in late-1992 through mid-1993 is well-known with Kurt roped into talking to the media to assure them all was well, issuing statements claiming the negative tales circulating were false, agreeing to let Michael Azerrad interview him extensively for the official biography. Both Kurt and Courtney owned up to past drug abuse while each assuring anyone who would listen that they had only dabbled and it was over and…Fairly demonstrably untrue in each case.
At this point Kurt claimed that the potential title for what became In Utero, I Hate Myself and I Want to Die, was just a joke that no one had caught — he dismissed it. The only difficulty being that he still thought enough of the line to keep it as one of his song titles. He was in a strong cycle of using titles as slurs upon his enemies; until the Journals emerged it wasn’t clear that Curmudgeon was another attack on the press; calling Nirvana’s Christmas release Incesticide was vicious; Oh the Guilt was an attack on the idea that he had to apologise for success; meanwhile In Utero switched Nine Month Media Blackout for the only slightly less overtly press-baiting Radio Friendly Unit Shifter and started the album with Serve the Servants, a statement on how he was expected to bow to the demands of the “self appointed judges” — a phrase that, in his Journals, is expressly used to refer to the press as part of his line about curmudgeons.
Very rapidly, in 1994, the entire set-up fell apart. Turning up to the band’s only studio session in a year proved too much for Cobain — he showed for one day. Touring proved too much — he cancelled most of the European tour. Nirvana had become an imposition, despite having forced a financial settlement on the band in 1992 that meant they were ever more dependent on live fees, he refused to do Lollapalooza therefore more or less signifying the end of Nirvana. Meanwhile the relationship with Courtney Love was…Tempestuous at the least, in a state of collapse at worst. Yet still Kurt Cobain was walking around saying things were good, he was fine, it was all great.
And then, right there in the middle of the last ‘great lost Nirvana song’, You Know You’re Right, he said it “things have never been so swell…” Just like those other throw-away titles and lines it was a one-off statement slotted into a track, repeated over, not particularly attached to an overall theme or idea but very explicit. ‘Things have never been better’, it’s said with a snarl, it’s patently a lie, there’s a sarcasm inherent in positioning it within the downbeat and defeated retreat expressed within that particular song.
What Kurt Cobain had been taught, in late 1992, was that he couldn’t hide or refuse media attention; he had to serve the public’s appetite for information and the commercial pressure for content from or, regardless, about him. He had also seen firsthand the danger of disregarding public image; he was willing to do anything to defend his privacy so was happy to engage the press and repeatedly lied to feed the media — it was the only thing that worked.
Within this last song he can’t help but parrot the PR line, scornfully, that he was having to reel out day-by-day to please whoever was asking him at that point. Looking at the song in that context, cohesion can be spotted in the fact that, like Blew or Come as You Are, it’s a subservient song, a bow to the needs of another individual. It’s a whole song agreeing to do whatever the unknown other wants and stuck within it, the lead in to the simple submissive chorus agreement “you know you’re right”, is the faked smile he was being asked to adopt against his will if he was to have a chance of evading punishment.
It’s beautifully ironic that the video constructed to accompany the release of You Know You’re Right was made so that it appears, at points, that Kurt is saying the words of the song. For a song about other people making him say things and having to serve the needs of image and of others, a video is made in which Kurt Cobain’s image is manipulated to pretend he’s saying words he really isn’t.