On April 5, more than two decades ago, Kurt Cobain shot himself in a hotel room. His body would be discovered only 3 days later on April 8, 1994. The devastating tidings of his suicide plunged the world of music, and especially Grunge, into darkness. There were tears galore, thousands of destroyed fans, and disenchanted fanatics. Kurt had bereaved the music industry. Yet another gem had been lost.
A singer/songwriter par excellence, Kurt Cobain was only 27 when he gave in to depression and allegedly chose to end his life. He was a soulful poet and an insightful young man, as is evinced through his songs. Like with most celebrity deaths, speculation was rife. It was mired in controversies, with several rumors surfacing. Some believe that he was murdered by his wife, musician Courtney Love.
In a 1993 interview, Kurt said of his high school experience, “Because I couldn’t find any friends, male friends that I felt compatible with, I ended up hanging out with the girls a lot. I just always felt that they weren’t treated with respect. Especially because women are totally oppressed.”
Even in his heyday, Kurt denounced the patriarchy of the rock-n-roll culture and refused to belittle or objectify women. Like most suffering intellectuals though, Kurt was misunderstood by many. It is believed that one of the things pushed him over the edge was the fact that he felt misrepresented and misconstrued.
Here are some of his most popular and also, sadly, most misinterpreted lyrics.
Released in 1990, In Bloom is popularly believed to be a song that mocks those who do not understand or fit in into the underground music community. It is believed to be a song that derides the people who seek songs with pretty words and melodies so they can sing along, without really grasping the underlying meaning of the songs.
What it is actually about: As was clarified by Krist Novoselic, In Bloom is actually just Kurt’s self-deprecating angst. It was an outlet to how he felt about being someone who had to seek approval. The contradictory disgust he felt for himself every time he was applauded. He wanted it, but he hated it. In Bloom was meant to be Kurt’s critique of himself, for having sold out.
Believed to be about bipolarity and schizophrenia, many fans thought Lithium was a confessional song, with Kurt trying to portray his manic-depressive anguish. It seemed apt, given words like, ‘ I am so lucky, because today I found my friends, they are in my head’, which seem to be a confession about being delusional. To add to it, Lithium is a drug commonly prescribed to mental patients who tend to be violent, to sedate them.
What it is actually about: Kurt Cobain wrote Lithium to describe his experience while living with Jesse Reed, a friend of Kurt’s, whose family he was placed in care of, when his father realized that Kurt was gravitating towards Atheism. In his years with the Reed family, Kurt turned into a devout Catholic, only to later renounce religion. Lithium is his account of his years as a believer. In the years to come, religion remained an important part of his life and was a recurring theme in his songs.
Heart Shaped Box
Most people thought Heart Shaped Box was about Courtney Love, his paramour. While some people thought the song depicted Kurt’s disappointment over a failing relationship, others believe the song was actually about Courtney’s genitalia, an idea that Courtney Love herself promoted.
What it actually is about: The song is about children with cancer. Kurt had described the infomercials he has watched, of little kids with cancer as the saddest thing he had ever seen. Heart Shaped Box was his way of venting his grief over living in a world where even the really young and innocent are not spared by terminal diseases.
Rape Me, and Polly
It is quite preposterous, but most people believed that Rape Me was actually a sadistic, pro-rape song, written and sung by Kurt in a drug-addled state. The misinterpretation of Polly probably hurt Kurt more than any other lyrical debacles he had ever faced. Polly was hardly criticized for having been a graphic song about the torture and rape of a young girl, written from the rapist’s perspective.
What it actually is about: Rape Me is about Cobain’s contempt for the media, ‘Rape’ being an allegory for the propaganda dished out by media and blindly lapped up by masses. Polly was supposed to be an ironic censure of rape. Kurt was deeply moved when he read about the 14-year-old Polly who was abducted, raped and tormented by her assailant. He wrote Polly, as an ode to the brave, strong girl, who managed to get away by convincing the perpetrator to untie her. The fact that the irony was lost on many (even his fans) was something Kurt could not get over.
One cannot know for certain if being misunderstood and being conflicted about what he wanted, was truly what resulted into him ending his life. They say that he planned to move away, and was done with Courtney and Nirvana, both. In an impassioned tirade, he once said that his fans had forced him to become a recluse. While reasons could be many and multifarious, fact remains that Kurt’s death was an irreparable loss to the music industry.
Here’s to Kurt Cobain, for the seismic ripples he created on the fabric of Grunge music scene and the shocking finality with which it all ended.