Music History

How Nirvana Lyrics Reveal Kurt Cobain’s Genius (Video)

Nirvana lyrics

Illustration by Dan Redding

Nirvana lyrics tell us a great deal about Kurt Cobain’s approach to art, his inner world, and his ambivalence about fame. Find out why in this animated video:

This Nirvana lyrics meaning video was made entirely by Dan Redding, including motion graphics, illustration, narration and script.

Nirvana Video Transcript

When Nirvana exploded onto the national stage in the early ’90s, critics bent over backwards trying to make sense of Kurt Cobain’s lyrics. It quickly became apparent that Nirvana lyrics invite a wide range of interpretations.

Consider the couplet from ‘On A Plain’ when Kurt sings, “The finest day that I’ve ever had / Was when I learned to cry on command.”

Is this a deeply personal statement about Cobain’s personal life, or is it just colorful abstract poetry?

It turns out that Kurt wanted to keep us guessing in this way. He neatly summed up his aesthetic during an interview: “I don’t like to make things too obvious,” he said, “because if it is too obvious, it gets really stale. … We don’t mean to be really cryptic or mysterious, but I just think that lyrics that are different and weird and spacey paint a nice picture. It’s just the way I like art.” (source: Nirvana: Live! Tonight! Sold Out!!)

So Kurt wanted to paint us a “nice picture” with his lyrics. He was, after all, a painter. He was also an introvert who was deeply uncomfortable with his own fame and notoriety. That’s why Kurt often created art that concealed more than it revealed.

Kurt gathered lyrics from the world around him. The title of Nirvana’s most famous song was taken from a joke that his friend Kathleen had scribbled on his bedroom wall.

One lyric from ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ was a sarcastic catchphrase that Kurt liked to use when entering a party.

Other lyrics were chosen simply because Kurt liked the imagery or the sound of the words. Kurt had a knack for putting abstract phrases right next to jokes and sincere emotions. This blurred the lines between all of those things.

Kurt was deeply inspired by The Pixies, who wrote lyrics in a collage style influenced by the Dada and Surrealist art movements. Pixies songwriter Black Francis saw folly in attempts to interpret his lyrics. He told one interviewer“It’s interesting to see people try to figure it out. But I guess there’s a presumption that I think is faulty — and that is that there is something to figure out.”

Much like the Pixies’ collage style, Kurt took a cut-and-paste approach to lyrics that he cobbled together from disparate journal entries and last-minute scribbles. This resulted in lyrics that often expressed a feeling instead of a literal meaning.

For example, Kurt said that the song ‘All Apologies’ “isn’t about anything, really.” But ‘All Apologies’ delivers a stirring emotional impact with lyrics like,  “What else should I be/ All apologies”

Nirvana inspired a generation of copycats like Bush and Silverchair. But unlike some of Nirvana’s imitators, Kurt’s abstract lyrics weren’t just random word salad.

Kurt’s lyrics came from a raw, emotional place. His lyrics paint vivid pictures, resist simple interpretations, and reveal Kurt’s passion and imagination.

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