Nirvana’s Nastiness: Nevermind at 25

On the 25th Anniversary of Nevermind, we dig into our memories of the album, along with some of the darker elements that often get overlooked in nostalgia-filled retrospectives.

A stunning number of landmark albums were released 25 years ago, in the late-summer and early fall of 1991. Over the past few weeks, we’ve spent some time looking back at this all-star musical Class of ’91. Next up is Nevermind by Nirvana, which turns 25 on September 24. 

Ryan Sheely:  I’d love to chat a bit about Nirvana’s Nevermind. The album turns 25 on September 24, and I’ve been thinking about it a lot as the anniversary approaches. For me, Nirvana was one of the first bands I really remember being into on my own (I was nine when it came out). Around that same time, I remember being into “Two Princes” by the Spin Doctors, but I remember seeing the video for “Smells Like Teen Spirit” on MTV and it just blowing the Spin Doctors out of the water.

Everything about it just made sense to 9 year old me. Even though I knew nothing about “grunge” or “alternative” (let alone all of the antecedent bands and sub-genres that we’ve discussed on TFT), I definitely got the sense of it being something that was fully formed, something “cool” that I wanted to be a part of. This had to do with I think three things I remember from the video: the music, the presentation of the band, and then the setting of the video itself (the kind of dark, sarcastic, punky pep rally).

In case you need a refresher:

What about all of you? What are your earliest memories of Nirvana and Nevermind? Were you into it?

John Perich: My first exposure to Nirvana was a youth mixer at my middle school. Must have been 8th grade. The DJ staged a lip sync competition between the boys and the girls. The boys’ entrants did a fairly faithful rendition of “Smells Like Teen Spirit”, in that they stood still for most of it and then wilded out for the chorus. The girls’ entrants did Crystal Waters “100% Pure Love” and won.

In class later that week, one of the students asked the DJ (who was a teacher) why the girls won that one, since the boys were much more animated. The teacher explained that the boys were intermittently animated – standing around, miming instruments through the verses, headbanging during the chorus – whereas the girls were more consistently into it.

There’s perhaps a hidden truth there, about alternating between disaffectation and extreme frustration and how hard that can be to follow, but it was lost on 13-year-olds.

Peter Fenzel: One thing that I don’t think is stressed enough about Nirvana in our retro-hungry contemporary culture is just how nasty the band is. And I’m not talking about the usual “it sounds like I’m talking abstractly about a surreal metaphysical insight but what you don’t know is I’m talking in a very straightforward way about heroin addiction.” A lot of the lyrics on Nevermind and in Nirvana songs in general are cruel, bitter and heinous to an even greater degree than a lot of their famous contemporaries.

I don’t think they get associated much with Eminem because the racial and economic signaling is so different, but you can read the ouvres in parallel – there’s the one song that’s popular and that everybody loves which is incredibly sanitized and tame compared to most of their other work (“Smells Like Teen Spirit” and “Lose Yourself”) and then there are a ton of songs about being ragingly miserable and violent and saying the most horrible thing you can think of about any given topic.

And I don’t say this to condemn Nirvana or Eminem – I’ve loved both of them. Saying the most horrible thing you can think of on any given topic serves a variety of important, if not strictly positive, psychological functions, and are particularly powerful things to be able to do in periods of self-individuation and self-discovery.

But if you go down the list of best-selling U.S. albums of all time, Nevermind is in a pretty small group – the inner circle is the Marshall Mathers LP, Hybrid Theory by Linkin Park, and Kid Rock’s Devil Without a Cause – albums that sympathetically rage about people doing really terrible things to each other and themselves – self-harm, abuse, cursing at the listener, a pervasive tone of hatred, but that still sold more than 10 million copies.

The outer circle is the big hit albums by Guns ‘n’ Roses, Metallica, maybe some Def Leppard, where there’s a comparable level of anger and the subject matter is also pretty on the edge of “not okay,” but the voice of the albums don’t come down quite so hard on it being a foregone conclusion that people are and ought to be miserable and angry, and also not quite throwing it into the face of the audience quite as much just how much they want to confound norms for morality.

Nevermind was the album I liked when I was with my friends. When I was briefly playing bass in a few bands in my middle school years, we would always play Nirvana songs. Middle school was a cruel and relentless time for me where there wasn’t much of a sense of external morality in my social groups – tons of bullying, fights, physical abuse of various kinds, lots of discussion of extreme sexual deviance among my friends that made me really uncomfortable, having to jump from friend group to friend group because something here or there blew up with someone (and this was all in an upscale suburb – I can’t imagine how bad it was in places with actual economic and social problems) – and while when I was at home I’d be more likely to listen to Spin Doctors, Pearl Jam, Soul Asylum, Crash Test Dummies, stuff like that, because I had a strong angry sense of “there ought to be some justice,” or softer stuff like Blues Traveler because “there ought to be some peace of mind,” Nirvana (and Alice in Chains, and Smashing Pumpkins) to me were associated with my peers, the music on the outside, the way the other kids, who were more socially successful, more aggressive, more sexual, and generally better at being teenagers than I was, approached the state of rebellion in those years.

I think “Polly” is as important a song on Nevermind to me as “Smells Like Teen Spirit” is, to understand the place of the band in the zeitgeist as I experienced it at the time. And it’s not a song I’m fond of or like to listen to all the way through.

Here’s another question I don’t know the answer to: “What, in plain terms, is the sequence of events that takes place in ‘Come As You Are?’”

Jordan Stokes:  I’ll say this much: I didn’t understand more than a few words of Nirvana when I was listening to it back in the day, and I didn’t care. It was about the snarl and crunch, and the few lines that somehow pogo-ed their way across my threshold of comprehensibility. I knew that in “Come as You Are,” he didn’t have a gun, I didn’t have the first idea why that was relevant.

Any analysis that depends on what, in plain terms, one of the songs is about, is going to be radically foreign to my experience of the music, because it misses the fact that the songs do not speak in plain terms. The content of the muddle is occlusion.

Occlusion is the thing that I ravenously consumed. Occlusion was — I guess — what I so badly needed from my music, at that particular time.

One weird aspect of this is that, at the time, I translated a lot of the bits of the songs that did hear into some sort of literal/epic-fantasy scenario, rather than reading them as the metaphors that they obviously are. Like, I’m pretty sure I thought Polly was about an oddly sentient parrot. “What a strange and wonderful world Kurt Cobain must inhabit! He can talk to all the animals, except for fish. Mysteeeerious!”  The music was like a magic trick. Knowing what it meant — how it worked — would actually destroy the experience of it.

Back to Pete’s question of what is happening in “Come as You Are,” I gave you my answer: basically nothing. Or rather, that’s how I approached it when this music mattered the most to me. Looking at it now, with my jaundiced-critic eyes…

I think that the “you” in the song is a memory, possibly of someone who died. The doused in mud/soaked in bleach line suggests someone who has been embalmed and buried. The person was probably a love interest of some sort — the repeated “as a friend” line only makes sense if there’s some expectation that they would not be just friends.

Anyway, whether this girl is dead or not, Cobain isn’t actually talking to her now. He’s talking to the walls — to the void — summoning her in the only form that he can still access: as a memory. When he swears that he has a gun — well, he almost certainly does have a gun.

“I literally don’t have a gun.”

But since the other person is either a ghost or a memory, the only person that the gun poses a threat to is the singer. And maybe thinking about this absent person is not something that he ought to do while he’s armed. Like, he’s trying to work up the courage to commit suicide, and dwelling on this old relationship is very painful for him. This woman is the biggest check on the “don’t live” side of his ledger, so he’s trying to focus on her. But for whatever reason, the she’s eluding him, even as a thought. So he sings.

I’m almost certainly projecting Cobain’s real-world tragedy onto the lyrics, though.


I guess there’s another interpretation where he’s harassing his ex-girlfriend with a late night phone call. “Hey, remember how you broke my heart three years ago? Why don’t you come over to my place and talk about it. Yeah, I know you’re already in your PJs, just come as you are, I don’t care. P.S. I am not armed. Seriously, though, I don’t have a gun! I don’t! There is nothing creepy about repeating this!”

But in that case, I don’t see the point of the “memoria”/”memory, yeah” business, which is such a major part of the song.

Fenzel: I admit I was very persuaded by your description of the extraverbal semantic experience of the music. You captured something it has been hard for me to articulate. My experience of music is often very verbal, which makes it hard for me to appreciate some kinds of music, particularly concerts where I can’t understand the words being sung, but they’re still in English, so I don’t have the “permission” that a foreign language would give me to just sit back and not worry about meanings.

But as to the semantic content of “Come As You Are,” I believe Cobain when he says he left it deliberately ambiguous, but even if you separate it from what happened to him, the axes of the ambiguity align the message around possible events.

First, it’s hard to get away from the sexual context of saying “Come” and then pausing. I think interpretation starts with assuming he’s speaking in relation to some sort of sexual experience or desire for sexual experience.

There’s no described identity in the song to identify with the “I” like there would be in a Pearl Jam song, so My gut says we’re dealing with one of two possibilities. The first is dealing with the “performance of the speaker as the singer” – where there’s a broad semifictional notion of who the singer is, and that’s the person who sings the song (like when you listen to “Graceland” you picture an idea if Paul Simon and his dog, not some random agricultural worker). The second is he’s recounting something that somebody else said to him that felt wrong, so he’s fixating on it with some relish. The main sense of that comes from the “as I want you to be” – the expectation of the time and the genre is that this is said by parents, conformists, or other villains, because of course conforming is bad and nonconforming/alternative stuff is good. It could also ambiguously be both these things

The litany of control, debasement and transgression in the “come as you are” section reminds me a lot of “Sweet Dreams Are Made of This” by the Eurythmics, which had come out 8 years before – where the speaker as singer is ostensibly singing about other people but you get the song is revealing private sexual predilection of the singer as well.

“You get to be in charge, we can all feel a sense of loss, or I can be in charge, and it’s all languid and Continental and darkly sexy” is a familiar litany.

And it’s a bit similar of a feel to “Closer” as well.

Sheely: That reading definitely then helps to contextualize the Marilyn Manson cover of “Sweet Dreams as well.

Fenzel: Later in “Come as You Are,” the song takes a turn and starts describing not sexy situations, or even of sexy debasement, but situations of actual debasement and violence. Pouring bleach on someone is way past the safe word, and it’s not even exotic. And at the same time the erotic edge to the voice leaves, and it seems a little bit more mundane of a sort of want.

Like we go from “I want to tie you up and hear you say my name” to “I want to tie you up and punch you in the face.” It’s both more extreme and also duller and more pedestrian.

Those quotes are analogous, obviously. They’re not really in the song. That just is what it feels like to me, hidden behind language and delivery that is also trying to avoid easy understanding. It all feels like a trick or a trap.

I don’t doubt the beckoner wants both things quite a bit – the sexual domination and then the straight up injury to the other person – but the one being beckoned is less of a willing participant in the latter.

Especially given different cultural norms around domestic violence at the time, I can easily see a pretty white man say he’s just talking about identity and domination in society, but it’s much crueller than most of contemporary culture would tolerate (think about how much less aggressive “Blurred Lines” is, and how much heat Robin Thicke took for it).

And then there’s the gun and the “Memoria,” which really strongly hint that somebody has been murdered and this is all being recounted after the fact, as a sort of epitaph or eulogy.

But then “come as you are” is also an invitation to a party, and in rock music, invitations to party are invitations to enjoy rock and roll concerts and to enjoy life in general. So you can see this whole escalating domestic abuse murder situation presented as a metaphor for how you should enjoy the rock show and how society in general relates to you and expects you to live.

It hits on two key dichotomies: participation that is both disaffected and frenzied, and a regard for other people of both domination and apathy, and expecting that from others.

“Take you time, hurry up, the choice is yours, don’t be late.”

We can do it any way you want as long as it’s what I want – or you can die quickly or be tortured – or your boss and parents are unloving hypocrites.

So, I guess that’s how I’d describe it.

Either that, or it’s just a fairly straightforward description of heroin addiction.

Want more discussion of Nevermind? Tune into Episode 229 Theory for Turntables Podcast for an in-depth discussion of the album.

6 Comments on “Nirvana’s Nastiness: Nevermind at 25”

  1. Emil #

    Nevermind is an interesting album for me, while it’s great and almost every song is a hit with me, it never resonated as much as Bleach did. Maybe I’m just things that sound shitty (friends still give me a poo for liking St. Anger and I’m constantly explaining it’s like less talented garage punk Metallica)

    Oh and the nastiness? Definitely a selling point for a teen, verbalizes your fears and angst plus the tune is nice; I remember riding my bike, murmuring lyrics of Lounge Act to myself.

    A random memory: phonetically written lyrics for teens who don’t know English. And they like to sing along and they never seen a gun, ‘cos it’s not America, yeeee.


  2. jmasoncooper #

    My friend introduced me to “Weird Al” around the time he released his album “Bad Hair Day” in 1996. So After that I started listening to him a lot and dug into his back catalog. That’s when I was introduced to Nirvana, in the form of the Weird Al song “Smells like Nirvana.”
    You may call me an insensitive cretin, but I would say that “Smells Like Nirvana” is a meaningful and good as “Smells Like Teen Spirit” For the fundamental reason that the feeling it gives is more important than what it has to say. Since operate off of the same music (I think, I’m not a musicologist) the feeling they offer is the same, and the lyrics are as muddled and all over the place in both, one about the angst of being a displaced teen, and the other about being a musician who doesn’t understand his fame or even his own music.
    I would love to know your thoughts on Weird Al’s parody.


  3. Adrian #

    Maybe it’s all the Elliott Smith I listened to in high school, but to me “Come As You Are” makes the most sense as Cobain addressing himself in the second person. It’s about the pressure he feels to be or act in certain ways, and to live up to other people’s expectations, a feeling that is then generalized by his young audience to apply to all of them as well. The speaker could represent a love interest, parents, authority in general, The Man, “or like, the whole world, man.”

    There are certain ways to have you to be in order to get anywhere or be accepted, and they are all contradictory and constantly shifting, and all the while you are assured that all you have to do is “be yourself.” The kindly authority figure is just telling you what you need to know to get ahead; be yourself, no not like that, like this, and don’t worry, this recommendation would never be accompanied by an implicit threat, no, no one has a gun.

    I suppose that doesn’t account for the identification of the person being sung to as a “memory.” To me that describes how a memory is an expectation. “Come as a memory,” I want you to be like you were before, no not like you were, the way that I remember you were. Doused in mud (defiled), soaked in bleach (pure), no possibilities between.

    I guess I’ll see your “fairly straightforward description of heroin addiction” and raise you “a fairly straightforward description of being a teenager.”


    • Stokes OTI Staff #

      Heh, I guess that depending on your frame of reference, “being a teenager” is a pretty straightforward description of heroin addiction, and vice versa. (You get sullen and withdrawn, your personal grooming goes off the rails, you have terrible skin.)


  4. DeanMoriarty #

    Fenzel, I think that a bunch of assholes ruined Nirvana for you forever.
    I started paying attention after Cobain’s suicide, I was 11, and the omnipresence of Nirvana coincided with my appreciation of music and my development of my ‘own’ taste. Also, my older brother’s friends were very, very into it.
    Despite all this, I never really heard the cruelty and outward aggression you ascribe to their lyrics. Was there anger, frustration, pain, disgust? Yes. But it always seemed to be just as much for oneself as for the general state of ugliness at the world.
    Nirvana’s music, to me, from Junior High until now, wasn’t an aggressor, but the reaction to the discovery that the world was full of aggressors by a overly-sensitive, yet angry wimp, powerless to undo anything but scream futilely.
    Come As You Are to me sounds like two things. One is as a loose lyrical exercise of opposites to evoke feelings and questions. To me soaked in mud/doused in bleach never had anything to do with the respective substances, but rather the represent opposite ends of the dirtiness/cleanliness dichotomy. As you are/as I want you to be is a similar, but more interesting dichotomy that engages the sense of not knowing what the world wants from us. Does the world want me to be who I am even if that’s not who it wants?
    The second reading was as a heartfelt plea for genuine connection. The narrator is asking the person to connect with him without any sort of armament or defense. The ‘as you are’ is a plea to not prepare, to be immigrate, to not create some kind of persona around themselves, to be present and honest. It’s also a refutation, in a symbolic, hyperbolic sense , of excuses. The narrator doesn’t care what impediments there are, what doubts the listener harbors about coming, the narrator just wants to meet, to be present with the other without the mediation emotional armaments and defenses, ‘as a friend.’ The gun may or may not be metaphorical, but his point is that the listener need not fear him. He’s allaying the doubts of the listener that say “I bet the only reason this person wants to connect with me is as a way to hurt me.”
    Granted much of this reading is based on how I felt when I listened to it those first few time, but I think it’s there.
    As support, I’d argue that many of Nevermind’s songs are about the desperate need for connection, one that is hard to fulfill for a person who is both overly sensitive ia ugly world and suffers from depression.
    Drain You is a very, very screwed up song about a metaphoric friendship, maybe romance. For one side the ultimate goal of a relationship is to undo the other person, even though it’s probable that that ‘baby’ was the one who was glad to not be alone.
    Something In the Way I’ve also always read as about the inability to connect. The ‘something’ to me is a psychological inability to go on with life, to be ‘in the way’ of a normal life, of getting out from underneath that bridge of rejoining humanity. And yet the yearning for connection is evident in that the narrator is unable to properly eat because he keeps turning animals into pets, with which he must feel some kind of connection, rather than food.
    Finally, even in Breed, which is clearly about the desire for a physical relationship, the chorus tries to lay out options besides starting a family, or possibly even having sex, in what seems like a desperate attempt to not be alone. And yet, the ambivalence to this need for people is still there, in all the “get away” screaming.
    Well, this turned out to be way more that I planned on writing. But I look forward to other people’s thoughts. Is there something to my interpretation or have I just been hearing what I’ve wanted to hear all these years?


    • Rambler #

      “Unqualified yes”.
      Even Teen Spirit fits that description, I’ve always felt it a symbolic tearing down of the existing boundaries so that the “angry wimps” could take the stage. The amazing thing is that it literally performed that function in the music scene as well.

      Honestly I only ever heard it for the first time after Cobain had died (rural area, no MTV)… But I heard it at the right time, I knew what those feelings were. It gave voice to my frustration at the straightforward aggression of the “sports kids” and the systemic aggression of the band kids, the student council kids, and the other forms of college-track privilege groups with their new clothes and cars they didn’t pay for.


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