Nirvana was a grunge band from the 1990s that left an impression on our teenage years, with many of us identifying with Kurt Cobain and his rebellious spirit discerned not only in his behaviour but also the lyrics he wrote as the main songwriter and composer, i.e. the frontman of the band. Bearing threads of nihilism, stubborn honesty, contradiction, alienation, disappointment and depression, feelings shared by many adolescents in every decade, the songs, although simple, were mystical and ambiguous, often inviting to debate the meaning of each one. Then, just as today, the lyrics reflect the thoughts of young people rejected by society, defying the norms repressing the spirit and limiting the freedom.
Kurt Cobain had his own unique way of expressing rebellion – dry sarcasm directed most of all towards his sponsors, the entire music industry, big corporations aiming only to make profit, and even towards his fans whom he used to “greet” with “F*ck you,” demonstrating that despite the fact that it was the fans who made him famous, he still couldn’t handle the pressure and their expectations. In fact, the contradictions, the ambiguous feelings, were his way of expressing himself to the public, in media events and concerts but also in the songs. At the same time, the band created, performed, cultivated their style, never succumbing to the latest trends on the music scene, just for the public. They remained consistent to the very end – the death of Cobain.
Come as you are is one of the most famous songs by Nirvana, with lyrics a abounding with contradiction:
“Come as you are, as you were
As I want you to be…”
“Take your time, hurry up
Choice is yours, don’t be late” as an expression of an internal struggle without rules and an absolute winner.
Another contradiction related to the song “Come as you are,” is the lyric “I swear that I don’t have a gun” – on April 5th, 1994, Curt Cobain committed suicide by a gunshot wound, which marked the end of the band and ended an entire phase in the grunge scene.
The lyrics never mention openly and explicitly drugs or other addictive substances, with the exception of the title “Lithium” as the name of a medication for stabilizing patients with a bipolar disorder, here touching upon the subject of mania and depression. Some fans even today say that rock bands glorify depression in their songs, instead of presenting it as for what it truly is, a disease that requires help. Still, the link among depression, melancholy and drug addiction in Cobain remained a mystery because it has never been explicitly spoken about and is based only on presumptions. Cobain’s struggle with addiction from opioid drugs was no secret, and neither was his failed attempt to treat the addiction right before he committed suicide, something about which Cobain in fact wrote in his famous suicide letter published by his wife, Courtney Love, after his death. Very subtly, his lyrics described the effects of drugs and his struggle with addiction, a struggle doomed to be lost. His personal and professional live were constantly scrutinized by the media, hence his internal struggle was quite clear despite the fact that he always denied his drug addiction problems in interviews. Many would wonder whether this famous musician was embarrassed by his actions or, on the other hand, he acted similar to many suffering from this issue, denial until the problem became too big to be endured. He is also not the only famous person to brake under the constant pressure of popularity and being torn between success on stage and his existence as a common person, without finding a motive to go on.
“I’m so happy because today
I’ve found my friends
They’re in my head
I’m so ugly, but that’s okay, ’cause so are you
I’m so lonely but that’s okay I shaved my head
And I’m not sad.”
Positive feelings are not common in Nirvana’s lyrics, and Cobain himself in several of his interviews spoke about being brutally honest, always insisting on writing difficult and depressive lyrics after first composing the music. Dark emotions can be traced in their lyrics, attractive to people suffering from similar problems who empathize and completely understand Nirvana’s songs.
According to research, public personalities are at risk of early death as well as drug-related death. The reasons leading to drug use in public personalities are most often linked to the need to bear through the pressure of being famous, boost their energy and strength during performances, raise the self-confidence, drop weight, alleviate pain, reduce stress and feel relief. These motives drive public personalities who are under constant pressure to endure through the performance, look good and be productive at the same time. The audience always asks for one more performance, a new song, a new video, a new album, the stars being those who would achieve this or die trying. The pressure is too big, and oftentimes even common people have the need for an extra boost of energy in order to endure through their daily obligations. Opiates have a calming effect to such pressures hence the risk of developing an addiction is generally higher among public personalities then most people. The band Nirvana received many music awards, did many tours, performances, released new songs, videos, did concerts. They began their European tour in February 1994, with the last concert scheduled to be held in Dublin, on April 8th. The tour was cancelled on March 1st, and the last concert the band held together was in Munich.
At the time, the media wrote how Cobain’s suicide could not have been prevented not even by Nirvana’s success, the band members, his wife or his daughter. In the last letter to Cortney he wrote: “You know that I love you and that I love Frances. I am sorry… I don’t know where I am going now, I only know I can’t stand being here any longer.”
The notorious 27 Club, called so after the age artists such as Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Kurt Cobain, Amy Winehouse, and Jim Morrison left this world. The number 27 created an urban legend. The question is whether this is the critical age people succumb to pressure? Is this so only among famous people? However, Cobain and his band remain contemporary and famous even today, among audience not even born when the band’s brightest star stopped shining with the death of the charismatic and yet melancholic frontman.
Author: Elena Daskalova
An activist, a former journalist and an independent author of media content.