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Kurt Cobain: As An Outcast


By Jennifer Sixtos


    Born on February 20, 1967, American musician Kurt Donald Cobain became one of the most famous and influential artists during the Nineties. As the lead singer, songwriter, and guitarist for the iconic rock band, Nirvana, they rose to fame while performing his own personal works. With his parents divorcing when he was 8, Cobain grew into a rebellious lifestyle that became an influence for many of his songs. A glimpse of his depression can also be seen as it is widely conveyed in his lyrics. With pain of his own, he was able to understand and connect with others who identified themselves through his songs. Cobain wrote and poured his thoughts into his music that left a legacy while expressing anger towards society’s standards and sharing the feeling of being lonely.

    Written and first performed in 1993, “Dumb,” implies Cobain’s indecisive self-judgement while considering whether or not he is happy and content with who he has become. As a child, Cobain constantly felt like an outcast in school. He was well aware of the fact that he was different from the other kids and learned to accept it. This realization made him feel comforted, or at least he tried to believe it was okay to be different. Cobain suggests his acceptance with himself in the beginning of the song with:

“I’m not like them
But I can pretend
The sun is gone
But I have light
(Dumb)
In the beginning lines of the song, Cobain shows that he accepts being different by presenting a problem and solution after each line. He may not be like the others, but he can pretend; The sun may be gone, but he has light. Metaphorically speaking, Cobain describes himself as the “light” in a place where the “sun is gone” and individuality is not present. He shines beyond everyone with his unique way of being as he refuses to be like the rest.

    In addition to this song, Cobain portrays one of his well-known strategies of short and repetitive phrases, as he stresses his self-contradiction between happiness or simply being dumb. His confusion is expressed towards the middle of the song in an unhappy and monotonous way:

“I think I’m dumb
Or maybe just happy
Think I'm just happy (x3)
(Dumb)
As he contemplates the reasons behind his happiness, he believes himself to be oblivious to his problems. Adding to its meaning, “the song is, as Kurt suggested in interviews, a sort of backhanded tribute to people who are so ignorant that they breeze through life’s problems.” People may believe that they can be happy by ignoring the negativity around them, but that can only be a temporary solution. Cobain, through the repetition of his words and contradiction, shows that he is aware of the fact that he is not the only one who shares the questioning for contentment.

    The overall meaning to “Dumb,” wraps around the goal of finding true self and happiness through the right reasons. That reason being that it is fine to be an outcast in society. Along with that idea, Cobain suggests that questioning happiness is sometimes necessary by working through personal problems.

    Adding to Cobain’s recurring theme on society, Nirvana’s “Come As You Are,” touches on the idea of choosing to be true or choosing to please the public eye with actions that are acceptable to society. With contradicting lyrics being a recurrent strategy in his music, an emphasis on Cobain’s mind and thoughts is made. Cobain had a strong belief for self-truthfulness as there is no need to mask true identity. With the song being simple and repetitive, it manages to illustrate Cobain’s thoughts on his surrounding. This short, but meaningful song begins with the following lines:

“Come as you are, as you were
As I want you to be
As a friend, as a friend
As a known enemy
Take your time, hurry up
The choice is yours, don’t be late”
(Come As You Are)
In the beginning of the song, Cobain presents himself to the listener as a friend, which is crucial to the meaning of the song. He puts himself in a position as if he were a close friend who can be easy to talk to and receive advice from. As he suggests on his idea of being honest, he also introduces the contradictory between his words, inferring the confusion he, himself, has with society’s unattainable standards.

    The overall tone of the song is grunge, one of the genres Cobain’s style of music is best known and admired for. With a rhythmic tune playing in the background of his voice, Cobain’s “phrases clump into strings of empty clichés whose own ostensible meaning is forced into contradictions or simple rhyme sound” (Creswell 165). With all the contradictory portrayed and the lesson of self-truth in “Come As You Are,” Cobain expresses his point of view of not conforming to society’s expectations. By growing up feeling as an outcast, due to his love for art and music, he learned that being himself is what brought him the most comfort in his loneliest times. And that is the message he hoped to share with his listeners.

    “Smells Like Teen Spirit” is the song that brought Nirvana to fame for the unique energy it brought upon a crowd and for the lyrics that Cobain felt so close with. Referring to his teen years and feeling young, he felt like there was a revolution. This is something he related to on a personal level due to how he grew up with no guidance throughout his teen years. He often moved in and out with different family members and friends, got into doing drugs at a young age, and felt alone for most of his years before reaching fame. Written with a catchy tune and chorus, Cobain infers the idea of a revolution with the beginning lines:

“Load up on guns, bring your friends
It’s fun to lose and to pretend”
(Come As You Are)
The language and Cobain’s choice of words emphasizes a revolutionary group of teens. Coming together and “[loading] up on guns” draws a visual image of rebellion between them and society. Cobain is quite familiar with turning away from others to do what he thinks is best. Along with rebelling against his surroundings, the lines above also show the “depths of Kurt Cobain’s conscious considering how his life began to fall apart soon after Nirvana shot to popularity.” The popularity that came unexpectedly into his life, was an overwhelming shift that changed his point of view on the fame he once longed for.

    Adding to Cobain’s realization of popularity not being the only thing to bring him happiness, his music career no longer felt like a hobby. It became something he felt he was forced to do, instead of it being an escape from his problems where he could express himself through the lyrics and melodies of his songs. He conveys his feelings towards his music career in the following lines:

“Here we are now, entertain us
I feel stupid and contagious”
(Smells Like Teen Spirit)
As explained above, “music to him felt like a command ‘entertain us!’ and it felt more of a job than something for enjoyment.” Adding to the meaning of the lyrics, the second line shows Cobain giving his own definition of society by feeling “stupid and contagious.” Humans, in his opinion, may be the most stupid of all living things. He expresses his rage to society’s expectations formed by humans because he disagrees with the fact that it “molds the people the way it wants [and are] considered a rebel or an outcast if you stand against the tide.” Since Cobain grew up feeling as an outcast, he becomes angry at the idea of others urging themselves to become what society wants them to be. Altogether, “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” shows a personal side of Cobain through a glimpse of his music career and disappointment with humanity.

    Kurt Cobain’s lyricism will always remain present as it left an impact in music forever. Through his grunge energy and relatable personal conflicts shown in his lyrics, he was able express his opinions on society influenced by his rebellious teen years.

Works Cited

Beviglia, Jim. "Nirvana "Dumb" American Songwriter. 12 South Music, 2014. Web. 28 Nov. 2016.
"Kurt Cobain Biography." Biography.com. A&E Networks Television, n.d. Web. 22 Nov. 2016.
Nirvana. "Come As You Are." Genius. N.p., 2011. Web. 22 Nov. 2016.
Nirvana. "Dumb." Genius. N.p., 2012. Web. 28 Nov. 2016.
Nirvana. "Pennyroyal Tea." Genius. N.p., 2011. Web. 22 Nov. 2016.
"Nirvana - Smells Like Teen Spirit (Lyrics Review)." Just Random Things. Dynamic News, 2016. Web. 22 Nov. 2016.
Terry. "The Story Behind Smells Like Teen Spirit." UpVenue. N.p., 2011. Web. 27 Nov. 2016.
True, Everett. Nirvana: The Biography. Da Capo Press 2007. Print.
Ulrich, John M., and Andrea L. Harris, eds. "GenXegesis." Editorial. Essays on Alternative Youth (Sub)Culture 2003: 165. Print.

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