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Come As You Were: Kurt Cobain’s Nevermind Album


Published on December 14th, 2019 at 01:55 am

By Alex Camillere

The human condition is a collection of key details events surrounding humanity, or more simply stated by Merriam Webster, “part of being a person.” This includes physical conditions like mortality and birth as well as constructs like pain and emotion. Kurt Cobain was the lead singer and guitarist for the band Nirvana in the grunge period of the late 80s and early 90s. Known for the hit album Nevermind and other writing accomplishments, Cobain rose to fame with the help of bassist Krist Novoselic. Adam Augustyn records that while raised in Seattle, Washington, Cobain was a standard model for teenage rebellion as “he moved between various relatives’ houses, stayed with friends’ parents, and occasionally slept under bridges while he began to use drugs and take part in petty vandalism as forms of teenage rebellion.” He would come to join in an earlier band called the Melvins before teaming up with Krist to perform under their new band Nirvana. Augustyn also states that the release of “Nevermind catapulted Nirvana to worldwide fame, and Cobain came to be hailed as the voice of his generation, a title that he was never comfortable with.” Due to this discomfort, depression formed alongside what Jessica L. Wood described as “chronic stomach problems, scoliosis, a heroin addiction,” and after escpaing from a recovery facility in LA, he woud travel back home to commit suicide. Throughout his career, and specifically in the Nevermind album, Kurt Cobain demonstrates that internal conflicts are not recognized in a superficial society, as Cobain’s human conditions are left unnoticed by others around him in both his fame and personal relations; this seems especially prominent with three songs by Cobain: “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” “Lithium,” and “Come As You Are.”

“Smells Like Teen Spirit” conveys how internal conflicts are overlooked by the external concerns of society through the use of dramatic irony, foreshadowing and diction. Besides the fact that the name was inspired by a type of deodorant popular in the early 90s according to Fraser Lewry from Loudersound, “Smells Like Teen Spirit” is a song about being united in the darkness away from the cruel rest of society, yet being at the top of the world. For example, one of the intermittent verses by Cobain directly states that “I’m the worst at what I do best / And for this gift I feel blessed / Our little group has always been / And always until the end” (Cobain Line 15-18). This statement is in summary of Cobain’s career as a songwriter and a popular performer in the fact that his gift is constant praise and following from a young and eager generation of grunge listeners, who feel a need to separate themselves from the already infectious status quo and hide away from the grip of societal norm in the darkness. However, Cobain was a unique predicament in that he always seemed to disregard and even come to hate the fame he received from his musical genius, regretting his idolship. The segment implying that his band will be together until the end seems almost ironic, as its end is sooner than expected in regards to Kurt Cobain’s suicide in 1994. Although the song was published in 1991, the line “I’m the worst at what I do best / And for this gift I feel blessed” (Cobain Line 15-16) seems like foreshadowing to his suicide in that the line seems to be railing against himself, in that he doesn’t regard himself as a true artist. This hints at his self-depreciation and foreshadows his line of depressive feelings that derive from a lack of understanding from other members of society, with the disregard for Cobain’s own human condition of depression leading him to commit suicide. In regards to living in the shadows of society, he states in the chorus that “With the lights out, it’s less dangerous / Here we are now, entertain us” (Cobain Line 9-10). Firstly, there is a clear contradiction between the connection of turning out lights and the decreasing of danger, where the inability to see is more dangerous because one becomes unaware of their environment around oneself and are more vulnerable. Secondly, the command used by Cobain demanding entertainment from others shows direct and aggressive diction, which promotes Cobain as a leader or a tyrant, thus promoting the message of Cobain ruling a generation in the darkness of society. The verse illustrates that out of the cruel, all-seeing eye of a perceived “normal” civilization, the outcasts are welcomed where the rest are blind, and that they are a fundamental part of Cobain’s own hidden society (hence the “entertain us”) that is disregarded as rebellious by the older generation. It can also be interpreted as a power stance over the rest of the younger generation through the powerful use of diction in the statement “entertain us,” where Cobain is the ruler of a grunge society and demands attention. But alas, his attention was never truly gained as his internal conflicts with depression were never addressed by the outside society. With the human condition, it seems that others are obsessed with Cobain’s talent, his impact on society, rather than his own conditions of pain and suffering. While he brings the condition of compassion to the rejects of society, no one else recognizes his own condition, and this one-way road leads him to veer off of the street of life into a brick wall in 1994. While the chorus seems straightforward, Shmoop begs to differ with their own criticism, stating that “as vague as the lyrics' meanings may be, they do, clearly and powerfully, evoke a particular mood—a mood of unease and discomfort, desire and alienation.” To Shmoop, the idea of the song is an underlying cry towards alienation, bringing the possibility that Cobain isn’t calling for a union among civilization’s rejects and rule over them, but rather that he also longs to belong to civilization again as a normal person, and that falling as a ruler of the grunge movement has isolated himself from living a normal life, thus calling the human condition into play through the never-ending construct of suffering from his exclusivity and a hunger for normality that can’t be quenched in his life or immediately helped by others (this specifically because Cobain has completely and permanently changed his status to that of a permanently-recognizable idol from the populus; no one can simply forget how he changed Generation X).

Following the trend of isolation against his peers and followers, “Lithium” shows how personal corruption is isolated and ignored by the general populous through the use of irony and oxymoron. The song “Lithium” is in direct relation to the drug “used to treat the manic episodes of bipolar disorder (manic depression)” and is essentially a ‘happy pill’. In the beginning, Kurt Cobain states in the first verse that “I’m so happy because today / I’ve found my friends / They’re in my head” (Cobain Line 1-3). The literal Oxford definition for a friend is a “person with whom one has a bond of mutual affection, typically one exclusive of sexual or family relations.” Thus there is a clear use of irony from Cobain in that, although he says that he has made relations in society, the only understanding relationship he has is with himself, and thus he really hasn’t made any friends. However, in relation to the drug lithium, he is artificially happy in loneliness. This shows a lack of understanding of inward conflict from others in that nobody can understand, thus why he is the only one with true understanding of his inner depression. Tying into the human condition, Cobain’s events that led to change his physical condition were successful in that he rose to fame, yet that fame seems to not only drive away others who could understand his emotional constructs of pain through depression and suffering, but also never distracted him from his never ending sadness. After a nonliterary repetition of the word ‘yeah’ for musical purposes, Cobain declares a verse saying that “I’m so lonely but that’s okay I shaved my head / And I’m not sad / And just maybe I’m to blame for all I’ve heard / But I’m not sure” (Cobain Line 11-14). An elaborate and two-sided verse, the diction shows Cobain’s own controversies occuring inside of him in that although he has mass amounts of fame, there is no one who truly understands or relates to him, just his music. It’s this hiding of his depression that never lets anyone know the inner conflicts of Kurt Cobain, in his futile attempt to act normal to blend in with the excluding civilization by faking his happiness, possibly through the use of drugs since this false satisfaction is in relation to the drug in the title, lithium. As well as that, the second part on assigning blame through oxymoron shows insecurity and indecisiveness backed in his personality, backing the tear between his image as a celebrity and his image as his true, hurting self as a figure uncomfortable with his role as a rock idol for a new and blind generation that doesn’t know his personal struggle. His conflicting depression behind the personality is also reinforced by self-loathing through verses like “I’m so ugly” and “I’m so lonely.” The human condition ties into this in that the constructs of pain and suffering need to be diverted, but his own inner confusion leads to indecisiveness that leads to the event of his own mortality to stop his suffering instead of finding another way to avoid his emotions. As well as that, he lies to others about his constructs in an attempt to follow the ‘normal’ human condition in the rest of society, but he ultimately doesn’t have the same conditions in order to blend in with others, and thus his separation via the exclusivity of his emotions leads to a continual depression leading to that fateful day in 1994.

Last but certainly not least, “Come As You Are” conveys how one’s own problems are disregarded by others via the use of repetition, imagery, and dramatic irony. Seemingly one of Cobain’s more pacifistic yet ironically extreme songs, “Come As You Are” describes the acceptance of outcasts from society as well as an emphasis on a dark existence. The starting verse has Cobain state to “Come as you are, as you were / As I want you to be” (Cobain Line 1-2), where he shows an emphasis on the acceptance of others as they express themselves, saying that he accepts them for who they are. The use of repetition allows for the reassurance of the idea of Cobain accepting others for who they are, regardless of what they are at any state (present or past). Instead of being pushed to the white-collar, office slave desk jockey that the 1980s and 90s trended towards, Cobain seems to show empathy for the actual uniqueness of the individual, and an acceptance for the traits and internal conflicts that standard society tries to push out or outright ignore in hopes of an artificial utopia. While others may not be able to recognize the human condition of depression that Kurt Cobain experiences, he is willing to accept those who come forward with the same peculiarity and welcome them away from the harsh, ignorant world outside of his realm of grunge rock. Midway through the song, Cobain also describes a person “Come doused in mud, soaked in bleach / As I want you to be / As a trend, as a friend” (Cobain Line 11-13). The imagery described by Cobain shows his willingness to accept others no matter how run down they are, even if they are cast out of society and disgraced in filth. The ‘friend’ mentioned displays the abandoned and disgraced outcasts of civilization that are experiencing problems that cannot be seen by the average person. Cobain seemingly relates to this hideousness, and in tie to the theme, through an internal level in that they are conflicting with the norm and are looked down upon. It is in this way that his inner constructs of pain and suffering as known from the human condition in his depression find a friend away from society no matter how unclean their emotions are, and it is this construct of friendship among the weak that combats the depression taking hold of society’s outcasts like Cobain. Finally, repeated as the chorus throughout the song, Cobain exclaims that “And I swear that I don’t have a gun / No I don’t have a gun” (Cobain Line 17-18). This shows dramatic irony in regards to Kurt Cobain’s suicide in 1994, where he used a gun in self-mutilation back in Seattle, Washington. From a past view of Cobain’s life before the mentioned incident, it can be inferred from the repetition that Cobain is trying to stay sane and rational, or at least appear like it to the national public, to hide his own depression and pain that he experiences and no one can relate to. It almost seems like a last ditch effort to normalize himself to the society that he has trouble mixing with the hopes that pretending to be fine will make his inner emotions bearable, but that notion eventually caves in to the realization that he is an outcast, unrecognizable and relatable to the outside civilization as no one truly understands his inner plight. A secondary critique of “Come As You Are” reveals a more sinister Cobain to be at play, with website Cooler and Fans reporting that “statements made first seem to be designed to make the speaker come off as easy-going and in your best interest, then the second line contradicts the former and reveals that the speaker may have an invested interest” in regards to the line “Take your time, hurry up / The choice is yours, don’t be late” (Cobain Line 5-6). This reflects the human condition in that, while it seems that Cobain has fans who are willing to follow him and understand it, they are really there just for his music and idolship, showing their own interests for their own human conditions of being part of a movement before taking a moment to recognize Cobain’s own struggling condition of being alone and in constant pain.

In conclusion, the songs “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” “Lithium,” and “Come As You Are” by Kurt Cobain promotes the idea that a superficial society is blind to the interior plight of the human condition through the use of devices like irony, dramatic irony, imagery, oxymoron, and diction. From the gaining of fame and fortune from his lyrical talent, Kurt Cobain was idolized by all music enthusiasts but only for his skill and art in promoting a rebellious message; in the words of Seth Kahn, “for many disaffected American kids, Cobain had become an icon, a model, a cathartic outlet for their problems.” Society seemed to just look and smile at Cobain instead of recognizing the cries for help from his depressing and outraging songs but rather take them as revolutionary sounds. And because everyone in society was blind to Cobain’s inner depression and conflicts, the human condition fulfilled the mortality that seized him in 1994. It is this institution of human condition that grips humanity, leaving the conflicts of its patients unrecognizable to others when everyone is already concerned with their own condition to see that of others. But the human condition isn’t all gloom; with pain and suffering, there is also happiness and good cheer, but it's this that masks the pain. Thus humans as a species must put their own qualms out of the way occasionally to recognize those of others, and collaborate on finding a remedy to the depression cursing society.

Works Cited

Augustyn, Adam. “Kurt Cobain.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., 1 Apr. 2019, https://www.britannica.com/biography/Kurt-Cobain. “Friend: Definition of Friend by Lexico.” Lexico Dictionaries | English, Lexico Dictionaries, www.lexico.com/en/definition/friend.

Kahn, Seth. “Kurt Cobain, Martyrdom, and the Problem of Agency.” Studies in Popular Culture, vol. 22, no. 3, 2000, pp. 83–96. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/23414524.

Lewry, Fraser. “17 Facts about Smells Like Teen Spirit.” Loudersound, Louder, 10 Sept. 2018, https://www.loudersound.com/features/17-facts-about-smells-like-teen-spririt.

“Lithium: Drug Uses, Dosage and Side Effects.” Drugs.com, https://www.drugs.com/lithium.html.

“Nirvana – Come as You Are.” Genius, 2 Mar. 1992, genius.com/Nirvana come-as-you-are-lyrics.

“Nirvana – Lithium.” Genius, 13 July 1992, https://genius.com/Nirvana-lithium-lyrics.

“Nirvana – Smells Like Teen Spirit.” Genius, 10 Sept. 1991, genius.com/Nirvana-smells-like-teen-spirit-lyrics.

Shmoop Editorial Team. “Smells Like Teen Spirit Songwriting.” Shmoop, Shmoop University, 11 Nov. 2008, https://www.shmoop.com/smells-like-teen-spirit/songwriting.html.

“Song Review: Nirvana ‘Come As You Are.’” Coolersandfans, 8 Dec. 2011, coolersandfans.wordpress.com/2011/12/08/song-review-nirvana-come-as-you-are/.

“The Human Condition.” Merriam-Webster, Merriam-Webster, https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/the human condition.

Wood, Jessica L. “Pained Expression: Metaphors of Sickness and Signs of 'Authenticity' in Kurt Cobain's ‘Journals.’” Popular Music, vol. 30, no. 3, 2011, pp. 331–349. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/23359907.

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