How to decode the songs – Part I

[UPDATE June 19, 2014: I was figuring stuff out as I was writing. It’s obvious by now that these songwriters tap into a symbolic lexicon that pre-dates recorded music.]

Look, I’m just going to do my best. In general is no “right” or “wrong” way to interpret a piece of art, though some interpretations can be supported with evidence and thus ring truer than others. That said, these songwriters seem to have a unique style of communicating to and about each other through lyrics.

The bands that I’m interested in are: Hole, Nirvana, Mudhoney, Babes In Toyland. The lyricists are Courtney Love, Kurt Cobain, Mark Arm, and Kat Bjelland.

In Utero disc

Why these bands? A few reasons. First, they are bands that I have noticed over the years. They also have a lot in common with me as far as age, cultural background, community, etc. Second, it’s clear to me that these bands had emotional and lyrical interplay. Third, three of these bands are connected to us in Portland. That would be Hole (Courtney is from Portland), Nirvana (Kurt was connected to Portland through Courtney and others), and Babes In Toyland (Kat is also from Portland). The fourth band, Mudhoney, seems to be connected to all of us.

The fact that Kat and Courtney are both from Portland is very much de-emphasized in The Grunge Myth. But they came up in the Portland punk scene, and Kat and Courtney and Mudhoney were all familiar with Napalm Beach bandleader Chris Newman and his music. Nirvana’s relationship with Chris’ music has so far been locked in a box, wrapped in wool, and buried.

Back to the songs. The first thing to know about the songs is that the back stories are usually – not false, per say – but deliberately misleading. By which I mean, the back story may provide an image or a hint to the meaning, but it’s also often meant to throw you off the true path. If I thought that the writers of these songs truly didn’t want anyone to know what the songs mean, I’m not sure I’d be writing this. But most of the time, artists want to be understood. That’s why they are putting the words into a song instead of into a phone conversation, private letter, or locked journal.

On the other hand, there are things in these particular lyrics which, if not obscured, would cause problems. That is why these (and most) artists make up a false back story about their songs.

In this song, Kurt Cobain says that he is making up words that “don’t make sense.” But listen! I detect sarcasm.

Portland songwriter Rozz Rezabek has said (to me) that “On A Plain” borrows a phrase from one of his songs (if so, it might put another spin on the “love myself” line). Like many of Kurt Cobain’s songs, it alludes to what is and is not “safe” to say. The Black Sheep verse is odd. I guess zip codes are really important. [UPDATE: June 19, 2014 now that I have been repeatedly “punished” by the release of illicit and embarrassing footage, and now that I have experienced multiple counts of implied blackmail, I understand that Cobain’s “blackmail” verse probably ought to be taken literally.]

Another thing to notice with Hole and Nirvana songs is that when the albums come with printed lyrics, the words in print are sometimes different than the real words. Usually it’s just a single word that is swapped for another. (Also, this should go without saying, but lyrics found online are often wrong.) A word-swap example from the Hole song “Nobody’s Daughter” is when the printed lyrics say “no one here could ever stop my ruin now” (a relic from the older “demo” version of the song) but in reality she sings “no one here could ever stop my revenge now.”

Both words, ruin and revenge are significant, as is the fact that one word was exchanged for the other. It hints at a transformation. There are many such little word switches on Nirvana’s In Utero, like swapping ass for ash (“Francis Farmer Will Have Her Revenge on Seattle”).

Similarly, sounds of words are important: harrowing / heroin (Napalm Beach) whore / horror (Hole) aqua seafoam shame / I’ll proceed from shame (Nirvana). [Update June 19, 2014: Old Dirty Bastard’s “I am the only unique Ason” sounds like “I am the only uni-gay-son.”]

Symbols are very important to these writers. Kat Bjelland, Courtney Love, Mark Arm, and Kurt Cobain use, and used, symbols which would seem to have universal significance in very specific ways. I find Hole and Nirvana’s lyrics to be particularly illuminating. When the angels, stars, fire, dirt, dust, dolls, candy, mud, honey, santa claus etc appear in their songs (and sometimes in images and videos), they are references to specific people and situations.

For many of these images, you can often make a one-to-one correlation. (Hair = thoughts. Sun = Chris Newman. Dirt = degradation.)

Finally, in each of these four bands’ songs, identities can be fluid. Hole’s “Honey” is supposed to be about Kurt Cobain, and it is – but I believe there are two other subjects in the song. (The name “Honey” alone should be be a clue.) Sometimes one subject addressed in verses, and another in the bridge. Vocal inflections offer clues. [Update June 19, 2014: this transient identity thing is especially true in movies. For example, in the Austin Powers movie, Mike Myers plays several different characters, and the “sun” identity shifts from character to character.]

In particular, songs that seem to be about, or addressed to a woman are very likely actually about, or addressed to, a man. [UPDATE June 19, 2014: This is illustrated in James Bond and Austin Powers as a man dressed like a woman, ala Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre actors.]

Kurt Cobain identified as bisexual, another thing that is very much de-emphasized in The Grunge Myth. And it’s strange that The Myth would bury this aspect of Cobain’s personality, because it is so very present in his lyrics and other imagery. It seemed to be something he wanted people to know and understand about him.

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