“Teenage angst has paid off well, now I’m bored and old.” Wow. Kurt Cobain really knew the impact of an album’s opening line. That’s the opener to ‘In Utero’, the follow up to ‘Nevermind’ which was of course the album that made Cobain one of the most famous faces in the world, made the band millionaires, and opened with its own killer line: “Load up on guns, and bring your friends.”
Despite obsessively chasing success, signing to a major, hiring one of the biggest management groups in America, doing MTV interviews, and writing verse chorus pop, Cobain seemed to hate fame once it was thrust upon him. Or rather, he hated the audience of racist, violent idiots his band attracted – the type that would beat him up at school. He also despised the tabloid invasion into his private life. Cobain was into outsider art, indie music, all that underground shit, so to suddenly be the poster boy for all things Gen X and cowabunga was a bit…uncowabunga.
With all this in mind, it’s not really shocking that they used ‘In Utero’ to kick against this, aiming for an album which would be deemed “unlistenable” to the jocks and the suits. Of course, Cobain had an innate sense of melody, a deep love of pop craftsmanship (the day he wrote 1989’s ‘About A Girl’ he listened to ‘Meet The Beatles’ on loop all afternoon) and there was still a major label to contend/work with, so the album isn’t as abrasive as first touted. In fact, it’s downright beautiful in places: the soothing ignorance-is-bliss anthem ‘Dumb’; the tortured acquiescence of ‘All Apologies’; and the lovely ‘Pennyroyal Tea’ – about abortion sure, but also about his admiration for Courtney Love’s individuality, and home to his funniest line: “Give me a Leonard Cohen afterworld, so I can sigh eternally.”
‘Serve the Servants’ is the album’s opening blast, and deals simultaneously with his parents’ divorce, and the bullshit of the music industry. “Self-appointed judges judge more than they have sold” is the second line of the song/album, and it could be a shot at either the label bosses directing him, the ‘safe’ radio programmers, or music critics – none of which have been a part of a Nevermind-size success. But the music industry stuff gets tired quickly – like with songs moaning about having to tour, it’s hard to relate to, or care about. When he shifts to the public vilification of his wife Courtney (Love: underrated actress; great songwriter; sharp lyricist; owner of the best Riot Grrrl scream of the ’90s), that’s when shit gets personal. Of course, Cobain rarely wrote without riddles, so he uses the Salem witch trials as a metaphor for this.
The “serve the servants” chorus seems to be more enslaved musician bullshit until the kicker, “that legendary divorce is such a bore.” Then verse two kicks in with some deep angst. It might have paid off well, but Cobain had far from shaken his upbringing. Have a read below, cos we all know music is best experienced visually:
“As my bones grew they did hurt.
They hurt really bad.
I tried hard to have a father,
but instead I had a dad.”
That last couplet hit deeply with so many of the people I’ve discussed Nirvana with before; I can think of five people off the top of my head that have singled out that specific lyric. Why is this? I think a) It’s witty, b) It’s sad. When a child has to put the effort and heart into fostering the type of relationship with a parent that should be a given, it’s tragic. His acceptance of knowing he had “a dad” – i.e. a biological token and nothing else – is biting and brutal. Let’s carry on.
“I just want you to know that I
don’t hate you anymore.
There is nothing I could say
that I haven’t thought before.”
Hate is heavy. It wears him out. He is done with all this childhood unravelling and wishing and blaming. This track works as a sign off from all the bullshit from his past, which is uplifting only if we truly believe he had moved past it all. He is bored. He is old(er).
Cobain worked against terrific odds to make something of himself, far surpassed even his own outsized ambitions, and found the love and family unit he had always craved – in the end, none of it was enough.