The 1990s grunge band, Nirvana, never shied away from the dark subject matter. Their catalogue is packed to the brim with doom-laden tracks, but it is ‘Polly’ from the 1991 album Nevermind which is perhaps the darkest track of all. With its sparse instrumentation and bare production style, ‘Polly’ is a hard listen. Not only because it tells the story of the rape and torture of a teenage girl, but because it is written from the perspective, not of the victim, but of the rapist himself.
The girl, ‘Polly’, had been at a rock concert at the Tacoma Dome in 1987 and, on her way home, was abducted by Gerald Friend. Friend had been convicted of a similar offence in 1967, but 20 years later, he was on parole. It was reported that he then took the girl back to his home, where he repeatedly raped her and tortured her with blowtorch whilst she was suspended from the ceiling. Polly somehow managed to escape, and Friend was arrested and jailed for life.
Kurt Cobain read about the event in a newspaper and, instead of turning away from its atrocious details, included them in the lyrics to ‘Polly’ in vivid detail. The first verse reads:
“Polly wants a cracker
I think I should get off her first
I think she wants some water
To put out the blow torch.”
Cobain’s use of Friend’s perspective might, on the surface, seem crass and insensitive. But, in doing so, he forces the listener to acknowledge the rapist’s thought processes, placing the focus entirely on Friend. In this way, the song can be viewed as an extension of Kurt’s opinion that society needed (and unfortunately still needs) to place its focus on educating men rather than teaching women how to defend themselves against rape. In accessing Friend’s warped logic, Cobain reveals a mindset which, as disturbing as it is, is still the product of a society that tells men rape is acceptable.
In a 1991 interview, Cobain referred to rape as “one of the most terrible crimes on earth. And it happens every few minutes. The problem with groups who deal with rape is that they try to educate women about how to defend themselves. What really needs to be done is teaching men not to rape. Go to the source and start there.”
He went on to say: “I was talking to a friend of mine who went to a rape crisis centre where women are taught judo and karate. She looked out the window and saw a football pitch full of boys, and thought those are the people that should really be in this class.”
Cobain was a vocal supporter of women’s rights throughout his career, and, at one point, Nirvana gave a benefit concert for Bosnian rape victims, raising $60,000 for the Tresnjevka Women’s Group. Cobain clearly stated his views in the liner notes to Incestacide, which read: “At this point, I have a request for our fans. If any of you in any way hate homosexuals, people of different colour, or women, please do this one favour for us – leave us the fuck alone! Don’t come to our shows and don’t buy our records. “
Polly became a hit, but many people continue to gloss over its dark underbelly. And although the song was written in response to something immensely disturbing, Cobain used it as a way of drawing attention to the way society puts the burden of responsibility, not on the perpetrators of rape, but on the victims. It’s been 30 years since Nirvana released ‘Polly’, and its message is still as prescient as ever.