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Music

Courtney Love reveals the true meaning behind Nirvana song 'Heart Shaped Box'

@SamWKemp

The beauty of Kurt Cobain’s songwriting is its ambiguity. Nestled somewhere between Edger Allen Poe-esque melancholy and punk-era angst, the Nirvana frontman’s lyrics have always defied direct interpretation. Indeed, it was only recently that the true meaning behind ‘Heart-Shaped Box’ was discovered after years of debate. According to Courtney Love, who opened up about the song in Michael Azerrad’s book Come as You Are, the 1993 offering is far more sexually charged than anyone expected.

There are many theories surrounding ‘Heart-Shaped Box’. Originally titled ‘Heart-Shaped Coffin’, the track appeared on Nirvana’s third studio album In Utero. The studio venture followed the immense success of the group’s second album Nevermind, which pretty much single-handedly shot grunge into the mainstream. With all that fame came much criticism, much of which was aimed at Cobain’s lyrics. While Cobain hated this new proximity to criticism, he also utilised his fame to speak up about issues close to his heart. Every Nirvana fan knows that Cobain identified as a feminist and was a strident supporter of women’s rights.

When ‘Heart-Shaped Box’ was released, Cobain claimed the song was inspired by a television report about children suffering from cancer. While this may well have been the catalyst, many argue that the song actually focuses on the author’s fractious relationship with his wife, Courtney Love. After their first meeting, Love apparently sent Cobain a small heart-shaped box filled with bric-a-brac. It contained, among other things, a doll’s head separated from its body. The various references to Pisces and Cancer – Cobain and Love’s respective star signs – would seem to support this latter interpretation. But without Cobain to offer insight, the true meaning has remained a mystery.

That is until Lana Del Rey covered ‘Heart-Shaped Box’ in 2012. The performance reignited interest in the track and its hidden layers of meaning, leading Courtney Love to offer her own take. Taking to Twitter to lay the debate to rest once and for all, Love wrote: “You do know the song is about my vagina, right? ‘Throw down your umbilical noose so I can climb right back,’ umm. On top of which some of the lyrics about my vagina I contributed. So umm next time you sing it, think about my vagina, will you?”

For whatever reason, those tweets have since been deleted from Love’s Twitter account, which, depending on your attitude, is either highly suspicious or proof of their plausibility. I’d argue that ‘Heart-Shaped Box’ is only partly – for want of a better phrase – viginal. At its core, it is an evocation of the consuming power of Cobain’s adoration. Like some swirling black hole, it draws the author into Love’s “magnet tar pit trap.” At once twisted and strangely romantic, ‘Heart-Shaped Box’ conveys the obsession of two people for whom love is an opioid, and like the most addictive drugs, it is simultaneously restorative, destructive and capable of making even the most strong-willed individual utterly subservient.

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