Nirvana’s hit single “Heart-Shaped Box” is about everything and somehow nothing all at once.
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In other words, the raging ballad is about the perils of being alive, the poetry of worry, and the purity of art. Yes, it’s signature Kurt Cobain.
Here we will dive into the song’s origins, meanings, impact, and history.
Beginnings: From Mystery to Minnesota
Recorded in February 1993 in Cannon Falls, Minnesota. and released later that summer on August 30, “Heart-Shaped Box” is famous for its picked guitar lick and songwriter Kurt Cobain’s growl.
The track, which was produced by Steve Albini—who has also worked with Pixies, Jimmy Page, and Robert Plant throughout his career, was released on Nirvana’s third album, In Utero, which came on the heels of maybe the most famous album of all time, the band’s sophomore offering, Nevermind.
The track was the lead single from the band’s third (and final) LP. The band’s record company did not release a physical single in the U.S. as they worried that it might damage album sales. Prior to the release of In Utero, Cobain had been somewhat M.I.A., dealing with drug addiction and the severe perils of being perhaps the most famous person on Earth.
At the time, there was a great deal of speculation if Nirvana would even write a new record. So, clouded in mystery, In Utero began. Despite no physical release, “Heart-Shaped Box” reached No. 1 on the Billboard Modern Rock Tracks chart and hit the top-10 in countries like Portugal and the U.K.
Writing The “Forgotten” Song
Cobain wrote “Heart-Shaped Box” in the early part of 1992. As legend has it, he forgot about the song for a period but began working on it again when he and his wife, Courtney Love, moved to a new house in the Hollywood Hills.
Love said in a 1994 interview with Rolling Stone that she overheard her husband working on the song’s central riff in a closet. Allegedly, she asked Cobain if she could use the riff for one of her songs, to which he answered: “Fuck you!” and closed the closet door.
According to biographer Charles R. Cross, Love and Cobain shared a songwriting journal and her writing sensibilities rubbed off on him, especially so on “Heart-Shaped Box.” The song’s title came from such a box that Love had given Cobain.
It’s said, though, that Cobain had originally titled the song, “Heart-Shaped Coffin.”
Recording The Song: Trial and Error
Nirvana had a hard time finishing “Heart-Shaped Box.”
Bringing the demo to the group, Cobain wanted bassist Krist Novoselic and drummer Dave Grohl to finish the track with their own parts. But for some time it wasn’t working out in jam sessions.
“I was trying to wait for [Novoselic] and [Grohl] to come up with something but it just turned into noise all the time,” said Cobain. But finally, when the band did come up with an ending, thanks to a vocal melody Cobain summoned, he says, “We finally realized that it was a good song.”
Nirvana recorded a demo of the song in January of 1993 with Craig Montgomery in the BMG Ariola studios in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. And the final version for In Utero was tracked a month later by Steve Albini in Cannon Falls, Minnesota.
While Cobain liked the instrumentation and vocals, he wanted the song remixed prior to its release. The track then was remixed by engineer Scott Litt. At the time, Cobain said the vocals and the bass were not prominent enough in the original.
In a 1993 interview with the Chicago Sun-Times, Novoselic said the original effect on the song’s guitar solo resembled “a fucking abortion hitting the floor.” When it was redone by Litt, Cobain added acoustic guitar and vocal harmonies, as well.
The Song’s Structure And Meaning: Vagina, Love?
The four-minute-and-thirty-nine-second song is written in 4/4 at 100 beats per minute. It is in the key of G# minor. Music writer Gillian Gaar said the song is “the Nirvana formula personified,” with its odd riff and passionate vocal performance.
Cobain talked about the song’s chorus, saying that the lyric Hey / Wait / I’ve got a new complaint was about how he was perceived by the media. He also said that it was inspired by a documentary about children with cancer.
“Any time I think about it, it makes me sadder than anything I can think of,” Cobain told biographer Michael Azerrad. Though Azerrad said that no matter the explanation, the song seems more to be about Courtney Love than anyone or anything else.
Biographer Charles R Cross wrote of Cobain’s line, I wish I could eat your cancer when you turn black, that Cobain “sang in what has to be the most convoluted route any songwriter undertook in pop history to say ‘I love you.'”
In tweets written and then deleted by Love, the widow said that the song is about her vagina and that she had contributed some of the lyrics to the song.
Lyrics: Dire Thoughts
No matter the actual subject matter, the song’s lyrics depict a bleak brain.
Cobain opens it by singing:
She eyes me like a Pisces when I am weak
I’ve been locked inside your heart-shaped box for weeks
I’ve been drawn into your magnet tar pit trap
I wish I could eat your cancer when you turn black
There is only one other verse between the screeching chorus, in which he adds:
Meat-eating orchids forgive no one just yet
Cut myself on angel hair and baby’s breath
Broken hymen of Your Highness, I’m left black
Throw down your umbilical noose so I can climb right back
The song is as much a fever dream about being alive as it is a rock tune.
The Music Video: Award-Winning, Legal Mess
The song’s music video, which was directed by Dutch artist Anton Corbijn, won Best Alternative Video at the MTV Video Music Awards in 1994. But he wasn’t the band’s first choice.
Reportedly, Nirvana wanted Kevin Kerslake for the job. He had directed past band videos for “Come as You Are,” “In Bloom,” “Lithium” and others. In the original brainstorm session, he wrote that Cobain should kiss author William Burroughs. He also thought the band should hang from a tree by their necks.
Corbijn allegedly was unsure about taking the job given Cobain’s treatments and thoughts for the music video. But later was swayed, saying, “But then I looked at it and I thought that actually, it was pretty good. I was very amazed by somebody writing a song and having those ideas as precise as he did.”
The video, which features a withered man (Santa?) on the cross, was shot on August 31 and September 1, just after the song itself was unveiled. Corbijn also created a music video with an alternative ending, which is featured on the DVD The Work of Director Anton Corbijn, which includes more shots of Cobain lying on his back in a poppy field with mist.
After the release of the video, Kerslake sued the band alleging copyright infringement. The case was settled out of court.
Video Reunion: “What A Legend!”
In February of 2016, Grohl reunited with Kelsey Rohr, the actress who’d played the girl in the “Heart-Shaped Box” music video some 23 years earlier. She’d been just six years old during the original shoot.
After that reunion, Rohr said, “Today reminded me that I peaked at 6 years old but I was the most badass kid on the playground. Today was the absolute coolest. Or in Dave’s words, seeing each other today was a ‘historic moment’! What a legend!”
“Heart-Shaped Box” was the last song Cobain played live with Nirvana. It came on March 1, 1994, at a show in Munich, Germany. He died a little over a month later on April 5, 1994, in Seattle, Washington. Cobain was just 27 years old.
Photo by Paul Bergen/Redferns