Listen to this track by million-selling outsiders and grunge initiators Nirvana. It’s “All Apologies”, one half of the double A-side single (“Rape Me” was the other half…) that also appeared on the band’s last completed studio album In Utero in 1993. It would also appear, and be very well framed too, in the live document MTV Unplugged In New York.
The song is among many that made their success, and positioned its writer Kurt Cobain as a leading voice of the era. It would be his instinctual ear for pop hooks within the context of hard-edged rock music that would elevate him from the grassroots scenes in the Pacific Northwest, to the international stage.
Who saw that coming? Certainly not Nirvana.
And what did Kurt Cobain in particular make of this odd turn of events; success in the pop charts? History has shown that Cobain and the fame game were not compatible. That can certainly be detected here, even in this song which was written before that success became such a burden.
The band’s success would come to bear particularly after the release of their 1991 album Nevermind, which went from the province of subcultural rock fandom and into the mainstream pop charts, even outselling Michael Jackson by early the next year. The record was a rare artifact of the pop industry; it was all things to all record buying audiences. Because of their single “Smells Like Teen Spirit” specifically, they got heavy rotation on MTV, captured the mainstream, and kept a hold of college radio, too.
But, all the while, Cobain found himself adrift, no longer feeling as though what he was doing was honest. Millons of records sold, Sassy magazine cover shoots with his celebrity wife Courtney Love, and the hype around his celebrity rock baby birth of daughter Frances Bean Cobain were all the hallmarks of being a sell-out. Whether he was or not very much depends on what’s meant by “sell-out”.
To me as a fan of this song and most others Cobain wrote, it’s a bullshit term anyway. He was a great songwriter, and his band was a great vehicle for delivering his work. Just listen to the melody of this song, just as a for instance. It’s simple, effective, and memorable. It’s almost like a children’s song. You could play this on one of those Fisher-Price xylophones with colorful tin bars and it would still sound great. That’s because Kurt Cobain knew exactly what he was doing as a songwriter. He knew how to create work that would resonate with listeners, because he had the razor-sharp compositional instincts to be enable him to do so.
That’s all that ever counted for artists with integrity; that they follow their instincts, and do their best to create something out of them that connects with others. That what the mark of true success is here, with record sales and fame being completely beside the point. But evidently, the subtleties of this didn’t matter to him. His own insecurities led him to different conclusions, which are borne out in the lyrics. “All Apologies” really sounds like he’s owning all of what his worst critics would heap upon him; married to and buried by success and the pursuit of it, or more accurately by his failure to resist its trappings; “what else should I write? I don’t have the right”.
To be clear, “All Apologies” was indeed written just after their first record Bleach came out, and before the ride to magazine covers and pop chart showings really started. And although it seems to speak to the fame that Cobain attained, it seems to me that it’s really about who he always was before he rose to fame, which is a sensitive person in a situation, and in a world, that doesn’t tolerate sensitivity. Despite his staggering talent, he was insecure in himself. The irony was that even though he was driven to succeed by the magnitude of his talent, perhaps he was also destined to face his demons in ways that most people don’t; in the spotlight, and threatened to be consumed by his own avatar.
Eventually, he was.
Even if this song is a triumph on all musical levels, the abject and tragic catch-22 that inspired it stands as a shadow lurking between its lines.
You can, of course, learn more about Kurt Cobain at Nirvana.com