How Kurt Cobain Confronted Violence Against Women in His “Darkest Song”: Nevermind’s “Polly”

In 1991, Nir­vana changed pop music with Nev­er­mindWe know this, and we know—or can con­firm with a few clicks—that “Pol­ly,” the 6th track on that album, sits at its very cen­ter. We can call to mind, or pull up in sec­onds, the lul­la­by cho­rus melody and the sound of Cobain’s five-string, pawn shop Stel­la acoustic gui­tar. And we may even remem­ber the lyrics, or some of them, ellip­ti­cal, deeply dis­turb­ing descrip­tions of a girl named “Pol­ly,” from the point of view of some­one doing hor­ri­fy­ing things to her.

“Pol­ly,” as Evan Puschak, bet­ter known as video-essay­ist Nerd­writer, explains above, in fact describes an actu­al occur­rence near Cobain’s home­town of Aberdeen, WA: the abduc­tion, rape, and tor­ture of a 14-year-old girl, writ­ten from the per­spec­tive of her abduc­tor, rapist, and tor­tur­er. “Of all the dark songs” Cobain wrote, says Puschak, “and there are a lot to choose from, the most dis­turb­ing to me is ‘Pol­ly.’” The inci­dent hap­pened in 1987; Cobain first wrote “Pol­ly,” then called “Hitch­hik­er,” in ’88.

“It’s a hard song to talk about,” Puschak admits, but an impos­si­ble song to ignore, giv­en its place in one of the biggest-sell­ing albums from one of the biggest bands in the world. And com­ing from Cobain, whose out­spo­ken activism defined his pub­lic per­sona, it’s a song we must hear in the larg­er con­text of a writer per­pet­u­al­ly hor­ri­fied by sex­u­al vio­lence and misog­y­ny, and unable to look away and ignore it.

“Dis­gust­ed,” writes Juli­et Macy at Go Mag, after “some of his fans spread anti-gay mes­sages in tune to his music,” Cobain left a mes­sage for them in the lin­er notes to Inces­ti­cide: “If any of you, in any way, hate homo­sex­u­als, peo­ple of col­or or women, please do this one favor for us—leave us the fuck alone. Don’t come to our shows and don’t buy our records.” He meant it, and left an even more furi­ous mes­sage for in the notes for In Utero.

“On rape cul­ture,” Macy writes, “Cobain assert­ed, ‘The prob­lem with groups who deal with rape is that they try to edu­cate women how to defend them­selves. What real­ly needs to be done is teach­ing men not to rape. Go to the source and start there.” “Pol­ly” rep­re­sents such an attempt to go to the source, Puschak argues, to get clos­er than we’d ever want to get. Its spare arrange­ment helps cre­ate its sense of inti­ma­cy. “’Pol­ly’ is basi­cal­ly Cobain and his gui­tar.”

Musi­cal­ly, this was not the kind of vul­ner­a­bil­i­ty Cobain was at all com­fort­able putting on dis­play. Two years lat­er, when Nir­vana went on MTV’s Unplugged, he “wor­ried the band didn’t have the grace to pull off some­thing so sub­tle,” as Mike Pow­ell notes at Pitch­fork. Notably, one of the songs Cobain chose to play in that exposed, uncom­fort­able set­ting venue was Leadbelly’s “In the Pines,” a song writ­ten from the point of view of a man inter­ro­gat­ing a woman; a man who may be a father, jeal­ous lover, or some­thing much more sin­is­ter.

In every ver­sion of this old, vague­ly trag­ic Amer­i­can folk-blues, from its first, 1929 record­ing as “Black Girl” by Peg Leg How­ell to “In the Pines” to wordier, and white­washed, ver­sions by coun­try pick­ers and croon­ers, a sense of men­ace hov­ers, near or far, fraught with inti­ma­tions of rape and mur­der, the klax­ons the Rolling Stones rang to announce the end of the flow­ery, folky ’60s. Bands in the ’90s culled from a much dark­er strain of the coun­try’s ear­li­est pop­u­lar music than Pete Seeger, or even Dylan, and “Pol­ly,” in its old-timey instru­men­ta­tion and blues sim­plic­i­ty, touch­es into this under­cur­rent.

In “Pol­ly,” Cobain “forces an emo­tion­al iden­ti­fi­ca­tion with evil, to stop us from sup­press­ing this bru­tal­i­ty,” Puschak says, search­ing­ly, or “to stop us from evad­ing it.” Per­haps. Maybe he’s ask­ing us to empathize with a mon­ster, but he also push­es us to look at a dis­turb­ing Amer­i­can tradition—one evoked by “In the Pines” as well: mur­der bal­lads, songs, books, and films about stalk­ing, pos­ses­sion, manip­u­la­tion, and rape (see the Stones’ “Brown Sug­ar”): a near-con­stant aes­theti­ciza­tion of vio­lence against women.

This kind of exca­va­tion was lost on many of the fans who bought Nev­er­mind—those same fans whom Cobain came to loathe. His evo­ca­tions of dark Amer­i­cana were part of a gen­er­al trend of the time. In 1994, when the Unplugged episode aired, many Nir­vana lis­ten­ers of the band were also howl­ing, “Do you want to die!” to the The Toad­ies hit “Pos­sum King­dom,” anoth­er song that reached into south­ern U.S. folk­lore to tell what seems to be a sto­ry of rape and tor­ture in the woods from the per­spec­tive of the rapist and tor­tur­er. (The song’s video explic­it­ly plays with ser­i­al-killer film tropes.)

“Pol­ly” is nei­ther mourn­ful nor play­ful, and it decid­ed­ly does not rock like “Pos­sum King­dom.” Almost total­ly acoustic, drum­less, deliv­ered in a mum­bled monot­o­ne in the vers­es, and an off-key dead-eyed sing-song in the jar­ring­ly catchy cho­rus­es, it lulls and repuls­es at the same time. Like every oth­er artist, Cobain had no con­trol over what lis­ten­ers did with his music. After Nev­er­mind’s suc­cess, reports emerged of two men com­mit­ting a rape while singing the song. Cobain replied, “I have a hard time car­ry­ing on know­ing there are plank­ton like that in our audi­ence.”

But he could not have made his own inten­tions clear­er, or the bur­den he felt to con­front a cul­ture that would not lis­ten to women. “A man using him­self as an exam­ple toward oth­er men,” he once said rue­ful­ly, “can prob­a­bly make more impact than a woman can.” Iron­i­cal­ly, giv­en how much he came to resent Nev­er­mind’s mas­sive suc­cess, one of its effects was to show cyn­i­cal male record label exec­u­tives that rock stars could be edgy and also out­spo­ken about sex­ism and rape cul­ture and also sell mil­lions of albums: which helped open doors for an explo­sion of female artists and bands through­out the decade who issued sear­ing punk man­i­festos and right­eous­ly angsty alt-rock against the patri­archy.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Nir­vana Plays an Angry Set & Refus­es to Play ‘Smells Like Teen Spir­it’ After the Crowd Hurls Sex­ist Insults at the Open­ing Act (Buenos Aires, 1992)

Nir­vana Refus­es to Fake It on Top of the Pops, Gives a Big “Mid­dle Fin­ger” to the Tra­di­tion of Bands Mim­ing on TV (1991)

33 Songs That Doc­u­ment the His­to­ry of Fem­i­nist Punk (1975–2015): A Playlist Curat­ed by Pitch­fork

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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