Nirvana: Courtney Love shares Heart-Shaped Box’s racy true meaning

Nirvana perform 'Smells Like Teen Spirit' on TOTP 1991

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Much like The Beatles, who were a major inspiration for Kurt Cobain, many of Nirvana’s songs have been difficult to interpret. Heart-Shaped Box has been one of the band’s most enigmatic tracks, with its intended meaning still being debated to this day. Featured on the group’s third and final album, In Utero released in 1993, it wasn’t until years later when Courtney Love weighed in on the discussion. Her interpretation is a lot more intimate than some fans were expecting.

When it comes to understanding the track, listeners need to know the context of when it was written. Penned in 1992 by Kurt Cobain, it was one of the songs that formed the 1993 hit album, In Utero.

It came after Nirvana’s second album Nevermind, which was a game-changer for the band. Releasing to massive commercial and critical acclaim, the group’s sound was still heavily critiqued by mainstream music critics.  

This was something Cobain hated, as he avoided any negative feedback at all costs as the musician took such words personally. He was also a politically progressive person, a strong feminist and a champion of women’s rights.

However, there was a specific report that inspired the Heart-Shaped Box.

According to Michael Azerrad’s book Come as You Are: The Story of Nirvana, shortly after Love and Cobain first met, she made him a literal heart-shaped box filled with pine cones, seashells and toys.

The book also notes a report about children with cancer playing a major role in the inspiration for the song, something Cobain directly told the author, Azerrad. Yet, according to Love this only makes up part of the story.

The lyrics “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,”  have particularly drawn the attention of fans trying to decipher the track.

After Lana Del Rey performed a cover of the song in 2012, it caused a resurgence of interest in its meaning. Following the rendition, Love took to Twitter to share her own intimate insight into the track.

According to NME, Cobain’s widow 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?” (sic) These Tweets have since been deleted for an unknown reason.

It is certainly a compelling theory about the song, one Anton Corbijn’s ideas concur with. He was the director of Heart-Shaped Box’s music video who believed the track was about Cobain’s relationship with Love along with the idea of cancer for children.

Speaking to The Daily Beast, the director said: “I’m not totally sure…I never got to the bottom of that. Some idea about cancer in society, as well as proper cancer, but I never … It was not really clear to me, to be honest, what Kurt personally had in there. And there were absolutely personal things in there: maybe to deal with drugs, maybe to deal with Courtney.”

It seems the truth is likely somewhere in the middle, with Cobain never definitively explaining the song. His old bandmates Dave Grohl and Krist Novoselic haven’t offered an alternative view either, so it is up to each individual listener to come up with their own meaning. 

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