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Meaning Behind “Heart-Shaped Box” Song By Nirvana

One of Nirvana’s biggest songs is Heart-Shaped Box, but do you know what prompted the band to write this track or if it’s about a particular person? We’re going to tell you all about the meaning behind Heart-Shaped Box below, so keep reading to find out what’s really behind this famous grunge song! 

The Origins 

Heart-Shaped Box was a track that lead singer Kurt Cobain began writing in Los Angeles, California, at an apartment he was in with Courtney Love, his wife, back in 1992. He went into a closet and began the guitar riff and then just set the song aside for a bit while he moved to the Hollywood Hills with her. 

Once in this new apartment with his wife, he tried to get his bandmates to work on Heart-Shaped Box, but both Dave Grohl and Krist Novoselic couldn’t figure out what to do with the guitar riff since as he put it, “it all sounded like noise.” 

However, one day they were jamming, and Cobain found a vocal style that would fit with Heart-Shaped Box. Once that happened, the rest of the guys found their groove, and the track was born. It would eventually land on their album In Utero when it was released in 1993

The Music Video

Nirvana - Heart-Shaped Box (Official Music Video)

The music video for Heart-Shaped Box starts and stops with an old man on a hospital bed who is getting medication through IV, and the band is watching this happen. There are poppies all around since the video is set in a field, and there is a cross near some trees. The old man is wearing a Santa hat in the beginning and then climbs right onto the cross with crows all around. 

In the second verse, there is a little girl who seems to be in a KKK outfit, and she is trying to grab fetuses that are in the tree while a big woman with wings is on her back and she is wearing a bodysuit made out of human organs. The little girl seems to try to chase the crows away from the cross as the old man is tied to the cross. 

The little girl’s hat blows away during the guitar solo and then goes into the poppy field and lands in a puddle, which makes the hat turn black. There is now a fetus that is on the IV drip, and Cobain begins to sing right in front of the camera. There is a decorated box with a heart above it, which is mostly seen from a distance. 

There is a rocking chair, nightstand, and bed in the last part of the music video. You can see that when the chorus is heavy, everything is red while it goes blue when it’s more subdued. Cobain is seen throughout the video up near the camera up close and far away. 

On MTV, Heart-Shaped Box was the most-played video in 1993, and it was also the number-one music video on MuchMusic Countdown for around two weeks. It led to the group winning two Video Music Awards from MTV in 1994 for the song, although the show was held right after Cobain killed himself, so the rest of the band went up on stage to accept those MTV Music Video Awards. 

As for Cobain, he was happy with the Heart-Shaped Box music video before he died with this being the last one he worked on before his suicide. He said he nailed this video closer to his visions than he had any previous video, and he felt very good about the final cut that was released. 

The Lyrics 

When you look at the lyrics of Heart-Shaped Box, it can be confusing because the song can have more than one meaning. Cobain had said in an interview that the track was about kids with cancer, which could explain the lyric “I wish I could eat your cancer when you turn black,” but this line could also be about Love too. He was always messing with the media, so saying it was about kids with cancer could all be staged since he often purposely lied when they’d ask questions. 

At the beginning of the song, you hear “She eyes me like a Pisces when I am weak, I’ve been locked inside your heart-shaped box for weeks,” which seems to be about his relationship with Love and the often-troubled relationship they had.

The lyrics “Hey! Wait! I got a new complaint, Forever in debt to your priceless advice” is all about the media and how they always had something negative to say about him as well as Love. He is being sarcastic when he says he is forever in debt for their advice as if they were living his life and knew what the best thing for him and his family or band was. If you know anything about him, then you know he hated the media so this line was a smack right at them. 

He then sings “Cut myself on angel hair and baby’s breath, Broken hymen of ‘Your Highness,’ I’m left black,” and then “Throw down your umbilical noose so I can climb right back,” which again seems to be referencing his troubled relationship with Love and not about a kid with cancer, although he uses cancer as a metaphor. 

So…What’s It About?

Heart-Shaped Box would appear to be about Cobain and Love and their troubled relationship. Allegedly, she gave him a candy box that was heart-shaped that featured a lot of personal and valuable possessions in it. The lyrics go between him loving her and hating her and also point to how he feels women are treated since he is a known feminist

There is both emotional and physical dependence in most relationships, including between those two, and that is what Heart-Shaped Box is likely about. Some other things are thrown in too including a reference to how the media perceived him, which was the line “I got a new complaint,” and this also could be a reference to their troubled relationship, which was all over the tabloids. It’s easy to read between the lines that the song deals with a toxic relationship, and you can see that with the imagery and details he uses to describe their love.

However, Love herself chimed in on Twitter in 2012 with a Tweet directed at Lana Del Rey after she did a cover of Heart-Shaped Box at a concert. She said this track was about her vagina, although those tweets were later deleted with no further explanation. We don’t know whether she was being serious or not, but given the sexual nature of the lyrics, it’s possible the song is about her anatomy. 

There is also the possibility that this track was about love letters that were found by Cobain from her former boyfriend, Billy Corgan of the Smashing Pumpkins. As for what Heart-Shaped Box is truly about, there are many thoughts, and none of them have been proven right or wrong, and it’s been up for debate for decades. 

Chart Performance 

Just as with other Nirvana songs, Heart-Shaped Box went onto the Modern Rock Tracks chart and first appeared at number seven before peaking at number one. It hit the Mainstream Rock Tracks chart and went to number four. It also hit number one on the UK Rock & Metal Singles chart and charted in multiple countries within the Top 40 including France, Poland, Finland, Portugal, and Canada. 

Legacy 

What makes Heart-Shaped Box stand out is that this was the last track that Cobain sang live with Nirvana before his untimely death on April 5, 1994. He played this song on March 1, 1994, and it was the last of their live show in Munich, Germany. 

It is often thought to be one of his best in terms of its composition and symbolism, including themes of birth, the female body, and the metaphor of cancer to talk about a troubled co-dependent relationship. 

The music video and track are nearly perfect in the eyes of many. It’s also known as one of the best Nirvana songs both by fans and media critics because of its chorus and banging guitar riff along with the lyrical content, which is still up for interpretation all of these years later. 

In 2016, a reunion of sorts happened when Grohl met up with the little girl from the video, who was now 29 years old. Kelsey Rohr was only six when she played the little girl in the Heart-Shaped Box video, and they both had a good time reminiscing about the video and how it shaped both of their lives. 

What The Critics Said 

Heart-Shaped Box received praise from critics for being cathartic and true rock and roll. David Fricke, who reviewed the song and the entire album for Rolling Stone, said that not even Stone Temple Pilots could write a song like this even if they had instructions.  He then went on to say that Cobain was as close to John Lennon as possible for this generation. 

NME writer John Mulvey said that it was an anthem, albeit a messed up one, for a generation that had fallen for Smells Like Teen Spirit and is also becoming just as disturbed and mature as Cobain, which means the fans have grown with him and now can relate to tracks such as Heart-Shaped Box

Use In Media

Heart-Shaped Box hasn’t been used very much in the media, although it can be found in season 4 episode 19 of Beavis & Butthead, and also in Kurt Cobain: Montage Of Heck

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