Welcome to Albums I Loved That Are Actually Bad, a maybe one-time column about albums we loved at certain points in our lives that we—upon maturing—now realize are terrible. This time: Nirvana’s In Utero.
Over the past few years, more and more music fans have voyaged into the taboo territory of challenging what has long been considered the “greatest albums of all time.” For that, I’m grateful. Not because of a popular music history written by well-to-do white men who overwhelmingly ignore people outside of those identities, but that’s certainly a factor. Canonization—list-making, ranking, the degradation of art to numbers—feels inherently short-sighted and therefore questioning what Rolling Stone deemed hot back in the day is, in actuality, the real hot shit. Keeping that in mind, I’m here to tell you beloved Seattle band Nirvana’s third and final album, 1993's In Utero, kinda blows. I loved it once, but people change.
Let’s get all the sonic biases out of the way: Nirvana’s In Utero was the first full Nirvana album I ever heard, save for their live album, MTV Unplugged in New York. I was in fourth or fifth grade a decade after its release, and my best friend stole her older brother’s CD copy simply because her last name had a similar spelling as the album title (we were much too young and dumb and under-developed to realize that “in utero” meant the same thing as “in the uterus.”) At the time, like many mall punks, we were only interested in emo, making Nirvana categorically ancient. (To our defense, Nirvana had been banished to classic rock radio purgatory alongside Led Zepplin at stations across this country by that point.) The album eventually entered our shared rotation as an acquired taste and we fell in love with every inch of it. For whatever shortcomings In Utero possessed, a hearty diet of pop-punk misogyny had lined our stomachs for much worse.
In Utero swears to not care much for hooks—not like the major label, mainstream-minded, rockstar-making, diamond-status (meaning, over 10 million copies sold worldwide) Nevermind, or their debut Bleach, which is almost another band entirely. The 41-minute cacophonous In Utero is the soundtrack to Nirvana rejecting their status as the greatest and most popular rock band of the early ’90s, having lived two full years of life post-“Smells Like Teen Spirit,” a reality physically removed from their Olympia roots and psychically devoid of their punk ethos. They—the trio of Cobain, bassist Krist Novoselic and Foo Fighter Dave Grohl—told anyone who would listen that they were unhappy with Nevermind’s crisp, slick, polished production and wanted In Utero to be more dynamic, a demonstration of angst that was not only marketable, but also true. They wanted to sound like the Melvins, and they succeeded. (They also wanted to sound like the Pixies, which they did not.) Returning to one’s roots, as those with taste will tell you, is a Hail Mary move.
A Nirvana so obsessed with trying to disprove the music business, mainstream America, whomever, that they were not what they were perceived to be publicly, made for a reactionary record. When you’re a young idiot like I was, attracted to all art things “unlike other girls,” masculine music hell-bent on proving them wrong is artful anger. In practice, it’s diluted, ineffective, and in some moments, void.
Here’s an example: In Utero was originally titled I Hate Myself and I Want to Die, which Cobain told Rolling Stone in January 1994 was “nothing more than a joke... I’m thought of as this pissy, complaining, freaked-out schizophrenic who wants to kill himself all the time. And I thought it was a funny title. But I knew the majority of people wouldn’t understand it.” I take this to be Nirvana admitting to a desire to go raw but making sure the album was accessible all the same. Considering that they brought in R.E.M. producer Scott Litt to add necessary melody to In Utero produced by noted indie asshole Steve Albini, too, speaks volumes. They wanted to push back against industry pressure while succumbing to it.
Then there are the songs.
“Rape Me” is a three-minute slog, Cobain repeating in the chorus, “Rape me, rape me my friend/Rape me, rape me again.”
While it is true that Cobain shared more than a handful of feminist ideologies, it is also true that he thought making a rape reference in a secondary single wouldn’t be misunderstood because of its subject matter, especially damning considering his once less-than-savory behaviors towards women described in at least one biography.
“It’s like she’s saying, ‘Rape me, go ahead, rape me, beat me. You’ll never kill me. I’ll survive this and I’m gonna fucking rape you one of these days and you won’t even know it,” Cobain told SPIN in 1993, arguing for the song’s disquieting straightforwardness. In the same year, “Rape Me” was appropriated by hate radio DJs to spread propaganda leading up to the 1994 Rwandan genocide. In a less extreme interpretation, fans have believed the track to be a rape joke about the media’s treatment of Nirvana. Of course, a musician cannot be held responsible for how their music is used, but there’s a much better tactic than an attempt to embody a woman’s plight of sexual violence to draw attention to it. You could, perhaps, have a woman record the song, though it would be a very different story. At the very least, it would be a less antiquated one.
The remainder of the release, “Very Ape,” “Pennyroyal Tea,” and most everything in between makes the best of Nirvana’s quiet-verse, loud-hook formula, but repetition can only go so far. It all starts to blend together after a while. I’d argue the same for male aggression packaged in distorted riffs and at times, incomprehensible lyricism (that’s “Tourette’s”). In an era when you can listen to anything, including better Nirvana songs, In Utero doesn’t have legs to stand on.
As an adult, I now understand that In Utero is nothing more a utensil in which to get “Heart-Shaped Box” onto our plate and a gateway drug to the far superior Live Through This by Hole, fronted by Courtney Love, an inevitable discovery for curious music fans. It also doesn’t help that Nirvana’s popularity—and in particular, Cobain’s singular-non-singular voice—has been perfectly parodied in the dorkiest fucking rock bands of the past two decades, including but not limited to Seether, who I’m sure worship the ground on which In Utero was created.
You’re more than welcome to disregard everything here in lieu of a more savory opinion that continues the deification of Cobain and everything he touched. Maybe I’ll do the same in the next decade when someone much smarter convinces me otherwise. Until then, I only ask that you recognize you’ve made it this far, you’ve read this many words, and the only victor is me.