Is Nirvana’s ‘Heart-Shaped Box’ About Cancer Or Is It About Courtney Love’s Vagina?

A sigh before Kurt Cobain entered the eternal hunting grounds, in April 1994, he gave us the phenomenal Nirvana song ‘Heart-Shaped Box’, a pistil with a treacherous lyrics.

Sasha Van Der Speeten

In the 1990s, few rock stars wallowed in ambiguity as sardonically as Kurt Cobain. But he left little doubt about ‘Heart-Shaped Box’: for the most successful single from Nirvana’s third and final album in Utero he got his inspiration from a documentary about children with cancer. “Every time I think about it, I get sadder than I’ve ever been,” Cobain said in Michael Azerrad’s Come As You Are biography. It would be the lyric “I wish I could eat your cancer when you turn black” explain. In addition, the American grunge singer claimed, the chorus “Hey! / Wait! / I’ve got a new complaint!” refer to the blunt way the media treated him.

That could all be fine, the biographer Gillian G. Gaar thought in her analysis in Uteroa booklet from the renowned 33 1/3 series, “but the song is more about the physical and emotional dependence that is inherent in romantic relationships.” The imagery is especially striking. Cobain sings about carnivorous orchids and an umbilical cord, “mostly feminine symbols that harbor potential danger and that generate a fear that properly equates intimacy with a suffocating claustrophobia”.

Are you now spontaneously thinking of Courtney Love? Cobain’s widow, who is also the frontwoman of the band Hole, was the only mortal to attend the birth of ‘Heart-Shaped Box’. Her bereaved husband is said to have written the song in 1992 when he and she had moved into a house in the Hollywood Hills, more specifically “in a built-in closet where I heard him play the basic riff,” she said in a statement. Rolling Stone. “I asked him if I could have that riff for one of my own songs. He just said ‘fuck you!’ and shut the closet door.”

Does ‘Heart-Shaped Box’ shed light on the turbulent relationship between Love and Cobain, the Sid and Nancy of the nineties? We know that Love once gifted him a heart-shaped perfumed box that contained a decapitated porcelain doll, rose petals, a mini teacup and some sea shells. What about “I wish I could eat your cancer when you turn black”? Is that lurid lyric “one of the most complicated routes any songwriter has ever taken to say you love someone,” as Nirvana biographer Charles R. Cross suspects? To eat your lover’s illness to save her from evil? Or save the ‘cancer’ and the ‘pisces’ from the text on the constellations of Cobain and Love?


The well-thought-out text somewhat reflects the difficult creation of the song. When Cobain showed the demo for ‘Heart-Shaped Box’ to his comrades Dave Grohl and Krist Novoselic, they came up with little more than a lot of raging noise. Ironically, bassist Novoselic later complained during the recording that Cobain’s atonal guitar solo sounded “like an abortion slamming to the floor.” Appropriate, since Cobain sings the song from the point of view of an aborted fetus who wants to crawl back into its mother’s womb.

The final note is – how could it be otherwise? — for Courtney Love. “You do know that ‘Heart-Shaped Box’ is about my vagina, right?” she tweeted in 2012 after Lana Del Rey covered the song. “Come on guys: “Throw your umbilical noose so I can climb right back”? uh…? I came up with a lot of those comparisons myself. So the next time you sing that song, think about my vagina, okay?”

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