Tuesday, February 09, 2010
If David Bowie’s Ashes to Ashes video is (arguably) the greatest rock video ever made, this video, that accompanies the Nirvana song Heart Shaped Box, has my vote for best original video of the 1990s. The images and basic schemes employed in the video were all devised by Kurt Cobain, and brought to realized form by Anton Corbijn. The meeting of sensibilities worked, and produced a piece that is haunting, disturbing, and as confessional as any single song Cobain wrote during his stint as Nirvana front-man. The main images seem to be: a wooden cross, on which a gaunt old man wearing a Santa Claus hat ties himself; a young girl wearing the regalia of a Ku Klux Klan member, strolling slowly through a field of poppies; the band itself, miming the song; and the band in a hospital room, visiting the self-same gaunt old man, lying on a hospital bed with an intravenous needle stuck in his arm. Minor images include fetuses hanging from trees, a fetus stuck in the old man’s intravenous apparatus, and Dave Grohl holding up a heart-shaped box that reflects light right at the camera.
All these images seem to be tied to what Cobain’s main concerns as a songwriter were in 1993: birth and death, the substance and frailty of bodies, addictions, feelings of fatigue and agedness, innocence being corrupted by bloodshed and impersonal forces. That all of these concerns can more or less be squarely tied to his position as perhaps the biggest rock star in the world at the time is arguable. But the strange, cathartic imagery in both the lyrics of the song and in the video’s imagery cuts deeper than mere rock star angst. It seems to be Cobain’s admission of powerlessness to defeat or even confront the issues that were facing him. Yet, importantly, the song is not solipsistic, it is directed to someone else. Most people have assumed that this someone else is Cobain’s spouse, Courtney Love, but who the muse happens to be doesn’t matter much. This sounds like a last ditch attempt by Cobain to establish a meaningful human connection. The song is not triumphant; in many ways, it feels like Cobain doesn’t succeed. But the Confessional nature of his attempt makes the song riveting in its own right; combined with the potent, perverse imagery in the video, the song enacts its own devastating level of sickness, decay, and helpless downward spiraling. And, together, they make a damn good work of art.