Nirvana - Heart Shaped Box
by Michelle Thiele
Nirvana’s music video for Heart-Shaped Box was mostly written by Kurt Cobain and directed by Anton Corbijn. As Cobain is responsible for both, the video and the song, one can assume that the creation of the video represents something very personal. Watching it, the audience is not able to agree on its meaning. Probably, this is mostly due to the fact that it is not supposed to mean anything at all or nothing definite. Therefore, the analysis of the video shall not be presented as the one and only truth either, but as a collection of suggestions and offers for its further understanding.
This analysis will use the same chapters as in the presentation, reiterating the same questions, but deepening some answers. Moreover, a short chapter about surrealism has been added right in the beginning, which is supposed to underline some of the arguments following in the next chapters. The third chapter focuses on the setting of the video. Afterwards, the video’s recurring images will be presented, i.e. Jesus, the cross, the Ku-Klux-Klan girl, embryos, and the obese angel woman. Next, Kurt Cobain’s facial expressions will be examined, before the lyrics are analyzed in connection to the video.
Surrealism is an art form, which evolved in the first half of the 20th century. Artists that can be classified as surrealistic are for example Chagall or Dalí; but the concept of surrealism is not only limited to the field of visual arts, but can be found in literature and film as well. As surrealism developed under the influence of psychoanalysis, its prevailing aim was displaying the unconscious. In surrealism the unconscious is presented as the actual reality. This is the reason why surrealistic paintings often appear as dream-like landscapes, since dreams also belong to the unconscious. Surrealistic art is thus a very fantastic art, which includes the world of dreams, hypnosis and intoxication. Elements presented in surrealism are often taken from particular context, and then put into another. Therefore, the style of this art form can be described as grotesque. Reality and dream blur into one another and create a whole new setting. (Kunst in Frankfurt)
Although the concept of surrealism had its heydays in earlier times, it also is important for other more modern genres and present artists. For example, David Lynch’s films can be classified as surrealistic. And indeed, it cannot be denied that the concept of Surrealism influenced the music video Heart Shaped Box, which is going to be discussed in this short analysis. As Kurt Cobain is the author of the video, he must be seen as the artist creating the surrealistic setting and its inhabitants. Thus it is very likely that his dreams, and unconscious feelings and desire fuel the imagery. In the next chapter, the different elements of the music video will be discussed, keeping the concept of surrealism in mind.
1. The Setting and The Wizard of Oz
Watching the video, one will be strongly reminded of the Wizard of Oz. In fact, this film is the base for the scenery of the music video. First, most of the video and the band’s performance take place in a field of poppies. The poppies are found in the film The Wizard of Oz at the end of Dorothy’s way to the castle, when the Wicked Witch wants her to fall asleep to cross Dorothy’s plans. This is not only the first cross reference to the film, it could also be understood as a link to the consumption of drugs, namely opium, which can also be made from some sorts of poppies. With regards to the concept of surrealism, drugs can be the trigger of surrealistic images and ideas as well. Second, there are trees in the video that resemble the trees of the forest where Dorothy met the lion. Third, the yellow brick road appearing in the music video reminds the viewer of the yellow brick road that would eventually lead Dorothy to the Wizard.
Another reference to the movie can be found in the Ku-Klux-Klan girl’s hat. She loses her hat when it gets blown away by the wind. It changes into a butterfly net, and then falls into a puddle, which contains a dark liquid, resembling blood. When it then flies away again, it looks like the Wicked Witch’s hat.
Moreover, it should be mentioned that the video was shot in a very special way: “my producer and I devised an idea to shoot it in color, then transfer it to black and white, so the black and white would match the colors in gray tone, and then hand-tint every single frame” (Cobijn in Romano). This is why the actually not so light-hearted scenery appears in very bright and colorful colors. The contrast between the setting and the colors make the video even more interesting, and the colors work as a relief.
2. Recurring elements in Heart Shaped Box
In the music video, certain elements occur again and again. Therefore, it is necessary to take a closer look at them. This chapter is dedicated to the discussion of these elements and intends trying to find explanations for their meanings.
a. Jesus/The Old Man
The video begins in a hospital with an old man lying in a bed. This man later turns into Jesus, or at least he looks like him. Interestingly, Jesus wears Santa Claus’s hat. Further on, this hat changes into a bishop’s hat. Actually, the old man could be seen as only an old man, if he did not climb onto a cross, and if he did not wear the same things as Jesus does in Christian figures and pictures. Thus, he seems to be a copy of the Christian’s imagination of Jesus, despite being much older.
The meaning of Jesus here is not easy to understand and one has to assume that there is no reason for his appearance in the video at all. First, the fact that Jesus is wearing Santa’s hat and later on a bishop’s hat could be a criticism of capitalism. Christmas should actually be a celebration of Jesus’s birthday, and thus a celebration of Christianity. In fact, Christmas has become a holiday which is mostly about presents, and hence about creating profits. Also, the bishop’s hat could display that Santa and Saint Nicholas are merging into one person. As Jesus is lying in a hospital, one could also assume that he is ill, which either could stand for the illness of Christianity, or for another disease like cancer, which is also mentioned in the lyrics.
In fact, none of the foregoing proposals must be right, considering that not even Anton Corbijn, the director of the video, knew what Cobain actually tried to express with these ideas (Romano). Thus, it is more likely that in this context, Jesus is just a representation of Cobain’s dreams or his unconsciousness, or that he is treating something personal with it, which is not accessible for the audience.
Another recurring image, strongly connected to Jesus, are the crosses. The first cross that can be seen in the music video is located on the hospital room floor. Then, the cross appears again as the cross on which Jesus in hanging. Using these two images, the different meanings of the cross in the Western culture can be explained. The cross stands for Christianity, as Jesus died on the cross. It then became a symbol for him, and may therefore have a positive meaning. Simultaneously, the cross also stands for death. A cross is used at first when people are buried and their gravestones are not ready. In addition, a cross is used to explain that a date next to a person’s name was their day of death. Both meanings come from the Christian background. Supposedly, the meaning of the cross here, might be found in both denotations. The cross on the hospital floor might mean the old man’s death, while the cross on which he is hanging as Jesus could be used as a means for displaying that he really is Jesus.
The next image that occurs in different scenes of the video are embryos. Embryos are hanging in the trees, and the Ku-Klux-Klan girl and the obese woman try to catch them. Moreover, an embryo can be found in the drip in the hospital. The image of the embryos being portrayed outside of a mother’s womb is something very bizarre and disturbing in general. A certain reason, why they are shown this way is not obvious. Thus, the considerations here again are just assumptions. In the context of cancer, the portrayal of embryos could mean that embryos are being used for science, or for curing other, older people. So, for the old man, the embryo in the drip could mean his cure, and the people who are trying to reach the embryos might do this for this very reason. On the other hand, the embryos might be also used for merely shocking the audience, and experimenting with certain images. In combination with the other images, the embryos get an even more bizarre and surreal nuance, because they are taken from their actual context, their mothers’ wombs.
d. The Ku-Klux-Klan girl
The next recurring image which shall be discussed is the Ku-Klux-Klan girl (KKK girl). The girl appears in several scenes of the video. The first question that has to be answered here, is why the KKK actually plays any role at all in the video. According to Cobijn, he was more than surprised that MTV did not have any problems with a girl dressed like a member of KKK appearing in the video (Romano). What is most interesting about the girl is that she appears as something very pure, but then represents something extremely evil. First of all, a child is always something pure and innocent, as a child mostly has not experienced the world’s evilness, and has not lived through the struggles, life can confront one with. Then, white is often described as the color of pureness, as for example bridal gowns are white to express the bride’s purity. This girl is not only wearing white, with her blonde, almost white hair, and her blue eyes, she seems like an angel-like creature who cannot possibly be connected to something like the KKK. On the other hand, her whiteness perfectly matches the aims and morals of the KKK, and thus represents it very well. Therefore, the KKK girl is a paradox in herself. The KKK girl does not only wear white. When her hat flies away and gets darkened, all her clothes get black, and she appears in the hospital. Being all black now, she could represent death itself, or a person wearing mourning garments, because of the old man’s disease and his possible death.
Moreover, the child’s behavior is not easy to explain. She is always jumping and trying to catch things. She is jumping up at Jesus’s cross and she is jumping to catch the embryos, which are hanging in the trees. Here again, Cobain’s thoughts that are behind his ideas, are difficult to understand.
e. The Obese Angel Woman/Mother Earth
The last image that shall be discussed here is the obese angel woman, who was created by Cobijn, the director of the video. For him, the obese angel woman stands for Mother Earth. Generally, Mother Earth is a very absurd creature: She is a naked woman, who is wearing angel wings. Normally, angel wings are white, but hers appear in a dirty grey, and look like they are being destroyed. Her nakedness is even more intense, because her bowels are naked, and the audience is able to look into her very inside. The behavior Mother Earth shows, makes her seem like an insane person. She is walking, but never moving forward. Moreover, she is trying to reach the embryos. Thus the question arises, why Mother Earth should act like that. The way she is portrayed could exemplify humans’ treatment of Mother Earth. Her wings are dirty, because humans destroy and pollute the environment. Her bowels are visible, because humans’ greed has led to severe wounds in Mother Earth’s skin, i.e. exploiting resources. If these assumptions are true, they might also explain Mother Earth’s behavior. She is trying to catch the embryos, either for influencing their future behavior, or for avoiding more damage; but she is never able to move forward and to improve, as humans pull her back and prevent her from healing.
3. Kurt Cobain’s facial expressions
Kurt Cobain and the other band members appear in several scenes of the video. The reason why Kurt Cobain is highlighted here, is that he is much more prominent than the other band members, and that the whole video was his idea. In some scenes, Cobain is singing near the camera, so that his face can be seen in a close-up view. Thus, his facial expression appear very clearly. While he is singing, Cobain shows, not a great spectrum of, but very intense emotions, which could be described as suffering or madness. This undermines Cobijn’s assumption that Cobain lay many personal feelings into the song and the video, although he never found out, which feelings precisely Cobain wanted to express (Romano). Hence, Cobain’s facial expressions reinforce the feelings conveyed by the video and give it a more personal touch.
Often, a video represents the lyrics of a song, or at least tries to illustrate the song itself. In this case however, the lyrics and the video do not match. The only element that appears, both in the lyrics and the video, is the Heart Shaped Box. In it, the band performs, and the KKK girl sits on a bed. In fact, the lyrics of the song might not make any sense at all for some people, neither does the video. This lack of sense might be exactly the reason, why the video and the song match in the end. Both express Cobain’s feelings and his unconsciousness. They are hence an illustration of his psyche. So, both the video and the lyrics are highly surreal, and this is why they fit better together than a video which illustrates the lyrics might have
This analysis shows that is not possible to find one true meaning of the video Heart Shaped Box. Instead, many offerings for interpretations could be found, although it is possible that they are not true at all. As the whole video was Kurt Cobain’s idea, it is likely that the video contains many personal feelings and thoughts, which only the creator is able to understand. We can thus assume that Kurt Cobain’s art was very surrealistic. The audience is not supposed to get the true meaning of his work. For them, the video appears as a potpourri of different images that do not really fit together. Actually, the same could be said about the lyrics of the song. What we hence find in Kurt Cobain’s last video is his very own unconsciousness, his feelings and ideas, and we are thus left alone with the analysis and the interpretation of the video, as Cobain is not able to answer our questions anymore. Finally, this analysis could show that the video belongs to the realm of surrealism, and that it therefore does not need to make any sense at all.
Nirvana. Heart Shaped Box. Video. 10/15/14. <http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=n6P0SitRwy8>
“Surrealismus". Kunst in Frankfurt. Michael Kania. Website. 10/15/2014. <http://www.kunstinfrankfurt.de/SurrealismusLayout.html>
Romano, Andrew. “How Nirvana Shot the ‘Heart Shaped Box’ video”. The Daily Beast. 9/13/13. Website. 10/15/14. <http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2013/09/13/how-nirvana-shot-the-heart-shaped-box-video.html>