Several years after Kurt Cobain died, I went to Sam Goody with a $20 bill and came home with In Utero.
I was 11, maybe 12. “Rape Me” was my favorite. I blasted the track and asked my parents what “rape” meant. They thumbed through the lyric booklet, frowned at the fetuses dotting the cover art, and quickly confiscated the disc to a bedroom closet, where, some weeks later, I happened upon it and reclaimed it in secret. Forbidden art is alluring art, and In Utero has been my favorite Nirvana release ever since. I already owned Nevermind, but In Utero was different—scarier, sharper around the edges. At least in part, that was because of “Rape Me”.
Ignore the vocals and “Rape Me” is one of the few In Utero tracks that sounds like it could be a Nevermind holdover; the four-chord strumming intro is too blatant a reference to ignore. But behold the vocals—especially during the scorched-earth howls of the last 30 seconds—and it’s both lyrically and sonically a beacon of In Utero’s uncompromisingly blunt force.
That, of course, was the point: “Rape Me” was intended as a razor-sharp anti-rape anthem, an emblem of the feminist messages Kurt began publicly channeling during the last two years of his life, when he recognized and decided to make positive use of his social influence. As Kurt put it in one interview:
Having to resort to doing something like that is almost embarrassing because people didn’t understand when we wrote about a song like “About a Girl” or “Polly”, and having to explain that and having misunderstandings about it, I decided to write “Rape Me” in a way that was so blunt and obvious that no one could deny it; no one could read into it any other way, although some people have.
Of course it can be—and was—read every other way: as an allegory about media badgering, about drug addiction, about MTV. That was what Kurt never could recognize or accept about superstardom: becoming a blank slate for mass audience interpretation and projection, in a sphere where his songs would mean whatever the world wanted them to mean. He couldn’t control his fanbase, because no platinum-selling rock star can choose his fanbase. It’s what he railed against in the Incesticide liner notes, and with good reason, imploring the racists and homophobes to stop buying Nirvana records and to “leave us the fuck alone.”
“Rape Me” was supposed to halt popular misinterpretations; it only fueled them. At 11, I heard the song and asked what “rape” meant. I was told, “It’s to do bad things to someone.”
That’s how listeners took it, too—allegory, ambiguity, a blank slate. Strange thing is, actually, Kurt meant it to mean “to rape”.