By the time Nirvana’s “In Bloom” was released as Nevermind’s fourth and final single in November 1992, Nirvana were a considerably more lucrative commodity than they were when those songs began life. Though he would never have foreseen such a development, it’s ironic that Kurt Cobain’s swift rise to superstar status and the searing resentment he felt about it was anticipated by the very song that launched this new and turbulent chapter.
The day before Nirvana were due to record demos for Nevermind with producer Butch Vig at his Smart Studios in Madison, Wisconsin, in April 1990, Kurt was hastily putting the finishing touches to the first incarnation of “In Bloom.” It had sounded initially, according to bassist Krist Novoselic, “like a Bad Brains song” (presumably referring to the Washington D.C. group’s hardcore leanings and not their aptitude with reggae), but Kurt must have rounded off its edges, channeling it through his innate pop sense.
Clearly satisfied with this version, Nirvana had planned to release “In Bloom” as an EP for Sub Pop, the indie label they were signed to – even going so far as to film a video for it. But a year later, upon signing to Geffen Records (based on the strength of the Vig-produced demos), the still-unreleased “In Bloom” was set to be re-recorded in more formal sessions intended for the album.
The recording of Nirvana’s ‘In Bloom’
When they began in May 1991 at Sound City Studios in Van Nuys, California, Vig – returning as producer – suggested they warm up on the first day with something relatively unchallenging. “I thought it would be good to start with a song where I was familiar with the arrangements,” he said.
Putting “In Bloom” to tape was, however, not without its troubles. Harnessing Kurt in the studio could often be problematic. “Kurt was awesome to work with, but he was incredibly moody,” Vig would say. “That was the thing, was to figure out when he was going to be focused, or when he was going to disappear into himself.”
Such outbursts could often be attributed to Kurt’s assessment of his own performance. He had to contend with an inherent dichotomy that pitted achieving musical perfection against his punk rock credentials. Despite the passion he clearly injected into his singing, his vocals could be erratic, something the producer had to manage and correct that first day on “In Bloom.” (Kurt wasn’t the only one to blame for the many takes of the song; drummer Dave Grohl’s first attempts at backing vocals required a lot of coaxing and patience.)
Once complete, “In Bloom” set a sonic template for what would follow on Nevermind, utilizing a compelling quiet/loud dynamic that was at once disconcerting yet propulsive, and in which the blistering noise was countered by an irrepressible melody. “We had one tape we listened to in the van,” Krist Novoselic said of the group’s contradictory listening habits. “On one side was (New Jersey alt-rock group) The Smithereens, and on the other side was this heavy metal band, Celtic Frost. That tape was always getting played, turned over and over again. I think back now and go, ‘Yeah, maybe that was an influence.’”
The meaning of ‘In Bloom’
With Kurt’s lyrics here being typically veiled – his use of jumbling language drew heavily from William Burroughs’ cut-up technique and Surrealist art – the precise message of “In Bloom” is deliberately vague, but there are three dominant theories that endure.
The first, put forward by Nirvana biographer Charles Cross, was that Kurt’s friend and roommate Dylan Carlson was the gun-shooting man who “likes all our pretty songs” but “knows not what it means,” though without any corroboration from either Cobain or Carlson, this remains speculation.
A more pervading argument made for the meaning of “In Bloom” is that it’s a direct condemnation of the fair-weather fans that had begun to appear at their shows as word spread in the US between Bleach and Nevermind. From his position on stage, Kurt thought he could see Nirvana’s audiences swelling with the “rednecks, macho men, and abusive people” he’d despised all his life, singing along with their catchy tunes and yet completely failing to perceive their messages – their ignorance ultimately forcing Kurt to feel further isolated.
This was not a new condition to Kurt – growing up in Aberdeen, Washington, he’d never had tolerance for any narrow-mindedness or bigotry. “For ages I thought I might be homosexual,” he said, “because I didn’t like the cheerleader type of girl or want to hang out with the jock boys. I chose to live the life of a recluse. I didn’t hang out with anyone else because I couldn’t handle their stupidity.”
The irony, of course, is that the song that Kurt wrote to denounce these parochial types is a readily infectious, melodic earworm that just begs to be echoed by whoever is listening to it. Nevertheless, despite their having attained mainstream status, by the time Nirvana released “In Bloom,” it was clear they still saw themselves on the outside looking in and laughing at all those too short-sighted to know the song is about them.
Another theory about the song’s meaning
There is one other abiding idea about “In Bloom.” While the choruses may immediately seem to fit the outsider theory, the verses in particular lend themselves to the notion that the song is one about sexual identity and the confusions therein that present themselves during adolescence.
The song is set in spring – the season of awakenings – and “reproductive glands” are as such being aroused in those of “tender age”; the soft fruit easily bruised. Leading on from the considerations given to his own sexual orientation, perhaps Kurt was alluding to such teenage anxieties, where the complexities of discovering one’s self are further complicated by the pressures of society, making it harder to actually be yourself.
Kurt was an eternal non-conformist. His aversion to the macho types at school continued into adulthood when he was able to use his position to speak out against discrimination – actively ejecting from his gigs any males seen to be taking advantage of the group’s female fans. In 1992, Nirvana also played a benefit concert in Oregon protesting an anti-gay ballot amendment that was being threatened in the state, which called homosexuality “abnormal, wrong, unnatural and perverse.” At the end of that year, Nirvana’s new compilation album Incesticide appeared with liner notes that stated: “If any of you, in any way, hate homosexuals, people of a different color or women, please do this one favor for us – leave us the fuck alone. Don’t come to our shows and don’t buy our records.”
With so many presumptions as to the meaning of “In Bloom,” it’s fair to say that – since Kurt is no longer around to confirm or deny any of them – they could all be way off the mark. “Kurt said that he never liked literal things. He liked cryptic things,” Krist once explained. “He would just laugh. He knew he’d made something cool, and he’d be happy about it. He would think he was a blowhard if he explained stuff. Maybe he just liked to keep people guessing.”
The video for Nirvana’s ‘In Bloom’
Whatever the meaning behind the song, the music video did much to cement it as one of Nirvana’s most celebrated tunes. The black and white film was based on the musical performances on US TV programs from the 1960s such as The Ed Sullivan Show, and after an introduction from the presenter (who calls them “thoroughly alright and decent fellas”), a clean-cut Nirvana begin to mime along to “In Bloom” in a deliberately understated manner to a screaming crowd. “We wanted to be like The Beatles,” Kurt said. “No, The Dave Clark Five, I was wearing glasses. We would never make fun of The Beatles.”
Today, “In Bloom” persists as a classic due to the irresistible melody Kurt so fiendishly crafted. It withstood Sturgill Simpson’s yearning country interpretation, and infiltrated Lil Nas X’s subconscious enough when composing “Panini” to merit a songwriting credit for Kurt, given the similarities within the two songs.
In that, the fate of “In Bloom” is set. Lil Nas X is an openly gay, black artist actively pushing the barriers and acceptance of hip-hop, inspiring and empowering a new generation of music fans, and one can’t help but think that this association – supporting the LGBTQ+ community, challenging society, and having great fun while doing so – is everything that Kurt would have hoped his song would stand for decades later.