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Black Sky Thinking

Why Courtney Love Was Kurt Cobain's Lyrical Equal
Ben Hewitt , December 16th, 2009 06:21

Hark now, hear the angels sing: Kurt Cobain is back once more. Or, more accurately, he's never truly gone away: the permanently tragic anti-hero, forever frozen in time as a bleached-blonde sex symbol destined to exist for eternity as a figurehead for millions of outcast teens sitting in darkened bedrooms with only a copy of Nevermind for company. As the end of the decade draws closer, his legacy burns as brightly as ever. Both the recent reissue of Bleach, Nirvana's murky yet melodic debut, and the first official release of Live At Reading, their breathtakingly tense headlining set at the 1992 festival, suggest the demand for grunge's most enduring icon will never disappear.

Then there's Courtney Love, his former wife and muse. She's resurrected Hole - in name at least - for her new album Nobody's Daughter, which has taken on a slightly eerie feel given that Love has just lost custody of her daughter, Frances Bean. What are the chances of it being embraced with the same warmth as the Nirvana releases? Love is widely perceived as a kind of Lady Macbeth, and her increasingly unhinged slideshow of celebrity feuds and rock & roll trysts - plus the odd naked photo shoots - have wiped out any lingering traces of public affection she once enjoyed. It wasn't just the readers of that infamous issue of Q magazine who felt they'd seen just a little bit too much of her.

There are millions of reasons for this disparity of course. Most obviously, Nirvana were the biggest alternative band on the planet during their pomp and achieved a level of success Hole could only dream of. Then there's Cobain's morbidly glamorous career trajectory, an infinitely more glamorous decline than Love's protracted and public decline - as he surmised in his suicide note borrowing the words of Neil Young, "It's better to burn out than fade away". It's not hard to understand why Nirvana are more widely celebrated than Hole. What is hard to accept, though, is the exaltation of Cobain as a lyricist while Love's own brilliance as a wordsmith is criminally overlooked.

Perhaps the oddest aspect of Cobain's canonisation as a lyricist is that Nirvana were never a band overly concerned with eloquence. At their snarling best, they were about incommunicable rage, the confusing and overwhelming emotion that every disillusioned teenager feels but can't express. Cobain struck a chord because he couldn't express them either. He wasn't a spokesman. He was just as tongue-tied and fucked up as everyone else. It's something he seemed to recognise, too, and it's his ruminations on his inability to convey exactly what he was feeling that are arguably his most powerful. "I found it hard/ It's hard to find/ The will, whatever, never mind" he shrugged in 'Smells Like Teen Spirit', while 'On A Plain' offered an even more explicit admission of his inarticulateness: "What the hell am I trying to say?".

Meanwhile, as Cobain's dispirited musings were propelling Nirvana to stardom, Courtney Love was producing a torrent of deeply personal and unsettling poetics. For her, words aren't a disposable commodity. She wrestles and struggles with them, using her ink to stamp her own persona on her songs, and utilising a wilfully self-conscious desire to be understood to establish her own sense of identity. If it was hard to tell exactly what troubled Cobain from his music, there's no such problem with Love. She's all over Pretty On The Inside and Live Through This: a lost, angry and self-loathing girl lashing out at herself and everyone around her. If one of the most recurring plaudits for Cobain as a lyricist is exploration of the macabre then Love is easily his equal. Just look at the disturbing 'Jennifer's Body', a gruesome tale of violence and domestic abuse that's a comfortable bedfellow to the kidnap-and-rape narrative of Nirvana's 'Polly'. She captures the disconcerting relationship between abuser and abused through the prosaic confessions "I'm sleeping with my enemy" and "My better half has bitten me" to build up to the haunting exchange: "He keeps you in a box by the bed/ Alive but just barely/ He said 'I'm your lover, I'm your friend/ I'm purity, hit me again'". And if the gruesome image of a broken and trapped woman isn't enough, there's the skin-crawling climax of "Just relax, just relax, go to sleep". It should be soothing, but there's no succour to be taken from her words. It's a twisted fairy-tale gone wrong, and a futile attempt to escape a waking nightmare.

Love can do anguish and despair, then, as well her late husband. The plaintive opening and closing retort of 'Garbage Man' ("She tears the hole even wider/ It's all the darkness up inside her" and "Where the fuck were you when my lights went out?") are arguably rawer expressions of self-destruction than Cobain ever committed to song. What gives her songs an extra ferocious bite, though, is her intertwining of the morbid with her obsession with sex and violence. Like many of the women loosely categorised under the loose umbrage of the Riot Grrl scene, she's eager to convey the difficulty of being a woman in a sexist domain (or society in general), and goes to great lengths to create a harrowing depiction of sex as an act which brings humiliation and degradation - a subject touched upon in 'Teenage Whore' which draws upon Love's former work as a stripper ("I said I feel so alone and I/ I wish I could die… "When I was a teenage whore/ The rain came down like never before"). There's no pleasure or lust for her female characters. It's something to be endured, and is regularly compared to physical pain, torture and mutilation. There are countless examples in her songs, such as the brutality of "Slut me open and suck my scars" from 'Pretty On The Inside' or "Just you try and hold me down/ Come on try to shut me up/ Step and fetch, grease my hips" from 'Gutless', but the most vivid example is 'Babydoll'. Sex is both a frenzied act of violence and a means of subjugation, with the traditionally salacious image of a girl with her "pants undone" sullied by the comparison to "waste and void". What follows is a horrible slideshow of vulnerable girls and rampant men, slashing knives and gagging mouths, culminating in the image of the "Little girl on the floor she gets it all/ 'Cause she's the whore". And, tellingly, it's only in the final verse that she's granted a voice. Passive throughout, she finally cracks: "'I am, I am', she says, 'I am not free'/ She says help me I am withering, withering".

Ultimately, though, it was Love's ability to drop all of her anger, frustration and bile to produce moments of stunning tenderness that marks herout. As fantastic as it is to witness her fury in full-flight, it's those crystalized moments of raw clarity buried amidst the rubble that give her a whole extra dimension as a lyricist, like the sudden moment of affection dropped into the middle of the ferocious 'Asking For It': "If you live through this with me/ I swear that I would die for you". It's a display of brittle vulnerability that Cobain rarely showed. His attempt at a relatively conventional love song, 'About A Girl', is a schmaltzy affair overflowing with saccharine couplets shoe-horned into a rhyming scheme. Love's 'Doll Parts', on the other hand, is an insight into the heartbreak of an open-wound including confessions of inadequacy and inferiority ("I am doll parts/ Bad skin, doll heart"), jealousy ("Yeah they really want you, they really want you, they really do/ Yeah they really want you, they really want you, but I do too") and bitter resentment ("Someday you will ache like I ache"). Or perhaps a more pertinent comparison can be drawn between 'Rape Me' and 'I Think That I Would Die', their respective reactions to the removal of their daughter Frances Bean from their custody. 'Rape Me' is fuelled by visceral rage, but as powerful as it is, it's not an expression of loss or sadness. It's fuelled by anger rather than melancholy. While Love's response is also antagonistic - summed up by the line "It's not yours/ Fuck you") it's also harrowingly mournful, whether it's the heartbreaking symbolism of "There is no milk" or the desperation behind "I want my baby/ Where is the baby? I want my baby/ Where is the baby?").

Undoubtedly there will be some people who will balk at the thought of lavishing praise upon Courtney. True, she's obviously bonkers. So are Kate Bush and Prince, and we have no problem clasping them to our collective bosoms. Yes, her best days are probably behind her. Bob Dylan's are too, but that won't stop his worshippers at Uncut feverishly shuddering to a group climax when his Christmas album arrives to ruin our yuletide cheer. Sometimes it's necessary to divorce the artist from their art. And just as we should be able to cleave the image of Cobain the tragic idol from his musical output to acknowledge that his rage and depression often masked a paucity of lyrical depth, so we should appreciate that Courtney, for all her faults, has an aptitude for self-expression and exploration through her lyrics that elevates her above many of her contemporaries.

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Dec 16, 2009 12:16pm

Good article. I agree with Ben's central point - that Courtney Love's words are as evocative and directly emotive (if not more so) than Kurt Cobain's - though I'd throw in this small caveat: Nirvana's lyrics often struck me as *deliberately* nonsensical. Text doesn't always have to be meaningful to be effective, especially if the musical texture framing it does the job. Obviously, given his suicide it's easy to forget the man had a sense of humour, but he did excel at colourful gibberish!

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Dec 16, 2009 12:28pm

I'd say Courtney's indivisible from her art, and that brings her both heaven and hell. Go look at her Facebook page. She's always brought herself so far into performance, in any medium, that it hurts.

Manish - Courtney does the gabble too, but better. "Slut kiss girl won't you promise her smack/ dead moon girl well let's rot black strap", anyone? SO GOOD.

Nothing from Celebrity Skin, Ben? I guess maybe you're comparing her contemporaneous output to Kurt's, but that album deserves some plaudits for lyricism - it's great. Both 'Northern Star' and 'Reasons To Be Beautiful' are stronger than many of the lyric sets on 'Live Through This'.

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Ben Hewitt
Dec 16, 2009 12:29pm

In reply to manish:

Cheers Manish.

Yeah, I think you've definitely got a point - it got lost in the edit, but I always feel one of they key differences between the two is that Kurt wasn't after expressing himself in the same way as Courtney, and that his words were deliberately acerbic, vague and inscrutable.

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Ben Hewitt
Dec 16, 2009 12:31pm

Hi Petra,

Yeah I think Celebrity Skin's got some corking lines on it, but the idea was to do a comparison of the period during which both bands were operational.

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Dec 16, 2009 2:20pm

Didn't really think either were especially great lyricists...

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Dec 16, 2009 2:21pm

In reply to Ben Hewitt:

Oh, and Dylan's Christmas album is ace.

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Baby Jebus
Dec 16, 2009 2:36pm

It's hardly BST stuff to suggest that Courtney wrote better lyrics than Kurt. Everyone knows that. Admittedly penning the odd Goth-impressing couplet is not much in the great scheme, but she's always been bloody good at it. And Cobain's 'dispirited musings' didn't propel Nirvana to stardom. Some great tunes and the fact that they made an unbelievably powerful racket did that. That's why Hole were always fated to come second to Nirvana, though the line-up with Patty Schemel on drums was ace, at least when Courtney wasn't hamming it up too much. The only interesting thing about Cobain's words is that he didn't just claim to hate himself and want to die, he proved he was no bullshitter. The dead arsehole. Do bad people make better art is possibly a more pertinent debate.
Courtney's legend would certainly have been better served had she topped herself, but I suspect that like MacGowan or Doherty she cannot be killed. Born a few decades earlier, she would have made a great, if indiscreet partisan leader in some misty distant civil war, her legend captured by a handful of surviving snippets. Instead she foists her every waking thought on an increasingly uninterested world. And now I'm doing it too. So I'll stop.

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Dec 16, 2009 4:12pm

You are out of your mind if you think Courtney Love has a shred of talent in her bony, drug-addled, plastic, body. There is NOTHING noteworthy about this woman and after what she said about her remarkable and long-suffering daughter, and the family that raised her daughter (Kurt's mom), I wish she'd just die penniless in a gutter where she belongs.

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Dec 16, 2009 6:11pm

Saying that Courtney Love is a better lyricist than Kurt Cobain is saying nothing at all.

Cobain's lyrics were consistently inane, not even intentionally nonsensical. Nirvana had great, influential songs, but it wasn't because of their lyrics.

Dave Grohl himself has said that you can't put much meaning into Nirvana's lyrics because Cobain would come up with some nonsense five minutes before he had to sing it.

The success for Nirvana has to be attributed Grohl, Butch Vig and Cobain's iconic presence rather than Cobain's lyrics.

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Melba Narberth
Dec 16, 2009 7:07pm

Sure, eulogize a junkie who blew his brains out and left his infant child with a woman who, from all accounts, is violent and abusive.

Then, as if that's not ridiculous enough, act as if she's a victim of abuse.

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Ben Hewitt
Dec 16, 2009 7:47pm

In reply to Baby Jebus:

Hi Jebus,

I take on board your point about lyrics not propelling him to stardom, but having said that, I think the post below yours suggests that not everyone is of the opinion Courtney is a talented lyricist!

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Dec 16, 2009 8:36pm

In reply to Ben Hewitt:

I feel like I've woken up in a parallel universe. Since when was Courtney even comparable to Kurt as a lyricist? Don't get me wrong, despite the fact that I now hate Courtney, I still love 'Pretty On The Inside' and 'Live Through This' - but there isn't one lyric that I think does anything other than simply add literal heft to the accompanying music, and solidify the image she had tailored for Hole as a Riot Grrrl feminist band, with herself as figurehead.

All of which was callously disavowed when she started flouncing down red carpets in designer dress. Any album after the aforementioned has been worked on with so many other people, that any debate over Courtney's overall authorship is an argument I'm not willing to dignify with open ear. I'll agree that alot of Kurt's lyrics are seemingly just splinters of imagery - one-liners culled from his journals and stapled together - but when you read the journals you'll see that alot of his songs went through various rewrites, and the final lyrics are incredibly chiseled away at, in comparison to the original hodge-podge model.

To describe Kurt's lyrics as 'gibberish' , is a laughable oversight. 'In Utero' provides anyone (other than the lunkheaded conspiracy-theorist) with the answer to any residual questions they might have had about Kurt's suicide. Kurt used to make out that his lyrics were thrown together at the last minute in order to deflect close scrutiny. Probably even going so far as to dupe his bandmates by claiming to have ad libbed them at recording sessions. The second verse of 'Heart Shaped Box' alone is devastatingly candid, and wipes the floor with anything Courtney has ever written.

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Vincent Nifigance
Dec 16, 2009 8:39pm

In reply to :

Above comment mine.

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Dec 17, 2009 6:40am

In reply to Glend:

Hmmm, Glend. Obviously she IS noteworthy, since you have spent the better part of this entire day detracting and slinging her name around the Web. You certainly aren't Glenda, the same one kicked off FaceBook for that earlier are you?

Oh, my mistake.

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charlotte kyprianidis
Dec 17, 2009 6:49am

thank you so much, ben.i do not really agree in any point, but you show us your thoughts and so her thoughts from a different angle. we all need to listen to this.especially women do.thank you.charlotte

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Dec 17, 2009 7:13am

Brilliant, brilliant, brilliant. Be proud, Mr. Hewitt.

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Torrie Venus
Dec 17, 2009 8:42am

The constant need for critics to compare/contrast the artistic merits of Kurt vs. Courtney is an interesting phenomenon unto itself. This thesis of Him vs. Her seems to add credence to much of Love's lyrical content. In the same vein critics had deep hatred/mistrust for Yoko Ono when John and herself introduced some of her experimental avante guarde productions. Just as Sonny and Cher were married, both entertainers, we would never go so far as to query who was the more talented, who was more lyrically prolific. "I've got you, Babe" is a classic. Can we just celebrate the fact, both Courtney and Kurt are/were deeply darkly poetic with a unique style and voice that sppke/speaks to millions?

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Dec 17, 2009 10:16am

glad to finally read some long overdue credit for ms many people are so stupid only to believe what they read and not think for themselves and to look at things for themselves,theyre styles were clearly different,i love both but far prefer courtney and holes work,her early albums and lyrics far superior to kurts and her rivals in my opinion.i hope nobodys daughter is finally released soon.good article

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Dec 17, 2009 10:23am

yeh good article.good to see courtney finally getting some credit which is long overdue.her first 2 albums are genius,LTT being my favourite album. K+C's styles are completely different and it just seems to me that people are far too eager to believe whaT they read instead of looking and listening to the obvious differences between the 2 as artists which are touched upon in the article. In my opinion Courtneys early work and lyrics in particular far outweighs her rivals and kurts

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Lara O'Reilly
Dec 17, 2009 1:21pm

Ben - a fantastic article, something I not only agree with but would have been proud to have written myself. One question though, how are you so so sure of the meanings behind the songs mentioned in the article? Sure, one can guess, but you seem to have absolutely certainty. That's not a criticism though, more an expression of bewilderment!

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Stephanie Phillips
Dec 18, 2009 2:08pm

great article. It's true that Courtney doesn't get the respect she deserves, partly due to the problem all female artists have in terms of getting respect from the music industry and also because she's just bonkers. I was one of those who didn't think much of her before, but after hearing 'Live Through This' I completely changed my mind about her.

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Dec 18, 2009 7:35pm

In reply to Honey:

She's noteworthy like Lizzie Borden is noteworthy. Why anyone (you) would waste your time defending this waste of human tissue is beyond me. I once thought it would be great if she just faded into obsurity where she belongs, but now it is obvious that due to the pain and suffering she has inflicted on others, the world would be better off without her. She only lives through this in order to abuse and damage everyone who tries to get close to be careful.

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Dec 18, 2009 9:02pm

In reply to :

I couldn't agree more with this. I got burnt out on Nirvana and quit listening for years - now going back and listening to it as someone much older than him, I am blown away at what I used to think was "gibberish". He was brilliant. It's hard to imagine what would have come from him as he aged and experienced life...
I also wish Courtney would quit "talking" to Frances through Facebook. Just leave her alone, Courtney.

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Vincent Nifigance
Dec 19, 2009 5:52pm

In reply to agreed:

People are denigrating her artistic output by simply arguing about her debatable worth as a human being. For those of you who think this off-topic, or irrelevant, I would argue that her failure to adhere to the ethics she espoused while singing these supposedly 'great' lyrics tarnishes any supposed value they once had. And might I remind everyone that Billy Corgan, along with the erstwhile Erlandson wrote alot of Celebrity Skin, (which was terrible anyway) and 'America's Sweetheart' and the looooooooong gestating 'Nobody's Daughter' were co-written by Linda '4 Non Blondes' Perry (who has also written for Christine Aguilera, Pink, Lisa Marie Presley, and Kelly Osbourne, amongst others). Who's to say Kurt didn't co-write, or at least have a strong influence over 'Live Through This', but refused to take any credit? There is little evidence as to her abilities as a strong (solo) songwriter. The only thing thats abundantly clear, is that she's a strong personality.

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Dec 21, 2009 4:28am

Great article.

I would consider myself a pretty big fan of both Kurt and Courtney and agree with most of what you have said. I am interested in the other "why" that was unanswered in your article-why do people have such a hard time appreciating-or even liking Courtney?
For some reason her demise (for want of a better word) is repulsive were Kurt’s was romanticised. I think it is a primal thing-sexism, the last acceptable prejudice. We want Courtney were she belongs-at home with her daughter clean and capable of surviving a tragedy that defined her.But that was something that Kurt was unable to do either.

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Jan 9, 2010 10:47pm

When I was a teenager, discovering Courtney Love as a musician and performer was totally incredible! Yeah, drugs fuck people up, but she was really inspiring to hosts of young women and is one of very few musician's actively addressing issues of sexism and the sexual abuse of women in their music. That's really important. Right now, I'm enjoying the fact that a man wrote this article. A lot of men I've met who have an interest in this kind of thing won't even think before they discriminate. I think Cobain and Love are products of our culture at the end of the day, and in many ways, how they are perceived fits the sexist mould of demonic woman and suffering man. It's nice to experiment with an alternative discourse for a change, in a publication which isn't exclusively feminist in orientation, or only women discussing between themselves. Blah blah blah. I liked the article THANKS!

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Jan 9, 2010 10:49pm

In reply to Luana:

just read your comment Luana and you're very right there!

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Jan 11, 2010 6:09am

In reply to Luana:

Feel the same way! Sexism is so far thrust into this topic in every and any situation.. Whether or not my personal opinion on either artist character is irrelevant; It is however on a basis of lyrical expression I would say Courtney had a much clearer picture to paint and a much more vocal style in lyrical content than Cobain did.
Kurt on the other hand didn't need lyrics to make sense because the expression in his art felt dangerous and with that came that message and that out-cry that had been sheltered and hidden for so long.
Anger. Pain.

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Feb 23, 2010 8:08pm

I loved this article. I wrote up a short response:

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Paul L
Mar 4, 2010 9:23am

I agree that Courtney Love is an underrated lyricist, though I don't think she's as proficient as this author would have one believe. Still, from her dissection of the conflicts inherent in femininity in "Pretty on the Inside," to her examination of rape in "Asking For It," to her astute observation of the absurdity of celebrity in "Celebrity Skin," she's written quite a few good ones. She may not be a Dylan, but she sure is much more than competent as a lyricist.

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Mar 9, 2010 1:36pm


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May 12, 2010 12:03am

Amen. The truth at last.

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May 12, 2010 8:29pm

For me her poetry is perfect. Its rawness and beauty is unmatched, I think. All hail Courtney. Clever wordplay like "I'm stupid. I'm smarting" or "Forget-me-nots around your neck. You say you remember, baby, you forget" makes us stop and think. I like the way she plays with her name; is it biographical or about the emotion LOVE? Courtney, thank you for the music.

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BIlly N
Sep 29, 2010 12:33pm

Her lyrics were pretty unique and were a part of why the album is so great but I think Kurt helped with the music and tying it all together. Courtney was quoted once as saying that Hole basically took three chords, but made them kick ass. To me that was what made the Nevermind album so great and what I believe Kurt contributed to Live Through This. And Celebrity Skin was okay, but again she clung to Billy Corgan and even disputed his claim of mentoring her on it. I just can't believe she wouldn't use some of Kurt's genius for her own gain.

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Nov 21, 2010 7:40pm

Courtney > Kurt

"that Kurt wasn't after expressing himself in the same way as Courtney, and that his words were deliberately acerbic, vague and inscrutable. "

"Deliberately vague", etc, sounds like an out for lack of skill putting a clear vision down on paper.

Anyone can write "deliberately vague" lyrics, but it takes skill and effort to write something with meaning.

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Jun 1, 2012 6:05am

In reply to anarchore:

I agree. Kurt Cobain could never in a million years compare to Courtney. HE writes anthems for 12 year-olds, while Courtney's work transcends and can actually be taken seriously as poetry.

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Jun 1, 2012 6:13am

In reply to BIlly N:

This article isn't about their music, it's about their lyrics. It is so asinine to even propose the idea that Kurt wrote any of Courtney's lyrics. Courtney demonstrates a skill and vocabulary that far exceeds Kurt's. Courtney's journals, POTI, LTT & CS are totally consistent in their imagery.

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Sep 9, 2012 1:26am

This is the single most pointless article i've ever seen. Great job.

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Sep 9, 2012 1:28am

In reply to courtfan:

Oh fuck off

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Nov 6, 2012 11:04pm

I don't agree. Her own lyrics are trash, both he and Corgan wrote most of her lyrics. Look at her more recent stuff.

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Minister Monique
Jan 31, 2014 5:55pm


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Apr 10, 2014 8:40pm

In reply to Vincent Nifigance:

Courtney is the soley author of all of her lyrics.check your facts.

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Jul 25, 2014 1:01pm

In reply to Ben Hewitt:

Please let's not forget Nobody's Daughter!! It has great lyrics too!! Honey and Pacific Cost Highway are great! I also loved Never Go Hungry!!! Courtney is always raw!!!

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Ron Mexico
Aug 7, 2014 5:57pm

I agree that Courtney is an underrated lyricist forced to live in the darkness of Kurt's shadow, but I will not for one second entertain the fallacy that she is a better writer than Kurt. Cobain was an unbelievably descriptive writer, most claim his lyrics say nothing, I think his lyrics say more than words can describe. He uses them almost like a painter uses a paintbrush, finding the right words to convey a feeling. The only thing you proved with this article is that Courtney is a more candid and direct writer. Kurt flirts with obscuring the lyrics more, but a song is just about conveying emotion and Kurt did that better than anyone(Courtney definitely included).

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