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The Meaning of Nirvana’s “Polly”

Kurt Cobain on MTV Unplugged in 1993.

Nirvana’s “Polly” is perhaps the darkest song in the band’s catalog, which is saying something considering Kurt Cobain’s songwriting isn’t exactly known for sunshine & rainbows. The track appeared on the band’s classic album Nevermind (1991), which spawned many of Nirvana’s hits including “Smells Like Team Spirit” and “Lithium”.

While many of the other songs on Nevermind take a heavy rock-forward approach, “Polly” features a much more subdued arrangement that allows Cobain’s harrowing story about the torture and rape of a teenage girl take the focus.

Kurt Cobain based the lyrics to “Polly” on the disturbing story of Gerald Friend, a serial rapist and kidnapper who was caught after abducting a 14 year old girl in Tacoma, Washington in 1987.

Friend had kidnapped the girl at knifepoint after offering her a ride home from a concert. He hung her up from a pulley he had rigged up from the ceiling of his trailer and repeatedly beat her, tortured her with a blow torch, and raped her. Then he would drive around town with her trapped in his truck.

Gerald Friend was caught after the girl escaped from the back of his truck at a gas station. This was his second offense and had already served a 20 year sentence in prison for a similar crime in 1960. He was sentenced to 75 years but was released on parole after 20, and then 7 years later he did it again.

While the story itself is quite disturbing, Cobain’s artistic retelling is even more so as it presents things from the perspective of Gerald Friend himself. This requires the listener to acknowledge the perspective of the rapist, and brings to the surface many difficult images as Friend seems to be enjoying himself.

Polly wants a cracker
I think I should get off her first
I think she wants some water
To put out the blow torch

Lyrics from “Polly” by Nirvana

Cobain allows himself the artistic embellishment of imagining an alternate version of how “Polly” may have escaped, by pretending that she was enjoying the encounter just as much as Gerald Friend, who in turn lets his guard down for long enough to slip up.

Polly said
Polly says her back hurts
She’s just as bored as me
She caught me off my guard
Amazes me the will of instinct

Lyrics from “Polly” by Nirvana

The meaning of Nirvana’s “Polly”, aside from the straightforward interpretation of the story, has to do with Kurt Cobain making a commentary on Gerald Friend as the product of a screwed-up society. Cobain touched upon this and more in a very early interview with NME, taking place in 1991, days before the release of Nevermind.

Rape is one of the most terrible crimes on earth. And it happens every few minutes,” Kurt hisses. “The problem with groups who deal with rape is that they try to educate women about how to defend themselves. What really needs to be done is teaching men not to rape. Go to the source and start there.

I was talking to a friend of mine who went to a rape crisis centre where women are taught judo and karate. She looked out the window and saw a football pitch full of boys, and thought those are the people that should really be in this class.

Kurt Cobain on rape and “Polly” in 1991.

Kurt Cobain had a warped view of society, that’s true, but he was a very strong advocate for equal rights and freedom for all. This showed up in the form of artistic themes in much of their music, which often tackled mental health and sexual issues such as rape, as was the case with “Polly” and more.

Cobain wrote a special note in the liner for the band’s 1992 compilation album Insecticide in which he directly addresses many of these views, including some dark connections with “Polly”. This is just one way that Kurt Cobain was way ahead of his time, as many of the views he shared here were unspoken of in the 90s but are standard among artists today.

At this point I have a request for our fans. If any of you in any way hate homosexuals, people of 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. Last year, a girl was raped by two wastes of sperm and eggs while they sang the lyrics to our song ‘Polly.’ I have a hard time carrying on knowing there are plankton like that in our audience. Sorry to be so anally P.C. but that’s the way I feel.

Kurt Cobain in the liner notes for 1992’s Insecticide

In addition to being the darkest Nirvana song, “Polly” also has the distinction of being the only Nirvana song that didn’t feature Dave Grohl on the drums in the studio. The band had initially recorded the material for Nevermind with their original drummer Chad Channing, but ended up re-tracking most of the album with Grohl shortly after. “Polly” is the only track that was kept from the original sessions.

Watch Nirvana performing “Polly” live on MTV Unplugged in 1993 below.