/ The Personal Blog of Basil Labib / blog

'Please myself': An interpretation 30 years later

September 11, 2021

Polly, a common American girl name, quickly rose to fame as the 6th songtrack on Nirvana’s second album, Nevermind, one of the best-selling albums of all time, having sold over 30 million copies since its release in 1991.

Polly became a conversation starter, an ice-breaker, a household catalyst for people everywhere to talk about woman abuse. Polly is a protest song, a song born out of the anguish that Kurt felt for the condition and treatment of woman in the society. It has often been dubbed as Nirvana’s “darkest” song – which, in my opinion, is a fairly glorified sobriquet because most of Nirvana’s songs are dark and ghastly.

Polly is striking from the moment the first two lines of the verse are sung. The simple chord progression that Kurt repeats over and over again throughout the song draws the audience in to suspend the job at hand and listen which is what he wants the audience to do. Unlike, the other songs on Nevermind which are loud and choked of wailing guitars and pounding drums, making it a task for the brain to process the lyrics, Polly is eerily antithetical.

Structure of the song

Let me spare a few lines to talk about the simple structure of Polly. Most of Nirvana songs are simple in structure, generally following the rock song structure with minimal lyrics, often the same phrase repeated over and over again for chorus as seen in “Lithium”, “Breed”, “Smells like Teen Spirit” and “Stay Away”.

4 bars of a simple Em-G-D-C progression repeated twice forms the intro followed by the first verse and chorus. A 8 bar break followed by the second verse and the chorus. Then, interestingly there is a little interludic bass solo by presumably Krist Novoselic. The outro is marked by the third verse and the chorus. That’s it. Drums are non-existent, the over-driven electric guitar is traded for an acoustic and the progression is the same throughout.

The lyrics

“Polly wants a cracker
I think I should get off her first”

Kurt puts us straight into the shoes of the rapist. This choice of perspective is a genius of Cobain who crafts a song that is chilling and introspective at the same time. Not only do we get a glimpse of what goes on in his mind, it compels us to ask ourselves how we would have reacted in such a situation. Kurt sings, in a disconnected, nonchalant tone expressing the casual mindset of the rapist, harsh and striking words and never in complete sentences which is almost a signature of the band. But those phrases give us enough clue to pieces together everything we need, a ghastly portrayal of an outrageous and vicious crime.

“I think she wants some water
To put out the blow torch”

The lyrics get extremely vivid and explicit, the imagery are very disturbing as it goes on to describe everything that happens to the girl as the rapist sees it. A 14-year old girl was kidnapped from a local rock concert in Tacoma, Washington in the August of 1987 by a man with a history of such crimes. She was raped and tortured with a blow torch while hanging upside down.

“Isn’t me, have a seed
Let me clip your dirty wings”

We can listen to the rapist’s mind screaming in a state of confusion and delusion, asking itself what to do next. He is in a deliberation with himself if he should bring the girl some water or whether he should untie her.

“Want some help, please myself

Perhaps, the most disconcerting is the last line of the chorus. It bares before us the motive of the crime. The criminal isn’t capable of sustaining himself. From his perspective, he is in need of help. And believes that the girl can help him. What do we understand about the psychology of this feeble man? He is vicious and self-imposing and yet his malices are motivated by a desire to be pleased. Though, there is nothing wrong with wanting to be please yet the path that this man takes is evil and that is the underlying conflict between the criminal and the victim.

When and how I was introduced to Nirvana

I was born more than a decade after Nevermind first hit the shelves of record stores. Moreover, I was born into the era of online streaming. I haven’t seen a record player, let alone held a vinyl record in my hands! (Not very happy about it, though) I was introduced to Nirvana quite late in my music exploration journey. I was mostly into rock those days and tried “Lithium” for the first time. The “Yeah” chorus sent me into a semi trance-like state. It was the embodiment of nonchalance, angst and everything teenager. The quirky lyrics and the instantly recognizable riff. I liked it. However, it was much later that I actually listened to “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and didn’t like it that much at first. On a second revisit, it became one of my favourite songs. And that’s how I listened to Nevermind. PS: I am still yet to listen to their entire discography which I have constantly procrastinated telling myself that I’m waiting for that perfect moment to listen to them!

Nirvana was a feminist band and why that’s important

Nirvana. From left: Krist Novoselic (bass), Dave Grohl (drums) and Kurt Cobain (guitar and vocals)

Nirvana. From left: Krist Novoselic (bass), Dave Grohl (drums) and Kurt Cobain (guitar and vocals)

As you stroll through Nirvana’s song palace, one feature is consistently recurrent. Kurt, the principal songwriter for the band, cared about women. He was a feminist and pro-LGBTQ+ before these became mainstream and vocal which is a pretty cool thing. Most of his songs are marred by such lyrics:

“Never met a wise man, if so, it’s a woman”
~Territorial Pissings, Nevermind (1991)

“God is Gay”
~Stay Away, Nevermind (1991)

“Polly says her back hurts”
~Polly, Nevermind (1991)

“I don’t mean to stare, we don’t have to breed”
~Breed, Nevermind (1991)

So, when he heard about the crime, it was inevitable that he would leverage his position to get people talking. He often combined the freedom and expertise of his art with the prevailing social conditions and norms. Bob Dylan once remarked after listening to Polly, “The kid has got a heart”. Dylan was a folk singer-songwriter and widely acclaimed for his protest songs (“Times They Are A’ Changing”) of the 50s-60s and his role in shaping American history and minds.

There is a sweet parallel as Nirvana were seen as the spokesmen for the 90s generation to whom the squaling guitars and deafening sounds bore testimony to their inner angst and anger. Though, Kurt pioneered a completely different music genre called “Grunge Rock”, he was praised by a folk singer which goes on to say that art is ultimately a unified form.

In fact, art supercedes musics, generations and even other disciplines. I cringe when teachers and educators profess and segregate students. What is a microprocessor’s cricuit diagram if not art? Or the traverse section of a human heart? Anyone bold enough to express himself is an artist.

Notes, Footnotes and Credits

  1. Nevermind was released on September 24th, 1991. In a couple of weeks, the album will turn 30 (Oh boy, it’s almost twice my age!). This post is my tribute to the band who spoke for a generation I have never known.

  2. Footnote 1: Umm, Basil, why are there no weird he/she, him/her in this artice? Are the girls not represented? Good question. Please read this to understand the inherent limitation of the language I an working under.

  3. I would like to thank Nerdwriter1 on YouTube. Check out his video for an audio visual experience. Also, I’d like to thank Micheal Azerrad for his book, “Come as you are: The story of Nirvana”.

Basil | @itbwtsh

Tech, Science, Design, Economics, Finance, and Books.
Basil blogs about complex topics in simple words.
This blog is his passion project.