Most aspiring songwriters admire Kurt Cobain's lyrical style. Many have tried and many have failed to write like him. So what did he do that was so brilliant that most people can't put their finger on? That's what I'm here to explain. After months of research and studying of his lyrics, I finally think I've reached nirvana on how to write lyrics like Nirvana.
Background To Kurt's Writing Style
First of all, let's go over how Kurt came about writing his lyrics. Though it's hard to believe, he usually came up with the melody before the lyrics. For most people, writing this way makes the lyrics come out simple and bland. So, how did he avoid this? He took individual lines from poems he wrote and fit them into a song, thus creating the choppy style he is known for.
Another way to research his writing would be to read the Journals of Kurt Cobain. However, be aware before you buy the book that there are very few lyrics actually in the book, and those that are aren't the kind where he took lines from his poems, they're from when he wrote all the lyrics for a song at one time.
Another source to write like him is to listen to bands that influenced him, namely the Meat Puppets, the Vaselines, the Pixies and the Melvins. Of course, you should also listen to any and all songs by Nirvana.
All in all, I would suggest reading all of his lyrics to get a feel for how he wrote. NirvanaClub.com has all the lyrics conveniently located in one place, if you'd like to see them.
Writing Aspect #1: Sarcasm And Metaphors
A reason I have noticed that people do not like Nirvana is because they lack the sarcastic sense of humor that Kurt wrote with. For example, in "Rape Me" he obviously did not want somebody to rape him, but rather was using it as a metaphor (either to describe the way the media was "raping" him and Courtney, or to describe the justice in how rapists go to jail, and then get raped themselves, we'll never know for sure which). This shows the link between sarcasm and metaphors. "Smells Like Teen Spirit" is a completely sarcastic view of high-school teens. Obviously, he didn't think things were less dangerous with the lights out.
So, how can you do this? I would recommend using obscure things as metaphors. For example, in "Drain You" he used babies to serve as a metaphor for love. At first, this may seem strange, but after reading the lyrics it's understandable. It also helps to write with a dry, sarcastic twist, but that takes time to develop.
Writing Aspect #2: Nonsense
A friend of Kurt's once said that even Kurt didn't know how much his lyrics really meant. At first sight of his lyrics, you might think they're complete nonsense, and that's probably how Kurt wrote them. However, they've been overanalyzed so much that they've turned into other things. These nonsense lines were also a part of Kurt's sense of humor. Examples of these lines include the chorus of "Milk It" (Doll steak! Test meat!), and the whole "tourette's" song (which is just a bunch of random lines he made up on the spot).
So, how can you do this? I'd suggest taking funny, random things that you can think of and writing them down. After you have a foundation for a song down, take out this sheet of paper with the nonsense written on it and pick out a few things that you can make loose connections with for a song. For example, you might use "Don't let the bed bugs bite!" as a chorus for a verse you wrote about a bad dream you keep having. They both have to do with sleeping right?
Writing Aspect #3: Cleverness & Puns
Many of Kurt's songs were based on clever or witty lines he'd come up with. For example "Territorial Pissings" is completely made of clever phrases. Other songs like this include "Heart-Shaped Box" ("Forever in debt to your priceless advice"), and "Dumb" ("I think I'm dumb, maybe just happy"), on top of many others. He also used many play-on-words in his songs. "Serve the Servants," "Radio Friendly Unit Shifter," and "On a Plain" all have elements of both puns and clever lines.
So, how can you do this? It's a little hard to force, but any puns or clever lines you may think of or come across can become the basis of a song. Jot down anything you may come up with along these lines and see if it leads to any other things that can create a song.
Writing Aspect #4: Making Fun & Views Of Society
Kurt discreetly made fun of many things in his songs. "In Bloom" and "Very Ape" are both making fun of typical "macho-men." Again, "Smells Like Teen Spirit" is making fun of teens. These also showed how he viewed society. Songs like "Been a Son" are a little more to the point but are still about issues in society.
So, how can you do this? These are easier; just write about how you feel about certain issues. If you can, try and make fun of these with a metaphor (like apes for macho-men).
Writing Aspect #5: Literature
One thing you may notice from his lyrics is that Kurt was a really smart guy. Even though he dropped out of high school, he still loaded up on literature. "Scentless Apprentice" was based on one of his favorite books ("Perfume" by Patrick Suskind). Also, if you read lyrics to a song like "About a Girl," you notice he takes a simple concept and uses really good words to describe it.
So, how can you do this? Read a lot. Reading makes you smarter, and that will allow you to write more sophisticated, intelligent lyrics.
Hopefully this was a guide to help you write better lyrics overall. You don't want to write lyrics that sound like Kurt Cobain wrote them, you want to write lyrics that have your own style. Good luck!
I'd also like to add that Kurt's lyrics are very much open to interpretation, so even with the research I did my analysis of lyrics may be wrong.
A special thanks to Tsunoyukami for contributing to this article.