“Polly” lands right smack in the middle of Nirvana’s seminal Nevermind. For the casual listener, the acoustic track might just drift by in between the catharsis of “Lithium” and the fury of “Territorial Pissings.” Listen closely, though, and you might sense something cruel in its easygoing chorus, during which Cobain sings lines like, “got some rope” and “don’t cut yourself.” Hop online (or read an old interview with Kurt Cobain) and you’ll learn that the song was born from a 1987 incident in which a convicted sex offender abducted and raped a 14-year old in Tacoma, Washington. As Cobain’s lyrics recount, the girl was able to escape the rapist, but not before he tortured her with a blowtorch.
A new video essay from Nerdwriter digs into the song’s origins, but goes deeper into how the creation of the track, as well as Cobain’s lyrical POV, contribute to its horrors. Cobain, for example, recorded the song on a $30 Stella guitar he got in a pawn shop, and its unvarnished quality, along with the minimalism of the arrangement, provides an intimacy that’s rare to find in a rock band. He also sings from the perspective of the rapist, and the “amused detachment” of his vocal delivery expresses not just the terrifying banality of such an act of violence, but also “an emotional identification with evil” that’s meant to confront the act, not ignore it.
Check out the essay below.