Heart-Shaped Box

Heart-Shaped Box
"Heart-Shaped Box"
Single by Nirvana
from the album In Utero
B-side "Milk It"/"Marigold"
Released August 23, 1993
Recorded February 1993 at Pachyderm Studio in Cannon Falls, Minnesota
Genre Grunge
Length 4:39
Label DGC
Writer(s) Kurt Cobain
Producer Steve Albini
Nirvana singles chronology
"Puss"/ "Oh, the Guilt"
"Heart-Shaped Box"
"All Apologies"/ "Rape Me"
In Utero track listing
"Scentless Apprentice"
"Heart-Shaped Box"
"Rape Me"

"Heart-Shaped Box" is a song by the American grunge band Nirvana, written by vocalist and guitarist Kurt Cobain. The song was released as the first single from the group's third and final studio album, In Utero, in 1993. It was one of two songs from the album mixed by Scott Litt in order to augment the original production by producer Steve Albini. While Nirvana's label DGC Records did not release a physical single for sale in the United States, "Heart-Shaped Box" received much American radio airplay, reaching number one on the Billboard Modern Rock Tracks chart. The international release of the single reached number five in the United Kingdom. The song's music video, directed by Anton Corbijn, garnered critical plaudits.


Origin and recording

Kurt Cobain wrote "Heart-Shaped Box" in early 1992.[1] Cobain forgot about the song for a while, but began working on it again when he and his wife Courtney Love moved to a house in the Hollywood Hills.[2] In a 1994 Rolling Stone interview, Love said she overheard him working on the song's riff in a closet. She said she asked him if she could use the riff for one of her songs, to which he replied, "Fuck off!" and closed the closet door. "He was trying to be so sneaky", said Love. "I could hear that one from downstairs."[3] The couple shared a journal in which they would write lyrics; Cobain biographer Charles R. Cross noted that Love's songwriting sensibility informed Cobain's on the song.[4] The song's name came from a heart-shaped box Love had given Cobain. However, Cobain had originally titled the song "Heart-Shaped Coffin".[4]

Nirvana had difficulty completing the song. Cobain attempted to have the rest of the band complete the song during jam sessions. He said, "During those practices, I was trying to wait for Krist and Dave to come up with something but it just turned into noise all the time." One day Cobain made one last attempt at completing the song. Cobain was able to come up with a vocal melody and the band finally finished writing the song. Cobain said that when they completed "Heart-Shaped Box", "We finally realized that it was a good song."[5]

In January 1993, the band recorded a demo of "Heart-Shaped Box" during sessions with Craig Montgomery in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil; it was the first song recorded.[6] The In Utero version was recorded in February 1993 by Steve Albini in Cannon Falls, Minnesota. Prior to the album's release, the track was remixed by Scott Litt. Cobain was unapologetic about the band's decision to remix it, and maintained that the vocals and bass were not prominent enough in the original mixes. Nirvana bassist Krist Novoselic was also unhappy with the original mix of "Heart-Shaped Box". In a 1993 Chicago Sun-Times interview, he said the original effect used on the song's guitar solo sounded "like a fucking abortion hitting the floor." When the song was remixed by Scott Litt, Cobain took the opportunity to add acoustic guitar and backing harmonies.[7]

Composition and lyrics

Journalist Gillian Gaar described "Heart-Shaped Box" as "the Nirvana formula personified, with a restrained, descending riff played through the verse, building in intensity to the cascading passion of the chorus".[1]

Cobain said the song was inspired by documentaries about children with cancer. He told biographer Michael Azerrad, "Anytime I think about it, it makes me sadder than anything I can think of."[8] Azerrad asserted in his biography of Nirvana, Come as You Are: The Story of Nirvana, that despite Cobain's explanation, the song actually appeared to be about Courtney Love.[5] Charles Cross wrote in his biography of Cobain Heavier Than Heaven that with the lyric "I wish I could eat your cancer when you turn black", Cobain "sang in what has to be the most convoluted route any songwriter undertook in pop history to say 'I love you'".[9] Cobain said that the song's chorus of "Hey/Wait/I've got a new complaint" was him giving an example of how he was perceived by the media.[10]


In the United States, DGC issued "Heart-Shaped Box" to college, modern rock, and album-oriented rock radio stations in early September 1993. There were no plans to release a single for the song domestically. At the time, Geffen Records' head of marketing told Billboard that the label was not actively courting Top 40 radio, explaining "Nirvana didn't sell nearly 5 million [records] because of a hit single. They sold that many albums because of who they are." The song entered the Billboard Modern Rock Tracks chart at number seven,[11] and eventually peaked at number one on the chart. The song also reached number four on the Mainstream Rock Tracks chart.[12] A single of the song was released in the United Kingdom, where it peaked at number five on the UK Singles Chart.[13]

Music video

Nirvana originally wanted Kevin Kerslake, who had directed the videos for the band's singles "Come as You Are", "Lithium", "In Bloom", and "Sliver", to direct the "Heart-Shaped Box" music video. Kerslake prepared five treatments during July and August 1993, but no shoot arrangements were made and by the end of the month, the group decided to work with Dutch photographer and video director Anton Corbijn.[14] Corbijn, who typically created his own ideas for videos, was initially unsure of directing the video since Cobain's treatment was so detailed. Corbijn said, "But then I looked at it and I thought that actually it was pretty good. I was very amazed by somebody writing a song and having those ideas as precise as he did."[15]

The video begins and ends with the band in a hospital setting watching an old man being administered medication through an IV drip. The majority of the video takes place in a surreal outdoor setting that incorporates imagery from the film The Wizard of Oz.[16] During the song's first verse, the old man from the hospital climbs onto a crow-ridden Christian cross. The second verse introduces a young girl in a Ku Klux Klan costume reaching for human fetuses in a tree, and an overweight woman in a suit with human organs painted onto it and with angel wings affixed to her back. In the video's final cut, the band is only shown performing in the outdoor setting during the choruses, where Cobain's face moves in and out of focus in the camera.[16] While most of the video was devised by Cobain, Corbijn added elements such as the intentionally artificial crows, a ladder for the old man to climb onto the cross with, and a box with a heart at the top that the band performs inside of during the song's final chorus.[17] Corbijn created another cut of the video featuring alternate footage during the final verse, including more shots of the young girl and the woman, and scenes of Cobain lying on his back in the poppy field, with mist surrounding him. This version of the video is featured on the DVD The Work of Director Anton Corbijn.[18]

After the video's release, Kevin Kerslake sued Nirvana, alleging copyright infringement. The case was settled out of court.[19] The video won two MTV Video Music Awards in 1994, for Best Alternative Video and for Best Art Direction. As the ceremony was held after Kurt Cobain's April 1994 death, the awards were accepted by Cobain's former bandmates Novoselic, Grohl, and touring guitarist Pat Smear.[20] "Heart-Shaped Box" also topped the music video category in the 1993 Village Voice Pazz & Jop critics' poll.[21]

Track listing

All songs written by Kurt Cobain except where noted.

  1. "Heart-Shaped Box" – 4:39
  2. "Milk It" – 3:52
  3. "Marigold" (Dave Grohl) – 2:33

Chart positions

Chart (1993) Peak
Australian Singles Chart[22] 21
Finnish Mitä hittiä Chart[23] 6
Finnish Singles Chart[23] 14
French Singles Chart[24] 37
Irish Singles Chart[25] 6
Netherlands Singles Chart[26] 36
New Zealand Singles Chart[27] 9
Swedish Singles Chart[28] 16
UK Singles Chart[13] 5
U.S. Billboard Mainstream Rock Tracks[12] 4
U.S. Billboard Modern Rock Tracks[12] 1


  • Azerrad, Michael. Come as You Are: The Story of Nirvana. Doubleday, New York: 1994. ISBN 0-86369-746-1
  • Cross, Charles R. Heavier Than Heaven: A Biography of Kurt Cobain. Hyperion, New York: 2001. ISBN 0-7868-6505-9
  • Gaar, Gillian G. In Utero. The Continuum International Publishing Group Inc, New York: 2006. ISBN 0-8264-1776-0


  1. ^ a b Gaar, p. 53
  2. ^ Azerrad, p. 324-25
  3. ^ Fricke, David. "Life After Death. Rolling Stone. December 15, 1994.
  4. ^ a b Cross, p. 278
  5. ^ a b Azerrad, p. 325
  6. ^ Gaar, p. 23-25
  7. ^ Azerrad, p. 338
  8. ^ Azerrad, p. 324
  9. ^ Cross, p. 281
  10. ^ Mothersole, Ben. "Nirvana's Kurt Cobain: Getting to Know Utero". Circus. November 30, 1993.
  11. ^ Rosen, Craig. "Nirvana Set has Smell of Success". Billboard. September 25, 1993.
  12. ^ a b c "In Utero - Nirvana: Billboard Singles". Allmusic.com. Retrieved on April 5, 2011
  13. ^ a b Gaar, p. 98
  14. ^ Gaar, p. 88
  15. ^ Gaar, p. 90-91
  16. ^ a b Gaar, p. 90
  17. ^ Gaar, p. 91
  18. ^ Gaar, p. 93
  19. ^ Gaar, p. 94
  20. ^ Gaar, p. 95
  21. ^ Christgau, Robert. "The 1993 Pazz & Jop Critics Poll". Village Voice. March 1, 1994. Retrieved on December 7, 2008.
  22. ^ "Nirvana - Heart-Shaped Box (Song)". Australian-charts.com. Retrieved on December 8, 2008.
  23. ^ a b Pennanen, Timo (2003). Sisältää hitin: levyt ja esittäjät Suomen musiikkilistoilla vuodesta 1972. Otava Publishing Company Ltd. ISBN 951-1-21053-X.
  24. ^ "Nirvana - Heart-Shaped Box (Chanson)". Lescharts.com (in French). Retrieved on December 8, 2008.
  25. ^ "Search the charts". Irish Recorded Music Association. Retrieved on December 8, 2008. NB: Enter "Heart-Shaped Box" in "Search by Song Title" and click "search".
  26. ^ "Nirvana - Heart-Shaped Box (Nummer)". Dutchcharts.nl (in Dutch). Retrieved on December 8, 2008.
  27. ^ "Nirvana - Heart-Shaped Box". Charts.org.nz. Retrieved on March 19, 2011.
  28. ^ "Nirvana - Heart-Shaped Box". Swedishcharts.com. Retrieved on December 8, 2008.

External links

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