Nirvana almost singlehandedly paved the way for alternative musicians who wanted to be successful in a commercial context; it is interesting that their class affiliations, and stated predilections, were almost purely working class ones. However, the situation by which they became successful furnished them with an education in class, so that they not only did not appear to be rubes (as one could say the early Elvis Presley did), but were highly articulate and poised, if also acerbic, self-destructive, and radically ambivalent regarding their commercial success. That the label they were originally associated with (Subpop) was run by men (Jonathan Poneman and Bruce Pavitt) with middle-class affiliations goes some way towards explaining this; that Kurt Cobain and Krist Novoselic had working class roots but were determined bohemians also undercuts a straightforward sense of working class ethos in their self-presentations. One essential truth about Cobain and Novoselic is that they weren’t just working class youths but rural working class youths. Aberdeen, Washington, a logging town once best known for its brothels, gave them a view of the working class with a specific slant away from urban concerns, and towards rural ones— men who hunt, fish, and log, women weaned to be housewives or work retail jobs. Kurt Cobain, the principal musical and lyrical force behind Nirvana, was obsessed by notions of masculinity, and the way rural men thought of their guns as extensions of their manhood— that guns work as an extension of self, and do the dirty business of destruction that the physical body cannot accomplish. When Cobain met the band Bikini Kill in Olympia, Washington, he learned that these attitudes are abhorrent to feminists, who espoused men with attitudes more sanguine to kindness, gentleness, tolerance, and respect to women. As the songs that were to comprise the Nevermind album took shape, Cobain sought to reconcile his instincts to mock strident feminist attitudes with his desire to lampoon working class male attitudes towards masculinity and its significations. “In Bloom” is a product of this kind of interior conflict.
The way that “In Bloom” is structured, the verses only hint at their author’s main concerns. The chorus goes directly to the heart of things that the verses only suggest: “He’s the one/ who likes all the pretty songs/ and he likes to sing along/ and he likes to shoot his gun/ but he knows not what it means.” “Teen Spirit” and “Come as You Are” both include a first person perspective, and function as two distinct types of dramatic monologue; the first interior, held within one protagonist’s consciousness, the second directed at a specific other. The protagonist of “In Bloom” is an implied protagonist; as there is no “I” (which is extremely atypical for a pop song), the listener realizes that this is a conscious lampoon, and that it is conveyed from a viewpoint that is, or seems to be, objective. The “he” of the chorus, of course, is the stereotypical bumpkin, who moves through worlds that he attempts to enjoy but has no comprehension of. Were the song not to contain the line in which it is revealed that the bumpkin “loves to shoot his gun” (which, as in both “Teen Spirit” and “Come as You Are,” has phallic overtones), he could be a rather innocent character. As it stands, the inclusion of the gun adds an air of culpability to the subject of this lampoon, as it conveys the sense that he has destructive capabilities. The implied protagonist makes his existence most strongly felt in the last line of the chorus, which asserts that this man “knows not what it means.” We are left with certain multiplications and mysteries: does he not know what it means to shoot his gun (which could be literal or a sexual reference) alone, or does he also both misunderstand the pretty songs and why he likes to sing along to them? The implied protagonist never particularly tells us “what it means”: given the imagery of the verses, in which images of decay and rebirth mix with images of grotesque poverty, what it means is that this character both misunderstands the songs, misunderstands his motivations for singing along, and believes (mistakenly) that he adds to his potency by shooting his gun. The irony is that the chorus of “In Bloom,” which alternates between Bb and G major, forced to function as if it were a minor (mostly because Cobain liked to use chord voicings that omitted major and minor thirds), is one of the catchiest in rock history, and practically begs its audience to sing along.
There are other interesting musical elements to “In Bloom.” The chord progression used for the verses is not only startling, but almost unthinkable for a hit single. Chromatic elements are employed, so that, though the song is written in the key of Bb, both B and A make repeated appearances as passing chords. Like most of Cobain’s best songs, “In Bloom” is so tightly constructed that it is easy to miss these crucial elements. The truly revolutionary aspect of this song, other than the way the chorus brilliantly lampoons rural, working class males, is the manner in which Cobain fits so much unique musical information into small packages. The guitar solo, also, is almost all atonalities, which makes a neat contrast to the manner in which “Teen Spirit” and “Come as You Are” stick to an echo of their respective verse melodies. The way that the rock press works (and continues to work), these aspects of Cobain’s best songs were hardly noticed; usually, it seems that this happens because so-called “rock critics” have either minimal or absolutely no musical knowledge. They talk in broad terms and platitudes; there is a lack of specificity in their reviews, owing not only to ignorance but by the attitude that what carries great rock songs along is just that, attitude. If there is a fault to “In Bloom” that would rank it considerably behind “Teen Spirit” or “Come as You Are,” it is that the video not only does not follow the chorus’s lampoon through to its obvious conclusions (that the video should be, on some level, a spoof of rural working class male attitudes), but that it is a complete tangent to the song’s lyrical gist. “Come as You Are” does not have an exterior, overt theme; it moves in several interior directions, without stating explicit situations. The video works because it is as impressionistic as the song itself. “Teen Spirit,” of course, is one of the most iconic music videos of all time. “In Bloom,” as a video, spoofs the squeaky clean quality of 1960s variety shows; but it does not satisfy, because it distracts attention away from the song itself. Nonetheless, the song itself does count as a pop masterpiece, both for how acutely the chorus functions and for several music chances it takes that the first two singles from Nevermind do not.