The Story Behind the Song: How Nirvana created ‘About A Girl’

Some song titles are cryptic, requiring listeners to delve further into the lyrics and instrumentation they accompany to find their true meaning. Sometimes, they’re chosen out of sheer necessity or completely at random, with little connection to the feeling or themes of the piece. And sometimes, they’re blatant and brazen, perfectly encapsulating a track’s meaning. This is the case with Nirvana‘s ‘About A Girl’, which is, at its core, about a girl.

‘About A Girl’ first featured on Nirvana’s debut record, Bleach, in 1989. As its tender title suggests, the track is not quite as gritty or grunge-infused as much of the band’s catalogue. It pairs catchy riffs with repetitive lyrics in what is, essentially, a pop song with a slight Nirvana edge to it. Over the jangly instrumentation, Kurt Cobain, perhaps expectedly, sings about a girl.

That girl was Tracy Marander, the frontman’s girlfriend at the time. The pair lived together in Olympia, but Cobain’s refusal to hold down a job or contribute around the house caused tension in their relationship. Their relationship, alongside an intense love affair with the Beatles’ Meet the Beatles!, would inspire the Nirvana singer to pen ‘About A Girl’.

“I’ll take advantage while you hang me out to dry,” Cobain sings over melodic guitars, “But I can’t see you every night, free.” Though she may have been exactly what Cobain wanted – an easy friend with an ear to lend – finances and schedules put pressure on their relationship. Still, Cobain repeats the words “I do” throughout the song, particularly in the outro, an ongoing, though tentative, sign of commitment and romance.

Cobain knew exactly what the track was about while writing it, but it was a conversation with Chad Channing that would prompt him to name the piece with such simplicity. As he recalled to Songfacts, while rehearsing one day, the drummer asked Cobain about the meaning of the song, to which he simply replied, “It’s about a girl.” The pair had stumbled upon the perfect title, one which completely distilled down the subject matter and its softer stylings.

The title faithfully details the inspiration behind the song, but it is vague enough to keep even Marander in the dark about its specifics. Eventually, the couple broke up, and Cobain married Hole frontwoman Courtney Love. Marander didn’t even find out that the work was about her until years later. Still, ‘About A Girl’ would immortalise their relationship, and so would the album’s accompanying artwork.

As well as unknowingly inspiring Cobain to write the future MTV Unplugged single, Marander would contribute her photography to the cover of Bleach. An inverted black-and-white photo of the group sits between the band name and album title, taken by Marander during a show at a local art gallery. Though it never became quite as iconic as the artwork for their sophomore record, Nevermind, it commemorated Marander’s contributions to their early work.

‘About A Girl’ would also immortalise Nirvana’s softer sound. “It’s kind of heavy, but it’s got a total pop sensibility,” Channing commented, “I always thought he was a great songwriter.” The piece certainly does display Nirvana’s penchant for pop alongside their grunge influences. It maintains the characteristic guitar sounds and Cobain’s disaffected viewpoint, but it also demonstrates his more melodic side.

Three decades on, the song remains one of the most iconic tracks in their catalogue, despite also being one of the lightest. It stood out amidst the metal leanings throughout the rest of Bleach, and it still stands out within their discography as a whole. A statement for the marriage of grunge and pop, it reasserts the often disputed coolness of the latter. While other bands refused to delve into the genre, desperately clinging to their alternative reputation, it was precisely their willingness to do so that made Nirvana so successful.

Revisit the MTV Unplugged version of ‘About A Girl’ by Nirvana below.

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