Nevermind The Semiotics


September 23, 1991: Nirvana releases their second studio album and begins a controversy that will last for decades to come. The most recent example being Facebook’s temporary removal of the image from Nirvana’s page when it was posted for the 20th anniversary in 2011. Understandably people interpret this image differently, according to their ideologies or ‘the way they imagine the world to be’.

But what is physically there for us to interpret? The signifiers of this artwork are:

  • The naked baby underwater.
  • The money on a fishing line.
  • The ‘Nirvana: Nevermind’

Some people understand the context of the image as the grunge band’s rebellious condemnation of society’s conservative values as Michael Azerrad is quoted

“Nevermind united an audience that had never been united before – the twenty-somethings. [The music] expressed the feelings they felt. The band expressed strong feelings about feminism, racism, censorship and especially homophobia. This was passionate music that didn’t pretend. Getting into Nirvana was empowering for a generation that had no power.” ( 2011).

For Nirvana the image was connotative of these ideals; combined with the influence of a documentary that lead vocalist Kurt Cobain and drummer Dave Grohl viewed on the subject of water-births.

For the youths that consumed this music at the time, this image signified their own struggle in finding their place in a rigid and stagnant society as well as the government’s prevalent and corruptive influence of the newest generation, themselves included.

However, other individuals saw the signifier of the naked child with clearly-visible genitalia as connotative of child pornography. The people with this set of ideological values created a public outrage against the image, and demanded to have it changed or removed.

Despite the band’s and the majority of generation Y’s interpretation of this image as a symbol of their empowerment, the record label forced a change to placate the masses’ much darker interpretation. Consequently, the image was altered… slightly. Cobain would only acquiesce to a sticker placed over the child’s penis that read, “If you’re offended by this, you must be a closet paedophile.”

A whole new set of complaints and indignation arose from the public. The new signifier was interpreted as a direct attack against those who were offended by the original connotations of the child’s genitals. And thus Nirvana itself became further synonymous with social discord and unruliness.

Contrastingly, for the teenagers and 20-somethings that supported the music, the sticker addition was interpreted as a further example of society’s desire for censorship and control, and accordingly, that generation’s disparity and dissatisfaction with the world in which they lived.

Yet who can definitely answer which interpretation is right, or even if there is a right interpretation?

The study of semiotics reveals the unique ideologies that shape each of our views of the world. We reveal the ideals and values that we hold most dear, that make us who we are. For are we really anything more than the opinions that we spit out to the rest of humanity?

Reference List

Robyn Chelsea-Seifert, July 27, 2011, Nirvana’s ‘Nevermind’ kicking up controversy twenty years later, viewed March 23, 2015,

Nirvana: Nevermind Image, viewed March 23, 2015


One comment

  1. Focusing our question about semiotics on the Nirvana second album cover, ‘Never mind’, is so relatable to me as it’s been sitting on the top of my Dads CD collection since I was little, however, I have not once thought about the controversy behind the image.

    After watching Jaws though, the only thing I did think about was a massive shark coming in for a feed. No in all seriousness, there’s no way anyone could present an image with nudity involved in the 21st century and not receive negative criticisms. A lot has changed between the years 1991 to 2011 due to media access for example; paedophiles can save, share or photoshop to make it more sexually appealing where in 1991, there were no advanced media platforms i.e. no personal computers or mobiles.

    I enjoyed reading your post and thank you for finally educating me on something I’ve stared at for years.



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