I’m not the only one
– Kurt Cobain (Nirvana 1993)
When you first listen to the song Rape Me of the Grunge band Nirvana, it may sound like a song that normalizes rape, rather than a weapon to fight the war on women. The first lyrics of the song exemplify this:
Rape me, my friend
Rape me again
But as the frontman of the band Kurt Cobain pointed out many times: it is actually an anti-rape song. Cobain was frustrated that their listeners did not understand that their previous song Polly was also an anti-rape song. It was about the actual event of a 14-year-old girl being kidnapped, tortured, and raped. Combined with Cobain’s aversion to the media and his dissatisfaction of his listeners, he wrote Rape Me. For me, this song not only stresses the epidemic and systematic nature of violence against women, but also the ambiguous power of the victim to be submitting and mocking to the rapist.
At the beginning of the song we hear the catchy four-chord guitar riffs that reminds us of Smells Like Teen Spirit. Then we hear Cobain singing quite casually ‘rape me’, with variations like hate me’ and ‘waste me’. Combined with the link between rape and violent behaviour, the song creates a beautiful yet haunting aesthetic. With the repeated sentence ‘I’m not the only one’, Cobain reminds us that rape is not a rare phenomenon, it is widespread problem which many people in our society suffer from, or as the sociologist Verónica Gago would put it: there is a war on women’s bodies (2020). In the chapter ‘Violence: Is there a War on and against Women’s Bodies?’ Gago argues that there is an ongoing conflict against women, because of the escalation of deaths and rapes of women, lesbians, and feminized bodies (2020, 56). Why does Gago speak of a ‘war’, instead of a problem? Describing it as a problem would make the issue more neutral and dismissive, rather than admitting the nature of the conflict. Sexual violence is not just the result of individual actions, but the complex relationship between the patriarchy, capitalism, and male dominion. Therefore, sexual violence is not a problem of the private sphere, but rather a war that is an attack on the female body (Gago 2022, 59). Moreover, the political scientist Françoise Vergès indicates rape as a weapon of the state (2022). In the chapter ‘Neoliberal violence’ Vergès states that rape ‘has always been a weapon of war (and of colonial war in particular); there is no colonization, no imperialist occupation without rape.’ (Vergès 2022, 23). Gender-based and sexual violence is used to destroy communities; rape-victims often feel excessive shame and rejection (Vergès 2022, 26).
But where Gago and Vergès argue that sexual violence against women and feminized bodies is a larger war-like conflict reproduced by the patriarchal hegemony, Nirvana’s Rape Me points out the paradoxical position of the victim. In an interview Cobain states: ‘’It’s like she’s saying, ‘Rape me, go ahead, rape me, beat me. You’ll never kill me. I’ll survive this and I’m gonna fucking rape you one of these days and you won’t even know it.’’’ In other words, Cobain tries to give the narrator a defiant yet powerful position. The rape-victim paradoxically enough gives consent to being raped. On the one hand, this can be understood as taunting and deceiving. This is true for the story behind Polly, where the victim managed to escape by acting defeated in order to led the rapist’s guard down. On the other hand, it could also be a cry of helplessness. This tension reaches its climax at the end when Cobain painfully screeches ‘rape me’ over and over again to create and ambiance of eruption. These abrasive vocals express the power of the victim to mock the rapist, but at the same time the realization of capitulation.
Thus, while Gago and Vergès provide us with a theoretical framework to see rape as a weapon used in a war fought against women, Nirvana’s Rape Me expresses through the art of music the ambiguity of the victim’s power and helplessness.
Gago, Verónica. ‘Violence: Is there a War on and against Women’s Bodies?’ In Feminist International: How to Change Everything. Translated by Liz Mason-Deese, 56-83. London/New Tork: Verso.
Nirvana. ‘Rape Me.’ Track 2 on In Utero. Geffen Records, 1993.
Vergès, Francoise. 2022. ‘Neoliberal Violence.’ In A Feminist Theory of Violence, 10-34. London: Pluto.