Categories
Lyrics and songwriting

Nirvana – Lithium – Lyrics analysis and meaning

Songwriting

This is one of the song analyses presented in the PDF Songwriting.

Lithium is the 5th track of Nirvana‘s second studio album Nevermind (DGC Records, 1993).

Music video

Song lyrics

Verse 1

I’m so happy ’cause today
I’ve found my friends…”
They’re in my head
I’m so ugly, but that’s okay, ’cause so are you…
We broke our mirrors
Sunday morning is everyday for all I care…
And I’m not scared
Light my candles, in a daze
‘Cause I’ve found God

Chorus

Yeah, yeah, yeah… [x6]

Verse 2

I’m so lonely, but that’s okay, I shaved my head…
And I’m not sad
And just maybe I’m to blame for all I’ve heard…
But I’m not sure
I’m so excited, I can’t wait to meet you there…
But I don’t care
I’m so horny, but that’s okay…
My will is good

Chorus 2

Yeah, yeah, yeah… [x6]

I like it – I’m not gonna crack
I miss you – I’m not gonna crack
I love you – I’m not gonna crack
I killed you – I’m not gonna crack

Lyrics analysis and meaning

“Lithium”

The song’s title already gives us a kind of program. Lithium is a medication used by western psychiatrists to cure manic-depressive psychosis, also called bipolar psychosis. Mental disease is a problem, and bipolarity, good and evil, top and down, variations in intensity, are in the core of storytelling and the art of drama. So already as a theme, lithium sounds dramatic.

Verse 1

I’m so happy ’cause today
I’ve found my friends…”

OK, so there’s an “I” singing. Thus: genre: autobiography; point of view/focus: subjective. (Does it sound obvious? Just think that autobiography is sometimes told with the autobiographer taking distance and speaking about himself as a “HE” – it is pseudo-objective then. That is the case in other Nirvana’s songs, like Tourette’s or Even in his youth.)

“I’m so happy”: first, that doesn’t sound like Nirvana or like Cobain – they do not usually sing happiness. We guess straight away there is irony here – especially because the tone on which it is sung does not sound happy – internal contradiction! Secondly, that is an expression of emotion and aims at finding empathy in the audience.

“Today I’ve found my friends”: that is an event, we might think it is the catalyst of a plot. If so, what will be the future of this new friendship, we wonder? That might be the dramatic question.

They’re in my head

That immediately contradicts the ironic statement about the happiness of the narrator: there is actually no friend, the Hero feels alone.

I’m so ugly, but that’s okay, ’cause so are you…

“I’m so ugly”: that makes the initial situation of the Hero even worse: he dislikes himself! This combined with the loneliness makes the real catalyst: the problem of the Hero is self-hatred, and the real dramatic question is: will the Hero be able to solve it? how will it evolve? The Antagonist becomes obvious: it is the Hero himself.

“but that’s okay ’cause so are you”: firstly, there is dark humor here, a way to seduce the audience, make them smile or laugh, have an emotional impact over them. “So are you”: who is this “you”? Is it an actantial character? A recipient? Is it a lover, a friend, the audience? We can not know – things stay open to interpretation, but those questions raise, at least implicitly.

We broke our mirrors

This probable metaphor (he does not mean it literally, does he?) expresses the problem another way: it is about self-reflection, about the image one has about oneself.

From now, we can consider that technically we are in the Act II, since the catalyst and dramatic question are already past.

Sunday morning is everyday for all I care…

Another metaphor: all days are the same, the Hero is totally bored and depressed.

And I’m not scared

This sounds like a psychological denial: someone who would not feel scared, would not think of being scared and would not deny it.

The permanent contradiction inside each couple of verses becomes systematic and imitates the feeling of the bipolar disorder.

Light my candles, in a daze
‘Cause I’ve found God

Candles and God belong to the same semantic field: religion. The author knows that the audience knows him, and that he is not a religious person. So here again, we can take it as irony.

The Hero is probably “in a daze” because of lithium – mental confusion is one of the many side-effects of this medication.

Chorus

Yeah, yeah, yeah… [x6]

For a chorus, that sounds speechless 🙂 Even if it is not words, it has a strong power of expression, and again: ironical. This repeated assertion only asserts the impossibility to assert anything. It sounds like another signal of distress.

Verse 2

I’m so lonely, but that’s okay, I shaved my head…

The absurd link between the problem and the pseudo-solution continues developing the theme of helplessness.

The lyrics have at the same time very autobiographical elements, and some others that are totally invented. This is the case with “I shaved my head”: we never saw Cobain with a shaved head, on the contrary, he often grew long hair. Shaving one’s head makes oneself a skin-head, and this contains some autobiography: as a young punk/grunge fragile person, Cobain was bullied by extreme-right racist and homophobic thugs who treated him as “gay”.

And I’m not sad

Denial again!

And just maybe I’m to blame for all I’ve heard…
But I’m not sure

Confusion, guilt… emotions calling for our empathy.

I’m so excited, I can’t wait to meet you there …
But I don’t care

Same dynamic of self-contradiction, top and down, mania and depression symptoms. It is thematically dramatic.

I’m so horny, but that’s okay …
My will is good

“So horny, but”: the Hero has not only a problem with self-care, but also with sex.

Chorus 2

Yeah, yeah, yeah… [x6]
I like it – I’m not gonna crack
I miss you – I’m not gonna crack
I love you – I’m not gonna crack
I killed you – I’m not gonna crack

This second, more developed chorus, sounds like an Act III with the crisis. The internal contradiction reaches several climaxes. Once again, the expression “I’m not gonna crack” means the contrary: from the way Cobain is singing those verses, it is clear that he IS currently cracking.

The crescendo in intensity – like, miss, love, killed – leads us to the real climax, a symbolic murder of the other, the friend or lover. We can probably understand that it is because the Hero could not feel understood and accepted and loved that he killed the “cause” of his disappointment. (Treating his emotions such a way would lead him straight away to suicide more surely than with any mental disease… Do not follow his great example!)

The song then continues repeating the Verse 1, the Chorus 2. No new element is added.

Commentary

As we saw, it was possible to analyze Lithium as a conventional plot, but we had to far-fetch it a bit, because actually Cobain’s lyrics belong to another kind of storytelling: a broken, disturbed, anticonformist kind – which sounds perfectly right for a punk-rock-grunge artist whose fundamental aesthetic goal is to call into question the rules of the society he lives in, among which the rules of art.

Problem of tension? problem of story?

Look at the table that sums up the plot: the prognostic along the song about the question whether the Hero will be able or not to feel better, stays constantly NO, NO, NO, NO, NO…

You know why many lyrics sound so stupid? It’s because they say things directly. They say for example: “because I am / disillusioned” – how flat is that! They use descriptive adjectives. Baaaad aesthetic, that leaves the audience careless.

Efficient lyrics do not flatly describe and do not directly qualify. Lyrics that captivate the audience SHOW properties without naming them.

The quality and efficiency of Lithium’s lyrics resides in their obvious disillusion: an absurd collection of tops and downs, the expression of ambivalent feelings encrypted in contradictory sentences.

They depict a psychic world where nothing stands together, where the meaning disappears in constant changes of mood while staying on a permanently negative tone.

Good lyrics prefer saying “I’m not scared, I’m not sad, I’m not sure” to express fear, sadness, skepticism, the double negativity of each simple assertion expressing the depth of the Hero’s uneasiness, contradicting two positive assertions: “I am!”, and the contraries of fear, sadness and skepticism, let’s say: safety, joy and confidence in the world, qualities Cobain lacked to feel happier.

So, to be back to our first question: the abnormality of the tension, assumed by no plot but through a monotone catalogue of negative mood variations, achieves perfectly its goal, which is to make the audience synchronize with the refined pain of the singer.

He touches what is broken and injured in many of us, intimately: our identity, our self-image, our self-confidence, our pride to be our gender, age, condition. The song refuses to tell a story, there is no story to tell, it just hurts. Broken story design reflects broken life.

Plot or situation?

Also, the song sounds fewly narrative – not many plot points, not many characters, not much movement or change – but still there is some drama going on – actually the situation of the Hero and his feelings are all dramatic, emotional.

We could say the song does not tell us a proper story, but it lets us share for a few minutes the condition of a young unhappy, depressed guy. We do not travel along a storyline, but we have the privilege to attend one of the intense, representative moments of a story that lead to a complex, ambiguous, ambivalent, internally tense feeling of the world.

Learn to write your own stories

Story&Drama provides you with 4 scenario tutorials to help you learn concepts and techniques to write stories, build characters, make drama effects and manage narrative settings.

Get them all at once and download them immediately.

4 Storytelling courses
4 PDF
Any problem? Read the downloads FAQ.