Heart-Shaped Box

"Heart-Shaped Box" is a song by American rock band Nirvana, written by vocalist and guitarist Kurt Cobain. It was released as the first single from Nirvana's third and final studio album, In Utero, in August 1993, and appears as the third track. It was one of two songs from the album mixed by Scott Litt to augment the original production by producer Steve Albini.

"Heart-Shaped Box"
UK picture sleeve
Single by Nirvana
from the album In Utero
ReleasedAugust 30, 1993
RecordedFebruary 1993
StudioPachyderm, Cannon Falls, Minnesota
Songwriter(s)Kurt Cobain
Producer(s)Steve Albini
Nirvana singles chronology
"Puss/Oh, the Guilt"
"Heart-Shaped Box"
"All Apologies" / "Rape Me"
In Utero track listing
12 tracks
Music video
"Heart-Shaped Box" on YouTube

Though Nirvana's record company DGC Records did not release a physical single in the United States, fearing it might damage album sales, "Heart-Shaped Box" received much American radio airplay, reaching number one on the Billboard Modern Rock Tracks chart.[2][3] The single made the top 10 in several countries, Portugal, the United Kingdom,[4][5] Ireland, Finland and New Zealand, and the top 40 in numerous other countries. The music video, directed by Anton Corbijn, garnered critical plaudits, and won two awards, including Best Alternative Video at the MTV Video Music Awards in 1994. "Heart-Shaped Box" was the last song Cobain performed live with Nirvana, on March 1, 1994 in Munich, Germany.[6]

Origin and recordingEdit

Kurt Cobain wrote "Heart-Shaped Box" in early 1992.[7] Cobain forgot about the song for a while, but began working on it again when he and his wife, Courtney Love, moved to a house in the Hollywood Hills.[8] In a 1994 Rolling Stone interview, Love said she overheard him working on the song's riff in a closet. She said she asked him if she could use the riff for one of her songs, to which he replied "Fuck you!" and closed the closet door.[9] The couple shared a journal in which they would write lyrics; Cobain biographer Charles R. Cross noted that Love's songwriting sensibility informed Cobain's on the song.[10] The song's name came from a heart-shaped box Love had given Cobain. However, Cobain had originally titled the song "Heart-Shaped Coffin".[10]

Nirvana had difficulty completing the song. Cobain attempted to have the rest of the band complete the song during jam sessions. He said, "I was trying to wait for [bassist Krist Novoselic] and [drummer Dave Grohl] to come up with something but it just turned into noise all the time." Cobain made one last attempt at completing the song; he was able to come up with a vocal melody and the band finally finished writing the song. Cobain said that when they completed "Heart-Shaped Box", "We finally realized that it was a good song."[11]

In January 1993, the band recorded a demo of "Heart-Shaped Box" during sessions with Craig Montgomery in the BMG Ariola studios in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil; it was the first song recorded.[12] The In Utero version was recorded in February 1993 by Steve Albini in Cannon Falls, Minnesota. Prior to the album's release, the track was remixed by Scott Litt. Cobain was unapologetic about the band's decision to remix it, and maintained that the vocals and bass were not prominent enough in the original mixes. Novoselic was also unhappy with the original mix of "Heart-Shaped Box". In a 1993 Chicago Sun-Times interview, he said the original effect used on the song's guitar solo sounded "like a fucking abortion hitting the floor." When the song was remixed by Litt, Cobain took the opportunity to add acoustic guitar and vocal harmonies.[13]

Composition and lyricsEdit

"Heart-Shaped Box" is an alternative rock song that lasts for a duration of four minutes and thirty-nine seconds.[14] According to the sheet music published at Musicnotes.com by BMG Rights Management, it is written in a 4/4 time signature, with a moderate tempo of 100 beats per minute.[14] "Heart-Shaped Box" is composed in the key of G# minor, modulating to G# dorian on the verses, while Kurt Cobain's vocal range spans one octave, from the low note of G#3 to the high note of G#4.[14] The song has a basic sequence of G#5–E5–C#5–G#–E5–C#7 in the verses and G#5–E5–C#7 during the chorus as its chord progression.[14] Journalist Gillian Gaar described "Heart-Shaped Box" as "the Nirvana formula personified, with a restrained, descending riff played through the verse, building in intensity to the cascading passion of the chorus".[7]

Cobain said the song was inspired by documentaries about children with cancer. He told biographer Michael Azerrad, "Anytime I think about it, it makes me sadder than anything I can think of."[15] Azerrad asserted in his biography Come as You Are: The Story of Nirvana that despite Cobain's explanation, the song actually appeared to be about Courtney Love.[11] Charles Cross wrote in his Kurt Cobain biography Heavier Than Heaven that with the lyric "I wish I could eat your cancer when you turn black", the frontman "sang in what has to be the most convoluted route any songwriter undertook in pop history to say 'I love you'".[16] After a performance of the song by singer Lana Del Rey in 2012, Courtney Love asserted on Twitter that the song is about her vagina. The tweets were deleted shortly after.[17] Cobain said that the song's chorus of "Hey/Wait/I've got a new complaint" was him giving an example of how he was perceived by the media.[18]


In the United States, DGC issued "Heart-Shaped Box" to college, modern rock, and album-oriented rock radio stations in early September 1993. There were no plans to release a single for the song domestically. At the time, Geffen Records' head of marketing told Billboard that the label was not actively courting Top 40 radio, explaining "Nirvana didn't sell nearly 5 million [records] because of a hit single. They sold that many albums because of who they are." The song entered the Billboard Modern Rock Tracks chart at number seven,[19] and eventually peaked at number one on the chart.[2][3] The song also reached number four on the Mainstream Rock Tracks chart.[20][3] A single of the song was released in the United Kingdom, where it peaked at number five on the UK Singles Chart.[4][5] Issued in August 1993, the 7-inch vinyl and cassette formats featured "Marigold" as a B-side, while the 12-inch vinyl and CD editions added the In Utero track "Milk It".[21] In 1999 the song was voted in at number 10 in Kerrang! magazine's "100 Greatest Rock Tracks Ever!".[22]

Music videoEdit

Nirvana originally wanted Kevin Kerslake, who had directed the videos for the band's singles "Come as You Are", "Lithium", "In Bloom", and "Sliver", to direct the "Heart-Shaped Box" music video. Kerslake prepared five treatments during July and August 1993, but no shoot arrangements were made and by the end of the month, the group decided to work with Dutch photographer and video director Anton Corbijn.[23] Corbijn, who typically created his own ideas for videos, was initially unsure of directing the video since Cobain's treatment was so detailed. Corbijn said, "But then I looked at it and I thought that actually it was pretty good. I was very amazed by somebody writing a song and having those ideas as precise as he did."[24]

The video begins and ends with the band in a hospital setting watching an old man being administered medication through an IV drip. The majority of the video takes place in a surreal outdoor setting that incorporates imagery from the film The Wizard of Oz.[25] During the song's first verse, the old man from the hospital, now wearing a Santa hat and later a mitre, climbs onto a crow-ridden Christian cross. The second verse introduces a young girl in a white robe and peaked cap reaching for human fetuses in a tree, and an overweight woman in a suit with human organs painted onto it and with angel wings affixed to her back (similar to the woman on the cover art of In Utero). In the video's final cut, the band is only shown performing in the outdoor setting during the choruses, where Cobain's face moves in and out of focus in the camera.[25] While most of the video was devised by Cobain, Corbijn added elements such as the intentionally artificial crows, a ladder for the old man to climb onto the cross with, and a box with a heart at the top that the band performs inside of during the song's final chorus.[26] Corbijn created another cut of the video featuring alternate footage during the final verse, including more shots of the young girl and the woman, and scenes of Cobain lying on his back in the poppy field, with mist surrounding him. This version of the video is featured on the DVD The Work of Director Anton Corbijn.[27][28]

After the video's release, Kevin Kerslake sued Nirvana, alleging copyright infringement.[29] The case was settled out of court.[30] The "Heart-Shaped Box" music video was the number one most played music video on MTV in the US as recorded by Billboard magazine on November 20, 1993.[31] It was also number one on Canada's MuchMusic Countdown for two weeks in November, 1993.[32] The video won two MTV Video Music Awards in 1994, for Best Alternative Video and for Best Art Direction. As the ceremony was held after Kurt Cobain's April 1994 death, the awards were accepted by Cobain's former bandmates Novoselic, Grohl, and touring guitarist Pat Smear.[33] "Heart-Shaped Box" also topped the music video category in the 1993 Village Voice Pazz & Jop critics' poll.[34] In 2011, NME ranked the song's music video at number 22 on its of the "100 Greatest Music Videos".[35] That same year, Time magazine ranked "Heart-Shaped Box" at number 10 on its list of "The 30 All-TIME Best Music Videos", where it was described as "beautiful and [...] terrible".[36]

In February 2016, Nirvana drummer Dave Grohl reunited with actress Kelsey Rohr, who played the girl in the "Heart-Shaped Box" music video 23 years earlier, at the age of six.[37] Rohr stated that "Today reminded me that I peaked at 6 years old but I was the most badass kid on the playground. Today was the absolute coolest. Or in Dave's words seeing each other today was a 'historic moment'! What a legend!".[37]

Track listingEdit

All songs written by Kurt Cobain except where noted.



Region Certification Certified units/sales
United Kingdom (BPI)[65] Silver 200,000 

 sales+streaming figures based on certification alone



  1. ^ Danaher, Michael (August 4, 2014). "The 50 Best Grunge Songs". Paste.
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  16. ^ Cross, p. 281.
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  25. ^ a b Gaar, p. 90.
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External linksEdit