The Top 500 Songs in Modern Music History…Song #263: Lithium by Nirvana (KEXP)

This list of songs is inspired by lists published by radio station KEXP-FM from Seattle in 2010, as well as the latest poll taken in 2021 by Rolling Stone Magazine. For the most part I will faithfully countdown from their lists, starting at Song #500 and going until I reach Song #1. When you see the song title listed as something like: Song #XXX (KEXP)….it means that I am working off of the official KEXP list. Song XXX (RS) means the song is coming from the Rolling Stone list. If I post the song title as being: Song #xxx (KTOM), it means I have gone rogue and am inserting a song choice from my own personal list of tunes I really like. In any case, you are going to get to hear a great song and learn the story behind it. Finally, just so everyone is aware, I am not a music critic nor a musician. I am a music fan and an armchair storyteller. Here is the story behind today’s song. Enjoy.

KEXP: The Top 500 Songs in Modern Music History.

Song #263: Lithium by Nirvana.

Lead singer of Nirvana, Kurt Cobain, insisted that the song, “Lithium” was not about him. The lyrics to the song speak of a man who has lost the love of his life and, in order to compensate, he has turned to religion as a salve. According to Cobain, the song, “Lithium” is about his disillusionment with religion, in general and, specifically, with those people who tend to use religion as a crutch to avoid taking action necessary to better or change their lives in some way. His lyrics were aimed directly at those who shrug their shoulders at life’s difficulties and simply respond with inaction, fuelled by the words, “It’s all part of God’s plan that my life is how it is.” When Cobain was a teenager, he drifted from home to home, often sleeping for days or weeks on the couches of his friends or his various family members, until he wore out his welcome and moved on. During one of these stop-overs, he stayed with a cousin whose parents were Fundamentalist Christians. Cobain has always maintained that the song was inspired by his few weeks with them.

“Lithium” appeared on Nirvana’s hugely important album, “Nevermind”. While “Smells Like Teen Spirit” is the song that many people think about when the album, “Nevermind” is mentioned, there are many other fans of the band who insist that “Lithium” is every bit the equal to “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and that, it may actually be better. One of the reasons many view “Lithium” as being such an important and influential song is because of the lyrics and the story that many feel they tell.

First of all, the musical structure of “Lithium” is fairly consistent with most “Nirvana” songs; there are soft, more cerebral sections to the song and then, there are loud, intense segment that act as a contrast. But, as good as the playing of instruments may be, that is not what makes “Lithium” important.

While Cobain has never admitted it, there are many, many people who have been diagnosed with Bi-Polar disorder who swear that “Lithium” is about them and, more to the point, that the lyrics in the song describe the Bi-Polar mind better than any song, movie or book has ever managed to do. Those who suffer from Bi-Polar disorder (and who have commented on this song) all say that Cobain captured the complexity of existing within a mind that is constantly moving from one idea to a conflicting, contrasting one and then, back again. “Lithium” has lyrics that describe this, such as “I’m so horny but, that’s ok, at least, my will is good.” Those with Bi-Polar disorder say that line after line read like verses in their own life story and that, as such, they are convinced that Cobain, too, was Bi-Polar. There are some reports from family members that this was, in fact, true of Cobain but he, himself, never said those words out loud, to my knowledge. Some say, “Lithium” was his way of speaking his truth, as it were. Please keep in mind that this was in the early 1990s and there was still quite the stigma to any form of mental illness, let alone, Bi-Polar disorder.

Regardless as to whether “Lithium” is really about Cobain’s disdain for religion and religious-types or if it was about what life was like for him inside his own head. “Lithium” remains as one of “Nirvana’s” most notable songs and one of the most important and successful songs in the last thirty years. When you listen to it, try not to be thrown by the loudness. The chaos and the noise and confusion are part of the message Cobain was trying to convey. Sometimes, as the old saying goes, the medium is the message, so to speak. In the case of “Lithium” the style of the song and the manner in which it is presented for viewing IS part of what Cobain wanted people to know. It couldn’t have been easy to have lived with mental illness for as long as he did; especially, having to do so under the brightest of spotlights.

As many of you know, Kurt Cobain died at his own hand at age 27. Rest in Peace, Kurt. Here is “Lithium” by “Nirvana”.

The link to the video for the song, “Lithium” by Nirvana, can be found here.

The official website for Nirvana, can be found here.

Thanks to KEXP for helping to inspire the writing of this post. The link to their wonderful website can be found here.

Author: Tom MacInnes

Among the many characters I play: husband, father, son, retired elementary school teacher, writer, Cape Bretoner, lover of hot tea and, above all else, a gentleman. I strive to make a positive difference in the lives of others. In Life, I have chosen to be kind.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: