In the 30 years since it first appeared, Nirvana’s diamond-selling record Nevermind has seen several re-releases and anniversary special editions. As well as being hugely influential musically, the album has become a visual landmark of alternative popular culture.
But what exactly is the cover art, with its memorable image of a naked underwater baby apparently chasing a dollar on a fishing line, supposed to represent? As someone who studies 20th century record sleeves, I have some thoughts.
Inspired by Kurt Cobain’s fascination with underwater births, the record label’s art director, Robert Fisher, hired photographer Kirk Weddle to shoot a conceptually related image.
The first thing to note is that the naked child imagery itself doesn’t really speak to the themes of excess, debauchery and hypermasculinity that often appear in rock stardom’s iconography.
Although baby imagery has been used before on the covers of major rock releases – Van Halen’s 1984 shows an angel child smoking a cigarette – the context is not the same.
There is an absurdist and shock-value element to Nirvana’s baby imagery, exposing the gap between realistic and socially sanctioned, or commercially acceptable, representations of nakedness. But what this implies is a degree of wit through an awareness of the record’s status as a marketable and palatable product.
In terms of the ensemble, it was Fisher’s idea to doctor the image to include a type of bait – the famous dollar bill hooked to the fishing line. This enigmatic and playful reworking of a fishing scene is clearly open to multiple readings. One popular interpretation is that it’s a critique of corporate capitalist society and the principles of consumerism.
The way the infant and dollar bill motifs replace the fish and bait suggests there’s a deeper meaning at play. Is the child tempted by materialistic fulfilment like a fish is baited by sustenance?
The trouble with this interpretation is that it overlooks Nirvana’s participation in the same system that the cover seems to deride. Nevermind came out on a major label, David Geffen. Which had also put out Aerosmith, Whitesnake and Guns n’ Roses. The logo is printed for all to see on the back of the outer sleeve or CD booklet. And musically speaking, the record incorporates several industry-standard production techniques and mainstream song-writing conventions that stand in stark contrast to the band’s DIY punk roots.
This is an important point of contradiction. The image of a baby swimming towards a dollar bill seems a blatant form of self-mockery while the band knowingly operate in the highly commercial context of the mainstream US music industry.
It’s the addition of the apathetic but sardonic title itself – Nevermind – that suggests some kind of awareness of the identity-based issues the band faced. And the combination of title, cover image and the commercial context implies a self-conscious critique of the contradictions between artistic authenticity and global success.
The significance of the artwork is likely to be scrutinised further given that the baby in the image, now grown up, has decided to sue Nirvana and Kurt Cobain’s estate on grounds of alleged child exploitation and pornography. Nevermind’s artwork has long been considered iconic in terms of 20th and 21st-century popular imagery. But the latest development means its contemporary relevance has been revived with a new sense of irony.
Christopher Vezza does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.