Say Anything’s Max Bemis on why he hates Nirvana’s “Rape Me”

Say Anything’s Max Bemis on why he hates Nirvana’s “Rape Me”

In HateSong, we ask our favorite musicians, writers, comedians, actors, and so forth to expound on the one song they hate most in the world.

The hater: For about 15 years now, Max Bemis has been the face of Say Anything, the pop-punk band conceived and launched out of Bemis’ Sarah Lawrence College dorm room. Though the band’s gone through a whole slew of members, it’s still going somewhat strong and recently released its latest and most experimental record, Hebrews, via Equal Vision Records. Containing absolutely no guitars, Hebrews was inspired by Bemis’ struggles with mental illness, as well as by the birth of his daughter, Lucy.

The hated: Nirvana, “Rape Me” (1993)

The A.V. Club: So, why did you pick “Rape Me”?

Max Bemis: There’s two facets to why I picked that song. One is that it’s my least favorite Nirvana song. I also just straight-up don’t like it as a song.

The backstory is that Nirvana is one of my favorite bands, as one might imagine. I mean, they’re everybody’s favorite band. I think it would be very rare to find someone who wouldn’t say Nirvana’s an incredible band. But “Rape Me” is my least favorite Nirvana song and also my least favorite song of that era. It’s my least favorite grunge song—it’s my least favorite of many, many different genres and subsets of music. And the structure, the lyrics, the production, everything—I don’t like. I just don’t like it. Nevermind came out and changed my life. And when this came out off In Utero, I was really disappointed.

Sonically and musically, this song annoys me. Lyrically, it’s vapid. And then on another level, it annoys me because, as someone who makes music and someone who admires Kurt Cobain as one of the greater songwriters and musicians of our time—to me, it’s the prime example of a musician feeding into or just being overly influenced by success, even if his knee-jerk reaction is to write a song like “Rape Me,” where it’s railing against his success. He probably wouldn’t have written the song if it wasn’t for becoming this unlikely icon. And so, clearly, he wrote the song to be a punk rock song about, like, “Fuck the fact that I’m a celebrity and screw the fact that the man has co-opted Nirvana.”

AVC: But it was written before Nevermind even came out.

MB: Is that true?!

AVC: That’s what it says in Michael Azerrad’s book about Nirvana, Come As You Are. It’s also supposedly written from the perspective of a woman who’s been abused, and it’s just like, “Fuck you, you can’t do anything to me.”

MB: That makes me like it more. Well, actually, it doesn’t even make me like it more because it’s not like the song is a clever way of saying, “Don’t rape me. You never get to rape me again.” The song is “Rape me, rape me, rape me again,” so even if it’s a postmodern take on rape and a feminist perspective on it, it’s still ironic, you know? It’s still saying that the person can rape them again. And that was something that I didn’t like about it in the first place. I know it’s ironic for him to be encouraging the rape to continue to happen. But it’s still encouraging the rape to continue to happen.

You know, since I had heard it after Nevermind, I took it as this kind of veiled thing about their success. But if you take it that way, he’s just inviting the rape.

AVC: It’s supposed to be, like, “Go ahead and do this, but know I’ll get you back.”

MB: But it’s still like he’s still getting raped in the process of that.

AVC: Okay...

MB: Or she, if he’s writing about a woman. Indeed, she still is taking it rather than being like, “Whoa! Hey! Don’t rape me, I’m going to call the cops!” Rape isn’t allowed.

I don’t have many favorite bands; I’m one of those types of people who still listens compulsively to all the music that I grew up listening to. I don’t really outgrow things. I still listen to Oasis and Weezer from that era, stuff like that—Green Day—things that were big for me at that time. The Foo Fighters were huge for me, still. There’s a radio station called KROQ in L.A., and they were kind of a blessing and a curse for me growing up because they would expose me to a bunch of new bands, but literally, since Nirvana broke through and became popular, they have played Nirvana with the same regularity, never stopping. So, Sublime, The Offspring, Nirvana, and a few other bands literally have been in rotation since the songs came out, at the same regularity. So I am slightly sick of Nirvana. I don’t listen to Nirvana that much because of that radio station and because of growing up—having it hammered into my head.

I’d love to hear something new and different, but instead it’s “Rape Me.” And it’s my least favorite Nirvana song, so it’s even more like, “Oh, my God. I can’t believe I’m having to hear this again.” I associate the song with disappointment because it wasn’t as good as Nevermind, and it seems like a shallow retread of “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” musically. There’s the soft-loud dynamic—you know, it’s basically like [Mimics the music.]—that’s exactly like “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” It’s the worst.

So I associate it with the disappointment—and then having to hear it over and over again, and slowly accepting that I hated it. Because you’re not allowed to dislike Nirvana. You’re allowed to dislike the Foo Fighters, but you’re not allowed to dislike Nirvana. Even if the song is bad. And I think if it were a Soundgarden song, people would just not like “Rape Me.”

AVC: You said that you didn’t like the song because you thought he was saying “fuck you” to the media and “fuck you” to people for being so popular. Can you expound on that a little bit?

MB: I get it, and maybe it was pertinent at the time because so many things that Nirvana did were pertinent at the time. But, to me—as someone who was kind of young and then it was cool to hear about that stuff, later in life—they seemed like grunge stereotypes. They were just contrived acts of rebellion. Like, for instance, playing “Rape Me” on Saturday Night Live. And it was a big deal. Because we were like, “What is this?!”

Whether he wrote it before Nevermind or not, I think there was a calculated action in making it. It was one of the first songs they debuted from In Utero. And I think that’s an amazing record, by the way. I don’t like it as much as Nevermind, but I think it’s an amazing record. I think the production is amazing on most of the songs.

But it’s really sad, because if you look at Kurt as a person—at least from our understanding of him—so much of what he did was reactionary and compensating because he couldn’t see himself as a pop star, he couldn’t see himself as a rock star, and ultimately—this is getting a little deep and depressing—he couldn’t see himself as a success story. He hated himself. I guess that’s sort of punk rock, but to me it’s more grunge than punk rock. Because with punk rock, there’s this sort of—“You can’t stop me, I’m above you,” but with grunge there’s an, “Okay, I’m just going to become a junkie and hate life.” And so what happened with him was a self-defeating thing and glorifying that. And I always felt that was really sad and tragic. But I think, in our day and age, people maybe would have encouraged him to not just self-destruct like that. It was glorified in the media—their image of a slacker, that it’s cool to be self-destructive.

AVC: You’re really just guessing. We can’t entirely know why Kurt Cobain or Nirvana did anything they did.

MB: Not at all. Not at all. That’s just how it came across to me. It’s the sort of baseline assumptions that one can make. It’s sort of like Miley—I’m going to get a lot of shit for this—but it’s just like what Miley Cyrus is doing right now. We don’t really know what’s in her head or why she’s doing this. But we can assume she’s trying to grow up and expand her image and no longer be a teeny-bopper icon, and she’s trying to be dangerous and sexy and hip. So that’s our assumption that may be miles from whatever she’s actually thinking about.

So in this instance, with Nirvana, Kurt was an intelligent, brilliant guy, so we don’t really know why he released “Rape Me” at the time he did or wrote the song or whatever. But from our perspective, from the general perspective, it certainly seemed that it was some kind of reaction against their success with Nevermind.

I also just straight up don’t think it’s that good of a song.

AVC: You just don’t like the instrumentation?

MB: I love Nirvana. I do. But I’m not obsessed with Nirvana to the point where I think they can do no wrong. It’s a lot harder for me to say that a Beatles song is bad. Though they did have some bad songs as well. But Nirvana isn’t this golden, untouchable thing for me. And there are actually other grunge bands that I prefer to Nirvana, even though I think Nirvana is more important, that their legacy is more influential and important. But, “Rape Me”—the lyrics, the repetition, the extreme similarity to “Smells Like Teen Spirit” with the quiet-loud dynamic.

It’s just like, in general, because of things like that radio station. I can’t even put on Nevermind. I’m sick of Kurt’s voice. And it’s sad. I can’t even listen to it. I can’t even listen to their first record because it also reminds me of the thousands of terrible bands that they influenced. Maybe I’ll grow out of that eventually. I think of Nickleback when I hear Kurt’s voice sometimes. At least with the Foo Fighters, Dave Grohl didn’t have that Pearl Jam-y, Nirvana, Soundgarden-y inflexion like, [Sings.] “yeah.” Kurt was the father of “yeah” rock. And so even though he did it better than anyone else—and, obviously, he’s the godfather of it—I still think of bad Pearl Jam songs and bad Puddle Of Mudd. It takes me there. So, despite them being one of my favorite bands ever, I listen to less Nirvana then probably any of my other favorite bands. And “Rape Me” is the worst.

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