Nirvana – “Plateau” Lyrics Meaning

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Written By Joanna Landrum

Joanna holds a BSc in English Literature and uses her expertise in literary analysis to uncover the deeper meaning of her favorite songs.

Nirvana’s “Plateau” is a journey into the labyrinth of human ambition, questioning societal norms and the constant chase for “more.” At first glance, it’s about scaling a plateau and finding nothing remarkable at the top. But dig deeper, and you see it’s an introspective look at the human pursuit of success and validation. Kurt Cobain, the lead singer and songwriter, seems to ponder if the relentless climb is worth it when the destination offers little but another plateau to scale.

Ready to rock your mind? Keep reading to get the lowdown on this classic grunge anthem.

“Plateau” Lyrics Meaning

“Many a hand has scaled the grand old face of the plateau,” starts the song, immediately setting the stage for a collective experience. The plateau is a metaphor for the various goals or milestones people aim for. It might be fame, money, or any other societal measure of success.

“Some belong to strangers and some to folks you know,” tells us that it doesn’t matter who you are or where you’re from; we’re all scrambling for that next high, that next plateau. The universality of this quest makes it a shared experience.

Cobain throws in the bizarre but thought-provoking line, “Holy ghosts and talk show hosts are planted in the sand,” perhaps to show the randomness and shallowness that often come with these pursuits. It’s like a critique of the mixed bag of influences that shape our desires and dreams.

When we get to “Nothing on the top but a bucket and a mop / And an illustrated book about birds,” we face the anticlimax. You hustle and grind to reach this plateau, only to find mundane objects waiting for you. Cobain seems to question the worth of our lofty pursuits when the end result might just be another set of chores—or an illustrated book about birds, an obvious deviation from the expected treasures.

“You’ve finished with the mop then you can stop / And look at what you’ve done,” Cobain’s line encourages reflection. Have a look, is your plateau clean and dirt-free now? Was it fun? Or are you already scanning around for the next plateau?

“Many hands began to scan around for the next plateau,” sums up the perpetual cycle. Whether it’s Greenland, Mexico, or just where you stand, the song ends with an unsettling sense of dissatisfaction, emphasizing that answers are elusive.

The Story Behind “Plateau”

Written originally by The Meat Puppets and later covered by Nirvana, “Plateau” fits snugly into the themes Kurt Cobain often explored. Cobain was no stranger to the disillusionments that can come with success. Even as Nirvana skyrocketed to fame, he often found himself questioning the very fabric of what society considered successful or meaningful.

During the period Nirvana covered this song, Cobain was grappling with rapid fame, personal demons, and an internal battle with what he felt were shallow aspects of mainstream culture. The song reflects Cobain’s own perplexity with the fickle nature of success and the human tendency to always look for more, even when you’re standing on your own version of a plateau.

Given Cobain’s constant struggle with the duality of fame—loving the music but hating the circus that came with it—”Plateau” serves as an almost confessional piece. It encapsulates the existential musings of a man often at odds with the very world that worshipped him, a man always in search of his own plateau, wherever that might be.