Meaning of The Man Who Sold the World & The Story Behind

The story of modern music is replete with cases when a successful cover of a song becomes so much more popular than the original that many listeners no longer remember its author and first performer.

Something similar happened with The Man Who Sold the World, which many modern music lovers consider to be a Nirvana song.

Nirvana has become a cult group because of their truly deep and topical songs. “The man who sold the world” is one of the most famous musical compositions. And she didn’t just become like that. The fact is that it has a deep meaning that is inaccessible to the average listener. But what was Nirvana singing about? Let’s get into the lyrics and the title of the song!

The meaning of the song title The Man Who Sold the World by Nirvana

The man who sold the world is the man who made a deal with the devil. Perhaps this action does not have a direct meaning, but a literal one. Man gave his world for something abstract. It can be seen that this action is not approved by the performer. But what happened to this man? Why did he sell the world? What did he get out of it? This can be learned from the analysis of the lyrics of the song.

The story of the creation of the song The Man Who Sold the World

Not everyone remembers or knows that David Bowie wrote it. He sang The Man Who Sold the World back in 1970 and made it the title track of his self-titled album. Kurt Cobain, who performed the song at MTV’s New York Acoustic Concert in 1993, was only three years old at the time of the first release.

But we will return to Nirvana, but for now let’s figure out what feelings or ideas Bowie wanted to express in the text of the composition.

The meaning of The Man Who Sold the World by Nirvana

Speaking of the title of the song, one cannot help but recall Robert Heinlein’s sci-fi novel The Man Who Sold the Moon. Bowie is said to have read it. It is possible that the coincidence is accidental, because the plot of this literary work has nothing to do with The Man Who Sold the World.

Much more explicit are borrowings from Hughes Mearns’ poem The Psychoed. Check out the literal translation of the quatrain and compare it with the first verse of the song:

Climbing up the stairs
I met a man who wasn’t there
Today he wasn’t there again
What a pity, what a pity that he does not leave

Some critics believe that in The Man Who Sold the World, Bowie talks about the problems of perceiving his own personality, that he does not recognize himself, and therefore suffers. The photograph of David in a woman’s dress on the album cover partly confirms this version.

In addition, on the second time he sings the chorus, David Bowie sings, “We never lost our temper,” although on the first occasion he sings the same words in the first person singular. In this, you can see David’s struggle with his inner double, or his attitude towards himself as before.

However, who can guarantee that the song The Man Who Sold the World is not just a beautiful, but not having a deep meaning set of rhymed words, written under the impression of the works of some writers (the same Hughes Mearns).

From the first lines, the author is actively talking with someone. It would seem that this is strange? However, further down the text we understand that this is a conversation with oneself. The performer hears from the interlocutor stories about past events, but is unable to remember them. The fact is that this “deal with the devil” can mean different things, but the main meaning is the rejection of something important for the sake of a seemingly excellent future. That is why the performer cannot remember – he exchanged it for a dream that, in fact, was not worth it. And it’s terrible, because a really valuable past was exchanged for fleeting nonsense. The world has been sold for this man. This is what the title of the song tells us.

But now we learn another detail – the performer thought that he had died of loneliness in the past. Apparently, this sale of the old world was an attempt to escape from the harsh reality. Did it bring happiness to the performer? Maybe. However, the lack of understanding of his past destroys his soul.

Face to face with himself in the past, he looks into his own reality. It is hard for him to do this, but the desire to know everything surpasses fears.

However, a full-fledged conversation with oneself does not work. The main character just shakes his hand. Apparently, there is no salvation for him in the past. Then where is it? The lyrical hero does not know this. For several years he tried to find himself, but even this desired meeting did not go well for him. He understands that his many years of attempts to know himself have become useless. What should he do then? Only thoughts come to mind that he died even then. Most likely, it was, but in a deeper sense. Having sold his past, he destroyed himself completely. Now he has no place in this world, so it is so hard for him to exist in it. This is the main problem – the desire to get out of the difficult world led to its destruction, which destroyed the chances of the lyrical hero for a normal future life.

However, at the end, he states that he never lost his temper. Apparently, by this he is trying to say that his decision was balanced and deliberate. Then why does he regret it? What is the reason for his constant sadness? We have to figure out the answer to this question on our own.

The fact is that we do not always realize the value of familiar things. Even small things can make a huge difference in a person’s life. Having lost them, a person loses his true self. Appreciate what you have!

Cover versions

Many artists have since sung The Man Who Sold the World, but Nirvana’s version from the live album MTV Unplugged in New York is currently the most famous. She was very fond of the fans of the group, who willingly performed it at live performances. The song can still often be heard on the radio and the video clip can be seen on music channels.

Interesting Facts

  • The first acoustic version of “The Man Who Sold the World” was recorded by Richard Baron in 1987, ahead of Nirvana by several years.
  • Lulu’s cabaret cover was produced by David Bowie himself.

The Man Who Sold the World Lyrics by David Bowie

We passed upon the stairs
We spoke and when
Although I wasn’t there
He said I was his friend
Which came as some surprise
I spoke into his eyes
I thought you died alone
A long long time ago

Oh no, not me
I never lost control
You’re face to face
With the man who sold the world

I laughed and shook his hand
And made my way back home
I searched for form and land
For years and years I roamed
I gazed a gazeless stare
At all the millions here
I must have died alone
A long, long time ago

Who knows?
not me
We never lost control
You’re face to face
With the man who sold the world

The Man Who Sold the World lyrics by David Bowie Alternative

We climbed the stairs
We talked about different things
Even though I wasn’t there
He said I’m his friend
What came as a surprise
I told him right to his face
I thought you died alone
A long time ago

Oh no not me
I never lost my composure
You stand face to face
With the man who sold the world

I laughed, shook his hand
And headed home
I’ve been looking for outlines and ground
Year after year I wandered
I gazed with unseeing eyes
For all those millions
I must have died alone
A long time ago

Who knows?
Not me
We never lost our composure
You stand face to face
With the man who sold the world

Song quote

… the guys come up to me after and say: “It’s cool that you sing a Nirvana song.” And I think: “Go to hell, you little nerd!”

David Bowie

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