Marshall MacLuhan was supposed to have said "the medium is the message". Well, I'm not so sure. In this era of spin and presentation, of focus groups and of carefully-crafted diplo-statements that say precisely nothing, or precisely everything depending on the placement of a comma, it's become the norm not to believe what you read, or hear, until someone has helped you work it out.
Back in the day, we took the words of the great and the good at face value. When Churchill said "we shall fight them on the beaches", you knew he had precisely that in mind. When Marie-Antoinette said "Let them eat cake", it was so preposterous that you know she really meant it.
And when the great and the good invoked the name of their, our our, particular deity, our first instinct was to believe that they believed.
These days, the media and an almighty assortment of consultants, spin-doctors, Special Advisors, backroom manipulators and bloggers are on hand to interpret, peel away the chaff and tell us what Churchill *really* meant. Every newscaster finishes his to-camera piece and then turns to the suit at his side with a "So, Bradley, what exactly did Herr Hitler mean?" And Bradley will tell us.
So, on to Nirvana.
All those years ago when I first heard this song, I took it at face value. I thought: "OK, a rather weary, rootless, cynical view of religion and its presentation of itself as a cure-all for the downtrodden." I could imagine a shiftless, bored youth reacting like this after being canvassed by members of his local congregation. They'd say "Come down to church, man. We're not out to sell you anything, just help you get some peace of mind." And he'd mumble an excuse and wander off, thinking "yeah, right".
And that's what this song is. It's a "yeah, right" to religion, a shrug of the shoulders and a dismissive middle finger.
Or at least, that's what I thought it was, in Nirvana's hands.
But to hear the Polyphonic Spree sing it, takes us further, much further into the dark heart, into the Marxian opiate-addled trance.
Where Kurt Cobain mumbles and whines, where his screams of "yeah yeah yeah" in the chorus sound so bored and dismissive, the Spree sound positively diabolical. Where Nirvana's rhythm lumbers from bone-shaking thud to bone-shaking thud, the Spree give the song a lightness that is so such more seductive, and yet so much more menacing.
Maybe it's because they understand that religion, or cults, are at their most dangerous when they're not trying overtly to recruit, but when they're focusing inward on their own membership. It's the take-it-or-leave it nature, the idea that if you're so blind you can't see a good thing by yourself, then we're not interested in you joining our club. *That's* what the Spree does. It has a damn good time performing this song, and if you can't tell what fun it is, then it's clearly not for you.
Both versions of the song say the same things, but whereas Nirvana need an interpreter, a spin-doctor, to convey the full sense of what they're saying, the Polyphonic Spree give you the full Coles Notes with added context for good measure. Maybe there's room for both.