Nirvana – Smells Like Teen Spirit

This song is for Song Lyric Sunday for Jim Adams’s blog. This week’s prompt is Odor/Scent/Smell/Taste… Good Morning to everyone!

A friend of mine moved to Seattle in the early 90s for a job. He called me at some point and told me about the music scene there and something big was happening. He said he had just seen a band in a dingy club with a left handed blonde guitar player who had a strong voice named Nirvana.

I was the same age as Kurt Cobain. When this song came out it was more than popular. It was instantly embedded into the culture. I did like the rawness of it but I would have never guessed it would have been so popular. I just didn’t click with grunge music. I did like the rawness of it…but usually not the songs as much.

When I first heard it…what did I think of? More Than a Feeling by Boston.

Kathleen Hanna, the lead singer of the group Bikini Kill, gave Cobain the idea for the title when she spray painted “Kurt Smells Like Teen Spirit” on his bedroom wall after a night of drinking and spraying graffiti around the Seattle area. In his pre-Courtney Love days, Cobain went out with Bikini Kill lead singer Tobi Vail, but she dumped him. Vail wore Teen Spirit deodorant, and Hanna was implying that Cobain was marked with her scent.

Kurt Cobain said that he was trying to write the ultimate pop song. He said he was basically trying to rip off The Pixies.

The video was just as famous as the song. The shoot took more like 12 hours, with the extras ordered to sit in the bleachers and look bored while the song played over and over. The director Samuel Bayer said that nobody wanted to be there for more than a half hour, and he needed them for 12 hours. By the 11th hour when the band had had it with the shoot and the kids were so angry, they said, ‘Can we destroy the set?'”

Bayer let the kids come down and form a mosh pit, and with all that pent-up energy they proceeded to smash up the set. This impromptu and genuine destruction provided a nice finale for the clip.

The video was inspired by the movie and song Rock And Roll High School by the Ramones, and was also influenced by a 1979 movie called Over the Edge, which was a favorite of Cobain and showed rebellious kids destroying a high school.

The song peaked at #6 in the Billboard 100, #9 in Canada, #7 in the UK and #1 in New Zealand.

Butch Vig (Producer): “Even though we’re not really sure what Kurt is singing about, there’s something in there that you understand; the sense of frustration and alienation. To me, ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ reminds me a little bit of how Bob Dylan’s songs affected people in the ’60s. In a way, I feel the song affected a generation of kids in the ’90s. They could relate to it.”

From Songfacts

Hanna explained that early in the night, she was Cobain’s lookout as he spray pained “God Is Gay” on the wall of a religious center that they believed was posing as an abortion clinic and telling women they would go to hell if they aborted their child. They got quite inebriated that night, and Hanna said, “We ended up in Kurt’s apartment and I smashed up a bunch of s–t. I took out a Sharpie marker and I wrote all over his bedroom wall – it was a rental so it was really kind of lame that I did that. I passed out with the marker in my hand, and woke up hung over.” Six months later she got a call from Cobain, asking her if he could use what she wrote on the wall for a lyric. Said Hanna, “I thought, how is he going to use ‘Kurt Smells Like Teen Spirit as a lyric?”

Cobain didn’t know it when he wrote the song, but Teen Spirit is a brand of deodorant marketed to young girls. Kurt thought Hanna was complimenting him on his rebellious spirit, as someone who could inspire youth. Sales of Teen Spirit deodorant shot up when this became a hit, even though it is never mentioned in the lyrics.

This was the first “alternative” song to become a huge hit, and in many ways it redefined the term, as “alternative” implies lack of popularity and the song was embraced by the mainstream. In an effort to save the label for acts like Porno For Pyros and Catherine Wheel, some industry folk referred to the genre as “modern rock,” which became a common radio format. “Alternative” became more of a catchall for music played by white people that didn’t fit the pop or country formats, and Nirvana quickly became a “classic alternative” band.

With this track, Nirvana helped ignite the grunge craze, which was characterized by loud guitars, angst-ridden lyrics, and flannel. Grunge was a look and sound that was distorted and emotive, led by bands coming out of the Northwest. Pearl Jam and Soundgarden were other top grunge bands of the era. Cobain would often dismiss the term as a meaningless label when asked about it in early interviews, but their bass player Krist Novoselic explained that it was a growling, organic guitar sound that defined it.

Cobain said he wrote this song because he was feeling “disgusted with my generation’s apathy, and with my own apathy and spinelessness.” This feeling of detachment is what led to lyrics like “Oh well, whatever, nevermind.” Krist Novoselic added: “Kurt really despised the mainstream. That’s what ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ was all about: The mass mentality of conformity.”

The video was a huge hit on MTV. The concept was “Pep Rally from Hell,” and it was shot at Culver City Studios in California on August 17, 1991, directed by Samuel Bayer, who was a 1987 graduate of the New York City School of Visual Arts. The kids were recruited at a show the band played two days earlier at The Roxy Theater in Los Angeles, where flyers were handed out saying, “Nirvana needs you to appear in their upcoming music video. You should be 18-25 year old and adopt a high school persona, i.e. preppy, punk, nerd, jock. Be prepared to stay for several hours. Come support Nirvana and have a great time.”

According to Bayer, Cobain was getting very frustrated with the shoot, but Bayer needed another take. Cobain channeled his frustration into the performance that you see near the end of the video, where he is screaming and mashing his face near the camera. It was great acting trigger by his real anger.

Bayer did the first edit of the video, which Cobain didn’t like – he used a principal character in a lot of shots and cut it too literal, with the music synching up to the playing. Cobain worked with him to recut the video and make it much more surreal, inserting his crazy look as the second to last shot, and making sure that for his guitar solo, his hands were in the wrong place on the guitar.

The girls who played the cheerleaders in the video were originally supposed to be very fat and unattractive (Cobain’s idea). The director Samuel Bayer did not like this idea, but still allowed the cheerleaders to have “sleeve” tattoos and the symbol for anarchy on their shirts. He says he recruited them from a local strip club, which helps explain their unorthodox cheers. >>

Weird Al Yankovic did a parody of this called “Smells Like Nirvana.” He shot his video in the same gym with the same janitor, but in his video, the janitor was wearing a tutu. Cobain said he was flattered by the parody: “I loved, it, it was really amusing.”

The distinctive bridge was originally at the end of the song. Producer Butch Vig had them move it to the middle.

A lot was made of Cobain being a spokesperson for Generation X when this song became a hit. Cobain responded by saying, “I don’t have the answers for anything. I don’t want to be a f–king spokesperson.”

Producer Butch Vig explained, “That ambiguity or confusion, that’s the whole thing. What the kids are attracted to in the music is that he’s not necessarily a spokesman for a generation. He doesn’t necessarily know what he wants but he’s pissed. It’s all these things working at different levels at once. I don’t exactly know what ‘Teen Spirit’ means, but you know it means something and it’s intense as hell.”

The line, “Here we are now, entertain us,” was something Cobain used to say when he entered a party.

In a sign of the cultural apocalypse, the February 20, 1992 issue of Rolling Stone magazine featured the cast of the TV show Beverly Hills 90210 with the tag line “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” turning Kurt Cobain’s diatribe against the culture of conformity into a convenient headline for a story about a TV series about rich kids. Here’s the cover.

For a while, MTV refused to air the video. When they finally did, it was on their alternative show 120 Minutes. When the song became a hit, the video went into hot rotation.

The album cover shows a baby swimming toward a dollar bill. Cobain and Nirvana bass player Krist Novoselic had seen a documentary on underwater birth and wanted to use that image on the cover. Pictures of babies being born underwater were too gross, so they hired a photographer to take some underwater shots during a water babies class. The baby they chose was Spencer Elden, who was 4 months old at the time.

At many of their later shows, Nirvana did not play this song, helping root out the people coming just to hear a hit.

Courtney Love deliberated a long time before allowing this to be used in the 2001 movie Moulin Rouge. Dave Grohl and Krist Novoselic, who along with Love control the Nirvana catalog, claimed Love was trying to get the title role in the movie, which went to Nicole Kidman.

The song was later used in the 2011 movie The Muppets (where it is performed to a captive Jack Black by The Muppet Barbershop Quartet), and in the 2015 film Pan, where it is sung by a large group of rebellious child slaves. It’s use in this last film was, er… panned by Entertainment Weekly, which wrote, “The song’s satirical lyrics make an already gauche movie even dorkier.”

The opening guitar part is a small variation on the main riff of Boston’s “More Than A Feeling.” This was noted by a Rolling Stone magazine writer years later, but not as an accusation of plagiarism. Influences and similarities like this are everywhere in rock music. 

The Nevermind album title is taken from the song’s lyric: “And I forget just why I taste / Oh yeah, I guess it makes me smile / I found it hard, it’s hard to find / Oh well, whatever, never mind.”

Dave Grohl recalled to Mojo magazine March 2011: “‘Teen Spirit’ definitely established that quiet/loud dynamic thing that we fell back on a lot of the time. It did become that one song that personifies the band. But the video was probably the key element in that song becoming a hit. People heard the song on the radio and they thought, ‘This is great,’ but when kids saw the video on MTV they thought, ‘This is cool. These guys are kinda ugly and they’re tearing up their f–king high school.’ So I think that had a lot to do with what happened with the song.

But do I think it’s the greatest single of all time? Of course not! I don’t even think it’s the greatest Nirvana single. And compared to Revolution by The Beatles or God Only Knows by The Beach Boys?! Give me a break! Smells like Teen Spirit was a great moment in time… but there’s better.”

A version by Miley Cyrus performed by the pop singer on her Gypsy Heart tour topped Rolling Stone’s 2011 reader list of the top 10 Worst Cover Songs of All Time. It was so bad that it even outranked Britney’s much-maligned version of “I Love Rock and Roll!”

Tori Amos did a popular cover of this song in 1992 that Nirvana sometimes played as their introduction music when they took the stage.

Amos was on tour when Cobain died in 1994 and performed her version two days later at a show in Dublin. Patti Smith also recorded the song for her covers album Twelve.

The song was re-released as a limited edition 7-inch vinyl single in December 2011 for an online campaign to get it to the Christmas number one in the UK Singles Chart. However, the track only reached #11 – four places lower than the peak originally scaled by the song 20 years previously.

Jay-Z disfigured some lines from this song on his 2013 track “Holy Grail,” where he raps about the price of fame:

I know nobody to blame
Kurt Cobain, I did it to myself
And we all just entertainers
And we’re stupid and contagious

Kurt Cobain, Dave Grohl and Krist Novoselic, who are the songwriters credited on “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” were all included on the writer’s credits to “Holy Grail” because of the interpolation. When “Holy Grail” debuted at #8 on the Hot 100, it gave Cobain and Novoselic their first Top 10 writing credits since “Smells Like Teen Spirit” charted. (Dave Grohl charted a number of times with Foo Fighters.)

When Nirvana was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2014, the surviving members performed a selection of songs with various female singers. For this song, Joan Jett joined them. The following year, Jett was inducted into the Rock Hall.

Television, and particularly MTV, have always been the domain of pretty people with trendy looks. With the “Smells Like Teen Spirit” video, Nirvana made it possible for people with a less traditional look to get on the network, including Matt Pinfield, an influential disc jockey with a classic “face for radio.” Soon after this video was released, MTV started giving him gigs, and eventually make him host of their show 120 Minutes. In a Songfacts interview with Pinfield, he said: “It opened the door for people not needing to have a certain look. You could do what you wanted to do. On a personal level, it certainly opened the door for me to do television.”

How do the Pixies feel about this song, which they inspired musically? When Songfacts posed that question to their frontman, Black Francis, his answer echoed Kurt Cobain’s take on music and inspiration. “It certainly was very popular,” he said. “It was catchy. I don’t really get involved in so-called discussion or whatever, because from my point of view, it’s just band stuff. Some musicians or some bands say, ‘They were influential on me.’ Sometimes you can hear it, sometimes you can’t, but that’s just the way it works.

It’s not a big mystery. At the end of the day, everyone is just a musician. We’re all just working musicians. We all play different styles. That’s who we are: We’re just a bunch of music geeks. Or proactive music listeners that are so proactive we actually feel the need to do it ourselves.”

Smells Like Teen Spirit

Load up on guns, bring your friends
It’s fun to lose and to pretend
She’s over bored and self assured
Oh no, I know a dirty word

Hello, hello, hello, how low? [x3]
Hello, hello, hello!

With the lights out, it’s less dangerous
Here we are now, entertain us
I feel stupid and contagious
Here we are now, entertain us
A mulatto
An albino
A mosquito
My libido
Yeah, hey, yay

I’m worse at what I do best
And for this gift I feel blessed
Our little group has always been
And always will until the end

Hello, hello, hello, how low? [x3]
Hello, hello, hello!

With the lights out, it’s less dangerous
Here we are now, entertain us
I feel stupid and contagious
Here we are now, entertain us
A mulatto
An albino
A mosquito
My libido
Yeah, hey, yay

And I forget just why I taste
Oh yeah, I guess it makes me smile
I found it hard, it’s hard to find
Oh well, whatever, never mind

Hello, hello, hello, how low? [x3]
Hello, hello, hello!

With the lights out, it’s less dangerous
Here we are now, entertain us
I feel stupid and contagious
Here we are now, entertain us
A mulatto
An albino
A mosquito
My libido

A denial! [x9]

Author: badfinger20 (Max)

Power Pop fan, Baseball fan, old movie and tv show fan... and a songwriter, bass and guitar player.

30 thoughts on “Nirvana – Smells Like Teen Spirit”

  1. Not a bad song, but I was not a fan of this band. To this day, I don’t get the hype and I disliked pretty much every thing else from them. I know people like them, I am just not of those people and probably never will be.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I missed out on the whole Nirvana grunge craze, as I never felt like music had to be angry to be good and I have never been in a mosh pit. Great write-up on this song Max and this is the most that I ever read on this band, but I have heard this song before and remember it being popular on the radio.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. to me, it’s a GOOD song by a fairly good band…but not a GREAT song nor a GREAT band. But most of our age disagree.Personally, I like what Dave Grohl’s done since better. It took me awhile to hear that Boston riff in there, but once someone pointed it out to me, …’oh yah’. I think the biggest thing Nirvana did was open up the airwaves and TV screens to alt rock.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I do like the Foo Fighters better than Nirvana…I like a handful of songs. I do think it’s pretty cool that my buddy saw them right before they took off and told me about them.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. that would be a neat piece of history. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a band which went onto be huge before they were known. Had a feeling that might have been the case when I saw Lone Justice open for U2 in ’84 or ’85, but as we know, Lone Justice didn’t do much in the end.

        Liked by 1 person

      1. Hey. Guy Pierce. Family Guy. A (confusing) Christmas Carol. I see your mind wanders around like mine. LOL!

        I didn’t realize that he was our age. I liked Nirvana. I liked his gravely/squeaky voice. I liked grunge. It was a refreshing split from hair bands. His death was a fucked up mess. I’ve read the actual police report on what they found. I don’t believe for one minute he committed suicide.

        Liked by 1 person

  4. I was already 37 years old when this song came out and, to me it sounded like a bunch of discordant music and screaming, and I hated it. 1991-92 was frankly the beginning of a disappointing time period for me musically, as rap, hip hop and grunge began to dominate the music charts. To make matters worse, Billboard switched over to using Sound scan ratings to compile their charts, and literally overnight, the make-up of the charts changed completely, to the point where I disliked a lot of the music that was on them. I figured it was mainly due to the fact I was now “old”.

    I’ve since come to appreciate a lot of grunge music, and while I can’t say that I “love” Nirvana, I do like many of their songs, and acknowledge that they were truly groundbreaking.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. The part I liked about it at the time was the rawness of it. The lack of production but I grew very weary of it because sometimes the melodies just were not there.

      There are some though that I do like.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. I love the backstory. It’s refreshing to see this in writing. At this day and age, we rely on Youtube commentaries… it’s not always the same 😀

    This was my song of choice too. This album started everything for me, inspired the music choice and all the teen angst basically 😀

    Liked by 1 person

  6. I liked this track when it came out (top 20 in my personal charts) but I never saw it as a game changer classic, I liked the passion and aggression but it wasn’t in the same league as Anarchy In The UK and the punk movement. On the other hand Grunge got rid of tired old overblown perm-rock which had largely reached it’s sell-by date, and gave US rock a shot in the arm.

    I also prefer Foo Fighters (and Garbage, if we’re going related bands) to Nirvana – Smells Like Teen Spirit is an epic track but nothing they did after it had anywhere like the same impact, and Cobain’s personal issues had the same appalling car-crash-coming vibe that Amy Winehouse had, which always leaves me feeling “get out of it, take a break, get some help, get well”.

    Like

  7. Catholic middle school dance. I actually felt “naughty” and “immoral” liking this sound. So rough, full of screams of angst and desperate yearning, and I knew my mom would never let me blast it at home. It was fun being awe by Nirvana as a kid looking at posters and CDs cases at Sam Goody in the local mall (now demolished).

    Like

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