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]

Nirvana – The Man Who Sold The World

I rarely post covers but this is a good one. No one will ever top Bowie’s version to me but this one has a charm about it I like. Cobain did a good job on this.

David Bowie liked this cover saying, “I was simply blown away when I found that Kurt Cobain liked my work, and have always wanted to talk to him about his reasons for covering ‘The Man Who Sold the World’.”

What he didn’t like were the kids that come up after his show and say, ‘It’s cool you’re doing a Nirvana song.’ And I think, ‘F**k you, you little tosser!”

Nirvana performed it on the MTV Unplugged episode a few months before Kurt died.

The song peaked at #5 in the US Alternative Top 50, #22 in Canada, and #1 in Poland in 1995.

From Songfacts

This song is about a man who no longer recognizes himself and feels awful about it. For years, Bowie struggled with his identity and expressed himself through his songs, often creating characters to perform them. On the album cover, Bowie is wearing a dress.

Some of the lyrics are based on a poem by Hugh Mearns called The Psychoed:

As I was going up the stair
I met a man who was not there
He wasn’t there again today
I wish that man would go away

Some lyrical analysis: “We passed upon the stair” is a figurative representation of a crossroads in Bowie’s life, where Ziggy Stardust catches a glimpse of his former self, (being David Bowie) which he thought had died a long time ago. Then he (the old David Bowie) says: “Oh no, not me. I never lost control.” This indicates that Bowie never really lost sight of who he was, but he Sold The World (made them believe) that he had become Ziggy, and he thought it was funny (I laughed and shook his hand). He goes on to state, “For years and years I roamed,” which could refer to touring. “Gaze a gazely stare at all the millions here” are the fans at concerts. >>

The album is one of Bowie’s least known, but over the years many fans have come to appreciate it and a lot of bands have covered songs from it.

Critics weren’t always sure what to make of it either, but John Mendelssohn had a good handle on it when he wrote of the album in Rolling Stone magazine, 1971: “Bowie’s music offers an experience that is as intriguing as it is chilling, but only to the listener sufficiently together to withstand the schizophrenia.”

The British singer Lulu (“To Sir With Love”) recorded this in 1974. Bowie produced her version and played saxophone on the track. It went to #4 in the UK. Lulu spoke to Uncut magazine June 2008 about her recording: “I first met Bowie on tour in the early ’70s when he invited me to his concert. And back at the hotel, he said to me, in very heated language, ‘I want to make an MF of a record with you. You’re a great singer.’ I didn’t think it would happen, but he followed up two days later. He was uber cool at the time and I just wanted to be led by him. I didn’t think ‘The Man Who Sold The World’ was the greatest song for my voice, but it was such a strong song in itself. In the studio, Bowie kept telling me to smoke more cigarettes, to give my voice a certain quality. We were like the odd couple. Were we ever an item? I’d rather not answer that one, thanks!
For the video, people thought he came up with the androgynous look, but that was all mine. It was very Berlin cabaret. We did other songs, too, like ‘Watch That Man,’ ‘Can You Hear Me?’ and ‘Dodo.’ ‘The Man Who Sold The World’ saved me from a certain niche in my career. If we’d have carried on, it would have been very interesting.”

Nirvana recorded this for their 1993 MTV Unplugged performance. It was Chad Channing, who was Nirvana’s drummer from 1988-1990, who introduced Kurt Cobain and Krist Novoselic to Bowie’s music. Chad told us: “We were in Boston and stopped by this record store, and I found this copy of The Man Who Sold The World. It was a cool copy – it had the poster in it and everything. And those guys weren’t familiar with the record. And I inquired about, ‘What David Bowie do you like? Do you like David Bowie?’ And they’re like, ‘Well, the only David Bowie we’re familiar with is ‘Let’s Dance.’ I was surprised. I was like, ‘Really? Wow.’ I was like, ‘You’ve got to hear some early David Bowie, for sure.’

So when I got the opportunity, I made a tape of the record at somebody’s house, and then while we were touring around I just went ahead and popped the tape in and let it roll. After a bit, Kurt turned around and said to me, ‘Who is this?’ kind of like knowingly, just something familiar with the voice and stuff. I said, ‘Well, this is David Bowie. This is The Man Who Sold the World record.’ He’s like, ‘Yeah, this is really cool.’ I said, ‘You should check out Hunky Dory and stuff.’ And so eventually, I’m sure he did. But he totally dug it.”

Months after the MTV show, Kurt Cobain was found dead. The acoustic set was released as an album in late 1994.

Bauhaus lead singer Peter Murphy called this “the first true goth record.”

Beck performed this song with Dave Grohl, Krist Novoselic and Pat Smear at the annual Clive Davis Grammy pre-party on February 14, 2016 in tribute to Bowie, who passed away a month earlier. “He’s always been kind of guidepost or gravitational force for me,” Beck said of Bowie.

On March 29, 2016, Michael Stipe performed this song on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon, accompanied only by a piano. Two days later, Stipe sang “Ashes To Ashes” with Karen Elston at a Bowie tribute concert held at Carnegie Hall.

 

The video of The Man Who Sold The World has been giving me troubles…if it is not below…here is the link.

The Man Who Sold The World

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

Oh no, not me
We 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
We marked a million hills
I must have died alone
A long, long time ago

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

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