This is why Kurt Cobain hated Nirvana song ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’
It’s safe to say that unless you have had your head firmly placed underneath a rather large rock, then you will have some knowledge of Nirvana and their teen-angst anthem ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’. It’s a song which has transcended the ideals of normal music and has become, and remained, a bastion of anti-authoritarian feeling and generational discontent.
While the track remains a favourite with all who hear it, in truth, the band’s uncompromising and highly-valued lead singer Kurt Cobain never took it seriously from the start. It has since become a symbol of all the things that Cobain hated about Nirvana’s rise to prominence and unwanted fame.
For all the iconoclastic musings which surround Nirvana’s frontman Cobain and his voice, it’s strange to think that Cobain never actually wanted to step up to the mic at all. Instead, he was more than happy to blend into the background and play his guitar. In a 1994 interview with Rolling Stone, he confessed: “I never wanted to sing, I just wanted to play rhythm guitar—hide in the back and just play. But during those high-school years when I was playing guitar in my bedroom, I at least had the intuition that I had to write my own songs.”
A few years down the road from Nirvana’s humble beginnings in the late 1980s, and into the brand new decade, one of Cobain’s songs would go on to define an entire generation and now forever live in the pantheon of great rock songs. The emergence of ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ came alongside the band’s breakthrough album Nevermind and set hearts and minds ablaze.
The album and the grunge movement—largely coming out of Seattle—arrived like a slap to the face, a big wake-up call, a gut-punch, and other violent similies, to irreversibly shake the music industry up and never really let it settle back in the same way.
In truth, it picked up rock and roll and deliberately turned it on its head and shrugged as it walked away, unphased by the inconvenience. Grunge was the beginning of ‘Generation X’ and all the scenes that went with it. It was the call to arms, the plodding feet of a new youth platoon and, invariably, that platoon was accompanied by a marching band playing Nirvana’s ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ as loudly as they possibly could.
The song was a track that broke down the barriers of rock and showed that, if done correctly, any band could traverse the snooty pop charts and achieve success without compromising their values or give away their morals for a buck or two. This was a concept Cobain struggled to handle.
Eventually though, Cobain stuttered to an understanding on Nirvana’s breadth of new followers, telling RS: “I don’t have as many judgments about them as I used to, I’ve come to terms about why they’re there and why we’re here.” However, in that same interview, he would highlight just why he held so much disdain for the song and those fans who came with it, often refusing to play it at live shows.
“Everyone has focused on that song so much,” Cobain continued. “The reason it gets a big reaction is people have seen it on MTV a million times. It’s been pounded into their brains. But I think there are so many other songs that I’ve written that are as good, if not better, than that song, like ‘Drain You.’ That’s definitely as good as ‘Teen Spirit’. I love the lyrics, and I never get tired of playing it. Maybe if it was as big as ‘Teen Spirit’, I wouldn’t like it as much.”
While the song remains an anthemic battle cry for the disenfranchised youth, even now in 2020, it is easy to see how it can feel like the sheen of a gathering of like-minded individuals to rally around one track can quickly wear off after the millionth radio play. For this writer, it was the song’s inclusion on Nicole Kidman and Ewan McGregor’s romantic musical catastrophe Moulin Rouge which put me over the edge—but maybe we’re taking this too seriously, after all, the song was largely written as a joke anyway.
The Nirvana frontman told RS about the writing process: “We’d been practising for about three months. We were waiting to sign to DGC, and Dave and I were living in Olympia, and Krist was living in Tacoma. We were driving up to Tacoma every night for practice, trying to write songs. I was trying to write the ultimate pop song. I was basically trying to rip off the Pixies. I have to admit it.
“When I heard the Pixies for the first time, I connected with that band so heavily I should have been in that band — or at least in a Pixies cover band. We used their sense of dynamics, being soft and quiet and then loud and hard. ‘Teen Spirit’ was such a clichéd riff. It was so close to a Boston riff or ‘Louie, Louie.’ When I came up with the guitar part, Krist looked at me and said, ‘That is so ridiculous’. I made the band play it for an hour and a half.”
Even the song’s seemingly most profound lyric “Here we are now, entertain us” was an in-joke on Cobain’s behalf. “That came from something I used to say every time I used to walk into a party to break the ice,” he explained. “A lot of times, when you’re standing around with people in a room, it’s really boring and uncomfortable. So it was ‘Well, here we are, entertain us. You invited us here’.”
A song that started out as a homage to one of his favourite bands, with a silly riff and an in-joke as its defining lyric, became the grunge anthem to end them all. Unfortunately, there is an unwanted irony attached to the track.
The sad truth is, ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ would become a focal point of hurried and suited meetings congregating in executive boardrooms, desperate to get an idea of exactly who exactly this “Generation X” really were. Nirvana became a pinpoint on a mood board. This notion would represent a vein of sadness and inauthenticity that would ravage the end of Cobain’s short life. “Once it got into the mainstream, it was over.”
But at least there was a moment in time when the track meant something to him. “Actually, we did have our own thing for a while. For a few years in Seattle, it was the Summer of Love, and it was so great. To be able to just jump out on top of the crowd with my guitar and be held up and pushed to the back of the room, and then brought back with no harm done to me — it was a celebration of something that no one could put their finger on.”
So, while it’s easy to get caught up in the revelry of what is, it has to be admitted, a quite fantastic rock song — despite all we’ve learned — one must take advice from the man who wrote it and treat it with a modicum of amusement.
Enjoy it. Live with it. Let it define you. But never let it define Nirvana.