There are few music videos that have helped out an artist and their song more so than Nirvana. The trio were jet-propelled into stardom by the video for ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’. On constant rotation on one channel or another during pretty much all the years MTV actually showed music videos, the clip was the distillation of America’s growing grunge movement and it left Nirvana paddling in the mainstream.
Back then, it offered an exciting and captivating watch, today, the video acts as a defining moment for Generation X. Though invigorated by the independence of anti-establishment rhetoric, underpinned by the sneering expectations of a modernising world and buzzing with authenticity, ultimately, the video is now just another reminder of the commercialisation that tore the scene limb from limb.
Shot at Culver City Studios on August 17th, 1991, the video saw the band performing in a disused gym while the surrounding student body becomes more and more enraged before finally bursting into a fit of punitive destruction. All well and good, you’d think. The trouble is, looking back from 2021, and through no real fault of its own, the video now reeks of the very capitalism that the song was rallying against.
The track was initially inspired by a deliberate act of protest from Bikini Kill’s Kathleen Hanna. After she and Cobain had visited a bogus abortion clinic and vandalised it in the name of a woman’s right to choose, they returned and toasted their good work with plenty of booze. As Cobain passed out, Hanna took the opportunity to make a statement about him and his then-girlfriend’s inseparable nature.
More simply put, she wrote “Kurt smells like Teen Spirit” on his wall. Teen Spirit was a popular deodorant of the time and despite Cobain claiming he had no idea of the brand, the song’s nugget of foreshadowing was first implanted. The song was later completed alongside Krist Novoselic and inspired by the Pixies as the last track for their breakthrough album Nevermind.
While the album would rightly go on to offer up a crystalline image of the grunge movement of the time, it wouldn’t reach mainstream success without the help of ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’, quite easily Nirvana’s most loved and hated song of all time. It’s easy to see why it’s loved, acting as the anthem for a generation, but it was hated, most of all, by the band themselves.
“Everyone has focused on that song so much,” Cobain once told Rolling Stone. Cobain was all too aware of his and the band’s image being cast beamed around the world: “The reason it gets a big reaction is people have seen it on MTV a million times. It’s been pounded into their brains.” There’s no denying that the network poured Nirvana into millions of teenage eyeballs.
Cobain always felt the song was given too much attention and that other tracks from the band’s repertoire deserved extra attention, “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.”
MTV had a huge role in giving Nirvana the career and fame that would ultimately end their band. Tragically, it would be this focus on what the singer deemed the phoney side of the business that would add fuel to the fires of his struggle. Ultimately, Kurt Cobain would commit suicide under the pressures of being a rock idol. Much of that extra traction to raise the humble, underground punk singer from Washington to become the darling of a generation, was gained when the broadcasting behemoth picked up the video for ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ and made it essential viewing.
Despite the mainstream gleam of MTV, the truth is, the video all started from a naturally grungey place. It can be felt in the grimy visuals and fiery concept.
Nirvana were ready to shoot the video when they performed at The Roxy in West Hollywood two days prior. Staying true to their underground roots, the band handed out flyers to everyone in attendance asking them to join in on the fun. They even employed some strippers to perform as cheerleaders for the shoot—so far, everything is feeling pretty typical rock ‘n’ roll.
What’s more, the destruction at the end of the video, that was all 100% authentic. Though the video wasn’t shot in a real school, many of those in attendance were seemingly more than happy to lose their cool once the final bell rang after filming. An arduous 12-hour day for the band as well as the extras on the shoot meant that when filming was finally finished they were allowed to let loose on the set and destroy everything in sight. They duly obliged.
Looking back, it is at this moment that we see the meta description of an entire generation. A song built out of genuine protest, flecked with the absurdity of post-modern life, emboldened by a video filled with genuine people and their honest emotions, was quickly commercialised, advertised at every corner and hammered across every single airwave over the globe.
Ask any diehard Nirvana fan what their favourite song is and we’ll bet 99 times out of 100 you won’t hear the words ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’. That because for the ‘real’ fans, the song, much like the video, has become a symbol for the ugly side of worldwide success, an indicator for an inauthentic fan and a catch-all for the promise and poignancy Nirvana held. While there’s certainly value in communal headbanging to Nirvana’s classic anthem or nourishment in the odd toe-tapping trip down memory lane, the music video is a little difficult to separate from tragedy.
The video for ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ shows all the free-thinking, uncompromising, unstoppable verve of Generation X as well as, with time, its gradual commercialisation, capitalisation and corruption. From warriors of justice and societal change to the latest crop of systemic suits. It’s a process which has moved the song’s place in history from the top of the pile to the ultimate poser and now acts as a meta moment for the plight of Generation X.