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30 years of Nirvana's seminal single 'Smells Like Teen Spirit'

Thirty years ago today, in 1991, Nirvana changed the world of music forever with their breakout single, ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit‘. The song unleashed a wave of alternative rock acts that would go on to define the ’90s, even Oasis’ Noel Gallagher claimed to have been somewhat of a fan. Without the song, many of our favourite contemporary alternative heroes would not have their sonic blueprint.

At the time of its release, the trio of Nirvana had been together since 1987, and was a mainstay of the burgeoning grunge scene in Seattle, Washington. By 1991, they had already found moderate success, as a sort of cult band amongst those who were in the know, and they were signed to the ubiquitous indie label, Sub Pop, who released Nirvana’s first studio album, Bleach. It is a classic in its own right, but that’s a story for another day.

Becoming increasingly disenchanted with Sub Pop, in 1990, the band were looking for another label. They consulted the manager of their Seattle peers, Alice in Chains and Soundgarden, Susan Silver, for advice. Frontman Kurt Cobain and bassist Krist Novoselic then flew out to LA where Silver introduced them to agent Don Muller and music attorney Alan Mintz. The latter specialised in securing major label deals for up and coming bands and, after the meeting, he set about sending their new demo tape to labels. Following the repeated recommendations of close friend and Sonic Youth frontwoman, Kim Gordon, Nirvana were signed to DGC Records by the close of 1990. The economic strength of DGC was to set them on course to become the biggest band of the ’90s and one of the most iconic of all time. 

‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ became the lead single and opening track from their massive second album, NevermindRetrospectively, its release is signified as the moment where grunge finally broke into the mainstream, earning them and some of their Seattle peers a legendary status. On the other hand, it spawned many bands who tried and failed to imitate the ‘Seattle Sound’, and the hideous movement of post-grunge in the latter half of the decade. Without its release we’d have no Placebo, but also no Nickleback. Make of that what you will.

Gaining widespread acclaim, and charting high, ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ became Nirvana’s biggest hit. It was hailed as an anthem for ‘Generation X’, that heavily politicised demographic of young adults, whose socio-economic situation was often related to ‘Reaganomics’. This generational motley crew, the “MTV generation”, were characterised as cynical and disaffected, a stark contrast to their baby boomer parents. One news outlet even called it an “anthem for apathetic kids”.

Making Nirvana an overnight cultural phenomenon, this would be the start of frontman Kurt Cobain’s journey of increasing discomfort with fame, which would in some ways culminate in his tragic suicide in April 1994. It wasn’t just Cobain, though, as Novoselic and drummer Dave Grohl would also struggle with the extent of their music’s cultural significance. 

There is an inherent irony to ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’. A part of this is that it was an attempt by Cobain to try and emulate the style of one of his favourite bands, Boston alternative heroes, Pixies. It was written following Nirvana’s first recording sessions with Nevermind producer Butch Vig, which spawned many of the tracks that would make it onto the album.

In 1994 Cobain, said: “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 that I should have been in that band—or at least a Pixies cover band. We used their sense of dynamics, being soft and quiet and then loud and hard.”

Kurt Cobain had a love/hate relationship with the song. (Credit: YouTube/Press)

The title derives from a phrase scribbled on Cobain’s wall by his friend, Kathleen Hanna, the singer of riot grrrl heroines Bikini Kill, which read: “Kurt smells like Teen Spirit”. Cobain had taken the phrase to be indicative of some form of revolution as the night she wrote it they had been discussing anarchism and punk. However, it actually transpired that Teen Spirit was a girl’s deodorant brand that Hanna and Cobain’s then-girlfriend, Tobi Vail, had discovered whilst out shopping. 

Reflecting on the song, Cobain called the riff “clichéd”, and when playing it to the band for the first time, bassist Novoselic labelled it “so ridiculous”. In response to Novoselic’s quip, Cobain made the band play the song continuously for an hour-and-a-half. This would turn out to be a career-defining move. 

Before too long, bored and tired, Novoselic began playing the song at a slower tempo, which in turn inspired Grohl to create that iconic drum beat, which is said to have taken its cues from disco greats such as The Gap Band. Furthermore, it is the only song on Nevermind to credit all three members as writers. 

Weirdly, Novoselic was right, as the size of the anthem would become ridiculous. As we mentioned prior, the song would become a blessing and a curse, and part of this newfound discomfort was with the new audience members they gained, who they were diametrically opposed to, such as misogynistic alpha-male jock types, who Cobain particularly hated. Furthermore, in an interview with Rolling Stone in 1994, Cobain said: “Everyone has focused on that song so much.” 

Continuing, he added: “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.”

Lyrically opaque, featuring criticism of the baby boomer politics, lines about Cobain’s friends and sexual themes, this patchwork of lyrical ideas somehow struck a chord with listeners. Perhaps owing to the fact that modern life embodies somewhat of a fluid essence, even back then. Widely regarded as an anthem for teen-angst and anti-authoritarian ventilation, this is not a fully true account. Audiences would quickly come to understand that the majority of Cobain‘s lyrics were vague and unclear, and that they were an extension of their dense author.

However, one reading of the song’s meaning goes some way in accounting for how ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ captured the hearts and minds. Ex-Nirvana manager, Danny Goldberg, summed it up succinctly when he said: “That was the genius of the song: It combined a fierce commentary on shallowness while still having a mass-appeal musicality.”

Taking a step back from the mountains of discourse surrounding ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit‘, it is simply an incredible song, even 30 years on. It remains a staple of radio stations and dancefloors globally, and as soon as the classic intro comes on, you want to get moving. Although on the surface an angry manifestation of Gen X’s woes, it is a brilliantly written, catchy anthem that appeals to every walk of life. 

Listen to ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’, below.