The origins of ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’: Kathleen Hanna, an abortion clinic, and a bottle of Canadian Club Whiskey
The iconic song ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ is a behemoth of alternative culture. The Nirvana hit became an anthemic marching song for the disenfranchised youth that would make up Generation X. While the value of the song as a counter-culture crescendo deteriorated with its mass popularity, the song’s title was a thing of organic protest and misunderstanding.
Six months before the song’s full inception, a night that Cobain would copy a Pixies tune and make Nirvana play again and again until they all eventually liked the song, Cobain was out drinking with Bikin Kill singer Kathleen Hanna. The pair chose to split a bottle of Canadian Club whisky and put the world to rights.
With the world seeming far from right the pair were keen to express their frustrations and centred in on a recently built teen pregnancy centre which was not as liberal as it seemed. According to the Bikini Kill singer Hanna, “a right-wing con where they got teenage girls to go in there and then told them they were gonna go to hell if they had abortions,” – Cobain evidently agreed.
The pair set out on their covert and drunken mission: graffiti the centre and let them know how we feel. Hanna and Cobain took their cans of spray paint and liberally scrawled on its walls “Fake Abortion Clinic, Everyone” and “God Is Gay” in giant letter son the walls of the centre. Victorious they returned to Cobain’s apartment.
Drinking more, the pair was woozy when Hanna, shortly before passing out, used a marker to write “Kurt smells like Teen Spirit” on his wall. (Now, for a quick education for our UK audience: Teen Spirit was a popular female deodorant in the early 90s and is still running today in various flowery and utterly repugnant fragrances.) Hanna wrote the phrase as a dig at Kurt for wearing girlfriend Tobi Vail’s deodorant. Kurt woke up to find the scrawl as well as an inspirational new song title.
Hanna wrote the offensive remark on the wall to insult Kurt and his then-girlfriend Tob Vail. She was intent on making fun of his neediness and clinginess after spending so much time with Vail that he now even smelled like her. But Cobain, with the deodorant brand still in its early inception, had never heard of Teen Spirit and took the graffiti as a remark on his free-spiritedness.
Cobain remembered: “I took that as a compliment. I thought that was a reaction to the conversation we were having but it really meant that I smelled like the deodorant. I didn’t know that the deodorant spray existed until months after the single came out. I’ve never worn any cologne or underarm deodorant.”
Whatever way they came about the song’s title or indeed the track itself, there’s no denying that the song is an anthem. The fact the song’s so steeped in comical error is, for us, the icing on the cake.