The Story Behind The Song: Nirvana’s Gen-X anthem ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ was a joke
If you’re of a certain age, then the first time you heard Kurt Cobain and Nirvana’s classic ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ may well be imprinted in your mind forever. We’re looking back at the 1991 mega-hit and its undeniably jovial origins which belie the wild success it became for Nirvana, the stone around the neck of Cobain and the anthem for an entire generation.
Nirvana’s iconic song is a behemoth of alternative culture. The grunge hit became an anthemic marching song for the disenfranchised youth, as they stomped their way into the new decade and with the ever-present looming new century ahead. It was a song that would make up Generation X. While the value of the song as a counter-culture crescendo deteriorated with its mass popularity, thanks in small part to MTV, the song’s title was a thing of organic protest, genuine misunderstanding and all a bit of a joke.
Six months before the song’s full inception, a night that would see Cobain copy a Pixies tune and make Nirvana’s bassist Krist Novoselic play again and again until they all eventually liked the song, Cobain was out drinking with Bikini Kill singer and his longtime friend Kathleen Hanna. The pair chose to split a bottle of Canadian Club whisky and put the world to rights, something we can all connect with.
With the world seeming far from correct to the two whisky drinkers, the pair were keen to express their pent-up 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, the centre was “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”. Ever the activist, Cobain evidently agreed and was more than happy to accompany Hanna on a benevolent mission.
The pair set out on a covert and drunken mission: graffiti the centre and let them know how the new generation felt about their conservative ways. 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 letters on the walls of the centre. Victorious and covered in paint, they returned to Cobain’s apartment and more Canadian Club.
Drinking more still, the pair was woozy when Hanna, shortly before passing out, used a marker to write “Kurt smells like Teen Spirit” on his bedroom 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—think Charlie Red a la America).
Hanna wrote the phrase as a tongue-in-cheek dig at Kurt for wearing girlfriend Tobi Vail’s deodorant and a hint that he was spending so much time with her that he was now becoming a part of her. Cobain woke up to find the amusing scrawl as well as an inspirational new song title and it lodged somewhere in his brain.
Hanna penned the offensive remark on the wall to insult Kurt and his then-girlfriend. 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 and libertine attitudes, we’ve all been there.
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.