“Smells Like Teen Spirit” - Nirvana
Kurt Cobain wrote this song for Nirvana; it came together in a jam session when he played it for the band. He said: “I was trying to write the ultimate pop song. I was basically trying to rip off The Pixies.”
Kathleen Hanna, the lead singer of the group Bikini Kill, gave Cobain the idea for the title when she spray painted “Kurt Smells Like Teen Spirit” on his bedroom wall after a night of drinking and spraying graffiti around the Seattle area. In his pre-Courtney Love days, Cobain went out with Bikini Kill lead singer Tobi Vail, but she dumped him. Vail wore Teen Spirit deodorant, and Hanna was implying that Cobain was marked with her scent.
Hanna explained that early in the night, she was Cobain's lookout as he spray painted “God Is Gay” on the wall of a religious center that they believed was posing as an abortion clinic and telling women they would go to hell if they aborted their child. They got quite inebriated that night, and Hanna said, “We ended up in Kurt's apartment and I smashed up a bunch of s--t. I took out a Sharpie marker and I wrote all over his bedroom wall - it was a rental so it was really kind of lame that I did that. I passed out with the marker in my hand, and woke up hung over.” Six months later she got a call from Cobain, asking her if he could use what she wrote on the wall for a lyric. Said Hanna, “I thought, how is he going to use 'Kurt Smells Like Teen Spirit as a lyric?”
Cobain didn't know it when he wrote the song, but Teen Spirit is a brand of deodorant marketed to young girls. Kurt thought Hanna was complimenting him on his rebellious spirit, as someone who could inspire youth. Sales of Teen Spirit deodorant shot up when this became a hit, even though it is never mentioned in the lyrics.
This was the first “Alternative” song to become a huge hit, and in many ways it redefined the term, as “alternative” implies lack of popularity and the song was embraced by the mainstream. In an effort to save the label for acts like Porno For Pyros and Catherine Wheel, some industry folk referred to the genre as “Modern Rock”, which became a common radio format. “Alternative” became more of a catchall for music played by white people that didn't fit the pop or country formats, and Nirvana quickly became a “Classic Alternative” band.
With this track, Nirvana helped ignite the “grunge” craze, which was characterized by loud guitars, angst-ridden lyrics, and flannel. Grunge was a look and sound that was distorted and emotive, led by bands coming out of the Northwest. Pearl Jam and Soundgarden were other top grunge bands of the era. Cobain would often dismiss the term as a meaningless label when asked about it in early interviews, but their bass player Krist Novoselic explained that it was a growling, organic guitar sound that defined it.
Cobain said he wrote this song because he was feeling “disgusted with my generation's apathy, and with my own apathy and spinelessness.” This feeling of detachment is what led to lyrics like “Oh well, whatever, nevermind.” Krist Novoselic added: “Kurt really despised the mainstream. That's what 'Smells Like Teen Spirit' was all about: The mass mentality of conformity.”
The distinctive bridge was originally at the end of the song. Producer Butch Vig had them move it to the middle.
A lot was made of Cobain being a spokesperson for Generation X when this song became a hit. Cobain responded by saying, “I don't have the answers for anything. I don't want to be a f--king spokesperson.”
Producer Butch Vig explained, “That ambiguity or confusion, that's the whole thing. What the kids are attracted to in the music is that he's not necessarily a spokesman for a generation. He doesn't necessarily know what he wants but he's pissed. It's all these things working at different levels at once. I don't exactly know what 'Teen Spirit' means, but you know it means something and it's intense as hell.”
The line “Here we are now, entertain us” was something Cobain used to say when he entered a party.
The album cover shows a baby swimming toward a dollar bill. Cobain and Nirvana bass player Krist Novoselic had seen a documentary on underwater birth and wanted to use that image on the cover. Pictures of babies being born underwater were too gross, so they hired a photographer to take some underwater shots during a water babies class. The baby they chose was Spencer Elden, who was 4 months old at the time.
At many of their later shows, Nirvana did not play this song, helping root out the people coming just to hear a hit.
The Nevermind album title is taken from the song's lyric: “And I forget just why I taste / Oh yeah, I guess it makes me smile / I found it hard, it's hard to find / Oh well, whatever, never mind.”
Dave Grohl recalled to Mojo magazine March 2011: “Teen Spirit definitely established that quiet/loud dynamic thing that we fell back on a lot of the time. It did become that one song that personifies the band. But the video was probably the key element in that song becoming a hit. People heard the song on the radio and they thought, 'This is great,' but when kids saw the video on MTV they thought, 'This is cool. These guys are kinda ugly and they're tearing up their f--king high school.' So I think that had a lot to do with what happened with the song.
But do I think it's the greatest single of all time? Of course not! I don't even think it's the greatest Nirvana single. And compared to Revolution by The Beatles or God Only Knows by The Beach Boys?! Give me a break! Smells like Teen Spirit was a great moment in time… but there's better.”
The band's producer, Butch Vig, heard this song for the first time on a low quality cassette recording the band made. He couldn't make out much of the song because it was so distorted. When the band started rehearsing it in the studio, however, Vig heard the potential in the song. He made sure it was the first track on the album, since it made a statement. Vig told NPR: “Even though we're not really sure what Kurt is singing about, there's something in there that you understand; the sense of frustration and alienation. To me, 'Smells Like Teen Spirit' reminds me a little bit of how Bob Dylan's songs affected people in the '60s. In a way, I feel the song affected a generation of kids in the '90s. They could relate to it.”
Nirvana official site / Rolling Stone magazine (100 Greatest Artists, - 30) / Rock & Roll Hall of Fame / Billboard / All Music / Song Facts / Wikipedia
Image: “Nevermind (album)” by Nirvana
Joke of the Day
A Jewish father was concerned about his son who was about a year away from his Bar Mitzvah but was sorely lacking in his knowledge of the Jewish faith. To remedy this he sent his son to Israel to experience his heritage. A year later the young man returned home.
“Father, thank you for sending me to the land of our Fathers”, the son said. “It was wonderful and enlightening, however, I must confess that while in Israel I converted to Christianity.”
“Oi vey”, replied the father, “what have I done”. So in the tradition of the patriarchs he went to his best friend and sought his advice and solace.
“It is amazing that you should come to me”, stated his friend, “I too sent my son to Israel and he returned a Christian.”
So in the tradition of the patriarchs they went to the Rabbi.
“It is amazing that you should come to me”, stated the Rabbi, “I too sent my son to Israel and he returned a Christian. What is happening to our sons? Brothers, we must take this to the Lord,” said the Rabbi.
They fell to their knees and began to wail and pour out their hearts to the Almighty. As they prayed the clouds above opened and a mighty voice stated, “Amazing that you should come to Me. I, too, sent My Son to Israel...”