Smells Like Teen Spirit

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"Smells Like Teen Spirit" was the song that brought Nirvana and grunge music to the attention of teenagers around the world. While melodically and harmonically simple, it featured a minimalistic, moody verse with stream of consciousness lyrics rising to a ferocious chorus, and Kurt Cobain's voice showing its range from tuneful melancholy to primal scream. It is vaguely based around a riff using four power chords (F-Bb-Ab-Db) with more than a passing similarity to a section of Boston's AOR classic "More Than a Feeling", as well as Blue Öyster Cult's "Godzilla". But the starkest similarity is with a song called "Mr Chips" recorded by Crazy Horse, Neil Young's backing band. It should be noted that Kurt Cobain was a big fan of Young's music.

The song reached number 1 for many weeks on singles pop charts around the world in 1991. It was voted as the best single of the year in The Village Voice Pazz & Jop critics poll. Sales of the single and album in the United Kingdom were slowed by an appearance on the BBC's Top of the Pops music chart show, during which Cobain sang in a deliberately low, mournful tone, a protest against the show's requirement that bands must not play their instruments live. He would later claim it was a tribute to The Smiths frontman Morrissey.

"Teen Spirit" is a U.S. deodorant brand. Cobain got the song name when friend Kathleen Hanna spray painted "Kurt Smells Like Teen Spirit" on his wall (some accounts claim Tori Amos was responsible, but Hanna is more commonly cited). Since they had been talking about anarchy, punk rock and similar and other topics, Cobain took it to be a slogan in that vein. The meaning, however, was that Kurt smelled like the roll-on deodorant brand, that Tobi Vail, Hanna's band mate, and Kurt's then-girlfriend, wore. Cobain claimed that he did not know it was a brand of deodorant, and in retrospect was unhappy that a commercial product was named in the song.

In Heavier Than Heaven (ISBN 0786865059), Charles Cross' biography of Kurt Cobain, an argument is made that the song is a reference to Kurt's break-up with Tobi Vail. This argument is backed up by lyrics which were present in earlier drafts, which can be seen in Kurt's Journals (ISBN 1573222321), such as "Why don't you cry when I'm away / Oh yeah we want what's best for you" and "Who will be the King & Queen of the outcasted teens".

Nirvana's Nevermind album, on which "Smells Like Teen Spirit" appears, took its title from the name of an album by the Sex Pistols (whom Kurt was very fond of) - Never Mind the Bollocks, Here's the Sex Pistols, as well as from a line in "Teen Spirit" which goes "I find it hard, it's hard to find / Oh well, whatever, never mind". It is also important to note that the word "nevermind" truly fit Kurt's apathetic, defeated view of life in general.

The music video with its surreal high school setting was also notable. It was inspired by the 1979 film Over the Edge, of which Kurt Cobain was a fan. The video featured the band playing at a dimly-lit high school pep rally that quickly transformed into a mosh pit.

The song was covered by Tori Amos on the Crucify E.P. and by the jazz band The Bad Plus. In 2005 in was covered as a swing song by 1950s star Paul Anka. It was parodied by "Weird Al" Yankovic as "Smells Like Nirvana", a song about Nirvana itself. Weird Al's parody was about how nobody can understand Cobain's lyrics, which was appropriate as Kurt's vocal was mixed down in the song, rendering it unintelligible. According to both Kurt and Yankovic, when asked if he would be okay with Yankovic parodying the song, Kurt asked, "it's not going to be about food, is it?" (A reference to some of Yankovic's previous parodies, including "Eat It") Kurt admitted in interviews to being very fond of the parody. In a diary entry later published in Journals, Kurt described "Weird" Al as the closest thing America has to punk rock. Band mate Krist Novoselic later said that the band realized that it had arrived as rock stars when Weird Al parodied them. It was also sampled for the E! network.

In a January, 1994 Rolling Stone magazine interview, Kurt, months away from his death, admitted that "Smells Like Teen Spirit" was an attempt to write a song by the Pixies: "I was trying to write the ultimate pop song. I was basically trying to rip off the Pixies. I have to admit it." He also talked about his dislike for the song, mostly because of its success, and how "Drain You", from the same album, was "definitely as good as 'Teen Spirit'." Rolling Stone magazine ranked "Smells Like Teen Spirit" the ninth best song of all time.


Misheard lyrics

As Weird Al's parody emphasised, the lyrics as Cobain sang them were often difficult for listeners to decipher. A common mishearing of some of the lyrics includes "When the laughter hits the stages". Another common mishearing is from the line, "Our little group has always been," which is sometimes quoted as, "I'm in a group that's always been."

Alternate versions

Nirvana was known for altering songs (mostly lyrics) for live performances. On almost all (if not all) live performances the line "our little group has always been" is changed to "our little tribe has always been". The song's lyrics were also changed a lot before it finally became the version on the album Nevermind. Early versions have completely different lyrics. An early version can be found on the CD/DVD boxset With the Lights Out, which features previously unreleased songs and alternate versions of songs.

First performance

Smells Like Teen Spirit was first performed live on April 17, 1991 at the OK Hotel in Seattle, Washington


The following tracks appeared on the single:

  1. "Smells Like Teen Spirit" (Cobain, Grohl, Novoselic) - 4:39
  2. "Even in His Youth" (Cobain, Grohl, Novoselic) - 3:06
  3. "Aneurysm" (Cobain, Grohl, Novoselic) - 4:46


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Chart positions

1991    Smells Like Teen Spirit   Official UK Singles Chart             No. 7
1991    Smells Like Teen Spirit   Modern Rock Tracks                    No. 1
1992    Smells Like Teen Spirit   The Billboard Hot 100                 No. 6
1992    Smells Like Teen Spirit   Mainstream Rock Tracks                No. 7
1992    Smells Like Teen Spirit   Hot Dance Music/Club Play             No. 14
1992    Smells Like Teen Spirit   Hot Dance Music/Maxi-Singles Sales    No. 27
1991    Smells Like Teen Spirit   Official Sweeden Singles Chart        No. 3
1992    Smells Like Teen Spirit   Official Switzerland Singles Chart    No. 6
1992    Smells Like Teen Spirit   Official Austrian Singles Chart       No. 8
1992    Smells Like Teen Spirit   Official Australian Singles Chart     No. 8
1992    Smells Like Teen Spirit   Official Italian Singles Chart        No. 6
1992    Smells Like Teen Spirit   Official German Singles Chart         No. 2
1992    Smells Like Teen Spirit   Official Norway Singles Chart         No. 2

External links

Kurt Cobain | Dave Grohl | Krist Novoselic
Chad Channing | Dale Crover | Jason Everman | Pat Smear
Bleach | Blew | Nevermind | Hormoaning | Incesticide | In Utero
MTV Unplugged in New York | From the Muddy Banks of the Wishkah | Nirvana | With the Lights Out
Popular Songs
"Smells Like Teen Spirit" | "About a Girl" | "All Apologies" | "Aneurysm" | "Come As You Are" | "Drain You" | "Dumb" | "Heart-Shaped Box" | "In Bloom" | "Lithium" | "Love Buzz" | "Milk It" | "On a Plain" | "Pennyroyal Tea" | "Polly" | "Rape Me" | "Sliver" | "Something In The Way" | "You Know You're Right"
Other Related Articles
Grunge music | Generation X | Courtney Love | Heavier Than Heaven | Kurt & Courtney | Tom Grant

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