This list of songs is inspired by a list published by radio station, KEXP, from Seattle in 2010, as well as, the latest poll taken in 2021 by Rolling Stone Magazine. For the most part, I will faithfully countdown from their lists, from Song #500 to Song #1. So, when you see the song title listed as something like: “KEXP: Song #XXX”….it means that I am working off of the official KEXP list. “RS: Song XXX” means the song is coming from the Rolling Stone list. If I post the song title as being: “KTOM: Song #xxx”….it means I have gone rogue and am inserting a song choice from my own personal list of tunes I really like. In either case, you are going to get to hear a great song and learn the story behind it. Finally, I am not a music critic nor a musician. I am a music fan and an armchair storyteller. Enough said! Let’s get on to today’s song.
KEXP: The Top 500 Songs in Modern Music History.
Song #11: Smells Like Teen Spirit by Nirvana.
Compared to many of the songs that comprise this countdown, “Smells Like Teen Spirit” by Nirvana seems like a new song. But, in reality, “Smells Like Teen Spirit” was released in 1992…..which was thirty years ago! Not exactly hot off of the musical presses but, at the same time, I challenge you to find a song as impactful and important in these last thirty years as this song was. If this countdown was restricted to the last quarter-century only, I would have no doubt that “Smells Like Teen Spirit” would be Song #1 on the list. It is just that good and just that important in the grand scheme of things. The story of how the song came to be, the impact it had on the music scene at the time and how it changed the lives of those involved, going forward, is, essentially, the story of modern music, itself, since 1990. So, make yourself comfortable because here comes the story of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” by Nirvana and why it is such a special song. Let’s go!
“Smells Like Teen Spirit” was the lead track on Nirvana’s second album, “Nevermind”. A band’s second album is often a pivotal one in their evolution. There have been many, many artists and bands who worked for years, compiling a list of good, tight songs that ended up on a debut album that, in turn, caught the fancy of listeners and critics, alike. However, there are just as many bands who emptied their creative tank into Album #1 and then, found themselves shooting blanks when it came time to create new material for Album #2. Nirvana was a band that followed the initial course of things by releasing their first album called, “Bleach”. This album was raw and energetic and loud and filled with great lyrics that proved that writer, Kurt Cobain was, perhaps, more than just a young screamer and that Nirvana was, in fact, more than just the latest young band to burst forth in the Seattle area when that music scene that set to explode.
Many of the fans who discovered Nirvana during the “Bleach” days loved them because their music was so rough and unpolished and yet, so filled with intelligence and meaning. As a band, Nirvana eschewed corporate leanings, in favour of raw, pure musicianship. The members of the band, (Kurt Cobain, Krist Novoselic and Dave Grohl) were pragmatic enough to know that they wanted their music to pay the bills but, they also knew, beyond any shadow of a doubt, that they wanted to control their message and produce Art on their terms and, if that meant producing music as found on “Bleach” then, so be it. That attitude was embraced by fans who would end up helping to create a new genre of music called, “Grunge”.
Bands who fell under the “Grunge” umbrella were anti-corporate by nature. But, a funny thing happened on the way to Grunge becoming popular with the kids, corporations took notice and came calling. As with any movement that exists in a pure, unsullied form, Corporate America saw Grunge as an untapped marketplace and set about to commodify it. It was against this backdrop that Nirvana released their all-important second album, “Nevermind”. “Nevermind” was produced by a professional producer named Butch Vig. It wasn’t that Vig set out to lead Nirvana into the waiting arms of Corporate America but, he did lend his expertise to the band in ways that helped polish their production values and hence, the overall quality of their sound. It was this collection of songs with “better” production values that caused them to be viewed as more “radio friendly”. The first of these songs to be released was, “Smells Like Teen Spirit”.
“Smells Like Teen Spirit” was written while Kurt Cobain was dating Tobi Vail, one of the lead singers of Riot Grrrl headliners, Bikini Kill. The story is that Vail liked to wear “Teen Spirit” deodorant. One day, Vail’s bandmate, Kathleen Hanna, was teasing Cobain that he smelled like Vail…..that she had marked him with her scent……and so, Hanna took a marker and wrote on a wall in Cobain’s bedroom that “Kurt smells like Teen Spirit, man”. Apparently, Cobain was unaware that Teen Spirit was a deodorant and, instead, thought that Hanna was complimenting him on being in sync with the youth of the day and their sensibilities. So, he was inspired to write the song, “Smells Like Teen Spirit” as sort of an ode to the restlessness and disaffected nature of youth at that time in the late 1980s/early 1990s.
This song, specifically but, also, much of Nirvana’s sound, in general, was mirrored after bands like The Pixies, who mastered the loud-soft-loud style of songwriting and performing. *(You can read about The Pixies and their massive influence on bands such as Nirvana, here). At one point, Cobain was worried that they sounded a bit too much like The Pixies and would, in fact, be viewed as merely ripping them off. “Smells Like Teen Spirit” does follow the loud-soft-loud aesthetic of The Pixies quite closely. However, when the song was officially released, that didn’t seem to matter. “Smells Like Teen Spirit” hit the airwaves and was a huge success almost immediately. Much of the support initially came from “College Radio” and from the local Seattle scene. But, most of the groundswell of interest came from people like me, who were being introduced to Nirvana for the first time via this song.
When I first heard “Smells Like Teen Spirit”, I was impressed by the ferocious drumming, as well as, the intensity of the song as it ramped up out its quiet sections. I was impressed and began following the band more closely after that. However, therein lay the conundrum for Nirvana and their true fans. Many of the fans that first supported Nirvana did so because of the rawness of their album, “Bleach”. They ended up being disappointed because “Nevermind” seemed too polished and professional; with “Smells Like Teen Spirit” not being raw and primal but, instead, having committed the sin of being over-produced. The band was not directly accused of selling out to corporate interests but, at the same time, true fans were disappointed that Nirvana had released a song such as “Smells Like Teen Spirit”.
For the band, the success of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” thrust them clearly to the very forefront of the Grunge scene and, as such, they were deemed as being the spokespeople for an entire generation known as Gen Z. Having a pulpit from which to pontificate was the furthest thing from Kurt Cobain’s mind. He thought it was all ludicrous and pushed back against the attention by accelerating his drug use. At the same time, the band noticed that when they played live, they were seeing fewer and fewer of their original fans and more and more of a crowd who were there to see the “next big thing” because they were followers of trends more than of Art. Suddenly, Nirvana, who had always prided themselves as being pure artists and anti-corporate at their core, found themselves in a media feeding frenzy, alienated from the roots of their scene and they became miserable.
There are many artists who seek out the bright lights and the big stages but, Kurt Cobain was not really one of them. He enjoyed writing songs, playing music and being with likeminded people. But, he did not enjoy the fame and the way his music would become a business venture for many people, more interested in sales figures and advertising opportunities than in the messages contained in the lyrics scribbled in Cobain’s notebooks. For Kurt Cobain, Teen Spirit was never a product to be marketed. It was an ideal that spoke to him and that he, by extension, wanted to share with others who felt left out of the flow of mainstream life, as he did. Kurt Cobain was never the popular man on campus. He was always an outsider. In fact, he acted more like a feminist….being drawn to, and supporting, strong women, like the girls in Bikini Kill *(who you can read about here) and mentor and muse, Patti Smith. The more I have read about Kurt Cobain and Nirvana, the less I am surprised that, in the time after his death by suicide, the best covers of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” were all performed by strong women such as Smith and Tori Amos. The real person that Cobain was seemed to be was someone able to tap into that feminine sensibility and that is, arguably, more in tune with the man he thought he was and that he wanted to continue to become, above all else.
“Smells Like Teen Spirit” raced into the #1 chart position and helped make Nirvana the biggest band in the world at the time. All of this attention shook Cobain. Nirvana managed to record one more album called, “In Utero” which was more introspective than “Nevermind” but still, filled with great songs. When the news of Cobain’s suicide was announced on TV, it had the same impact for those in Generation Z, as the deaths of Elvis and John Lennon did for Boomers. It felt as though an entire genre of great music had been cancelled all at once. Other Grunge bands such as Pearl Jam, Soundgarden and Alice in Chains had some moderate success but only Pearl Jam had any lasting fame and, even with them, they are mostly touring and playing old material now, like so many other nostalgia acts out there. The spirit of Grunge seems to have fizzled out with Cobain’s death which, if you really look at it, was attributable to having achieved too much success to begin with. Which leaves “Smells Like Teen Spirit”, despite its’ enormous success, as actually having quite a complicated legacy.
I, for one, still think this song really rocks. In particular, “Smells Like Teen Spirit” was my introduction to Dave Grohl. His drumming on this song blew my mind! What ferocity and power! His personality, which shone in comparison to the introverted, Cobain, has always attracted me and I have faithfully followed his career, as he transitioned from Nirvana and the tragedy of his friend, Kurt’s death, to finding new success as lead singer/guitar player of today’s biggest band, Foo Fighters. Amazingly enough, poor Dave Grohl suffered another music-related tragedy just recently, with the death of Foo Fighters drummer, and Grohl’s new best friend, Taylor Hawkins. It is almost too much loss to be believed for Grohl. As I write these words, Foo Fighters have cancelled all remaining tour dates. My wish is for Dave Grohl to be alright and to achieve some semblance of emotional peace in the days and weeks to come.
“Smells Like Teen Spirit” remains the song that is the face of an entire genre of music. No amount of sad consequences can alter the fact that this song was the most important and impactful song to emerge in the last quarter-century. It is a song that still packs a punch that is undeniably loud and forceful. It stands as the only song on my personal playlist for which albinos and mosquitos play a prominent role. It is the only song I love that was inspired…even if it was unintentionally…..by an underarm deodorant. It is “Smells Like Teen Spirit”……there is nothing else like it in this countdown. Please enjoy it in all of its glory.
The link to the video for the song, “Smells Like Teen Spirit” by Nirvana, can be found here.
The link to the official website for Nirvana, can be found here.
The link to the video for the song, “Smells Like Teen Spirit”, as covered by Tori Amos, can be found here.
The link to the official website for Tori Amos, can be found here.
The link to the video for the song, “Smells Like Teen Spirit”, as covered by Patti Smith, can be found here.
The link to the official website for Patti Smith, can be found here.
Thanks, as always, to KEXP, for being located at the scene of one of the best music scenes in history. The link to their wonderful website can be found here.