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25 Facts about Smells Like Teen Spirit

Published by Steve Campion. Category: Arts, Culture & Media

It has been called the anthem of Generation X.  Over-bored and self-assured.  Nirvana’s 1991 hit single “Smells Like Teen Spirit” was both the band’s masterwork and the first major crossover hit from the alternative rock genre.  With it, “Nirvana accidentally kicked off a cultural revolution,” the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame website declared, and “brought rock & roll kicking and screaming into the modern world.” It defined the era.  It’s often listed among the greatest rock songs of all time. Twenty five years after it debuted, we list 25 facts about the rock classic from the Pacific Northwest.

  1. At the time Nirvana released the song, Krist Novoselic was 26, Kurt Cobain 24, and Dave Grohl 22.  Cobain was born and raised in Aberdeen. He was not happy there, dropped out of Weatherwax High School, and for a time lived beside the Wishkah River under a bridge. He moved to Olympia where he found a culture and musical scene more to his liking.  Novoselic was born in California but lived in Aberdeen where he met Cobain.  They founded the Nirvana there in 1987.  After experimenting with a series drummers who didn’t quite work out, they were joined by Grohl in October, 1990.  Born in Ohio, Grohl earned his musical reputation in the vibrant Washington, DC harDCore punk scene.  Cobain offered Grohl a standing invitation to play with Nirvana if an opportunity ever came up.  That came after Grohl’s band Scream dissolved.  He moved to Olympia, displaced Nirvana’s latest drummer, and completed the iconic Nirvana trio.  Cobain and Grohl routinely drove from Olympia to Novoselic’s place in Tacoma during the year “Smells Like Teen Spirit” came about.
  2. The city cultures and music scenes that influenced Nirvana’s sound (and where they played their early concerts) has led writers to refer to them variously as a band from Aberdeen, Olympia, or Seattle.  Each of those Puget Sound cities have a legitimate claim.
  3. Kurt Cobain wrote the lyrics to “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” Nirvana is credited with the music.
  4. The song title was inspired when Cobain’s friend (Bikini Kill musician Kathleen Hanna) wrote “Kurt smells like teen spirit” on his Olympia apartment wall with a Sharpie.  Teen Spirit was a brand of deodorant worn by Tobi Vail, Cobain’s girlfriend.  He later said he didn’t know it was a deodorant.  He thought it was a profound statement.
  5. The song was first performed live April 17, 1991 at the OK Hotel in Seattle.  Although some of the lyrics at that time were different from those we now know, the song is easily recognizable. The crowd certainly enjoyed it (judging by their wildly moving body parts) even if they couldn’t possibly know the impact the song would have on the music world later in the year.  (The OK Hotel was a popular venue in the Seattle grunge music scene in the late 80s and 90s. It was located beneath the Alaskan Way Viaduct near Pioneer Square.  It closed after the February 28, 2001 Nisqually earthquake.)
  6. The band recorded the track in May, 1991 for DGC Records at Sound City Studios in Van Nuys, CA. Kurt Cobain was lead guitar and vocals. Krist Novoselic played bass. Dave Grohl was on drums. Butch Vig was the producer. The recording was released in two lengths: 4:36 for the single and 5:01 for the album.
  7. The song first aired on radio August 27, 1991.
  8. The recording was released as a single September 10, 1991 — two weeks before the Nevermind album.  Nevermind was Nirvana’s second studio album, coming after Bleach (1989) and before In Utero (1993).
  9. The common version of the song has 255 words. The words that are heard most frequently are: (36 times:) hello, (16 times:) a, (9 times:) denial, how, low, (8 times:) I, (6 times:) and, are, entertain, here, now, us, we, yeah, (5 times:) it’s, (4 times:) the, (3 times:) albino, an, contagious, dangerous, feel, less, libido, lights, mosquito, mulatto, my, oh, out, stupid, with.
  10. The meaning of the lyrics are open to interpretation. (Sample: With the lights out / It’s less dangerous / Here we are now / Entertain us.)  Cobain described them differently over time with references to friends and ideas of teen revolution. It’s also quite likely, as Grohl has suggested, that many of the words merely sounded good within the melody and rhythm of the song. We contend that the real meaning of the song comes in the delivery of the lyrics. Cobain’s vocals are loaded with energy and attitude, expressing much more than the words alone can.  (This is especially true since some words are not entirely intelligible.)
  11. The music repeats the same chord progression throughout the song.  Performed by Nirvana, it has the emotional tug of teen indifference and angst.  It alternates quickly between waves of quiet and rage, preceded each time with a concussive volley of beats from Grohl’s drumkit and punctuated by Cobain’s melodic shouting.  Cobain composed the song in a style similar to something the Pixies would record.  Others have remarked that the main riff was close to that used in Boston’s 1976 hit “More Than a Feeling.” (Try this: While concentrating on the central chord progression in Nirvana’s song, you might easily mentally superimpose the lyrics of More Than a Feeling — and even Louie, Louie, another Northwest musical classic.)
  12. The song peaked at #6 on the Billboard singles chart.  That was the highest position of any Nirvana song. The Nevermind album went to #1. It was certified gold within its first month and platinum the next. This was even more remarkable considering the studio pressed only 50,000 copies on its first run.
  13. Rolling Stone magazine ranked it as the second best single of the year.  “Losing My Religion” by R.E.M. won their top spot.  The magazine placed Nevermind as the 3rd best album of 1991 behind R.E.M’s Out of Time and U2’s Achtung Baby.
  14. By century’s end, in 2000, MTV and Rolling Stone ranked “Smells Like Teen Spirit” as #3 on their “100 Greatest Pop Songs.”  VH1 ranked it #41 on it’s list of 100 Greatest Rock Songs.  The song’s impact was not necessarily tucked within the 5 minutes of music itself, but was in the change it created in the music industry. It might not be an overstatement to declare the song a watershed — a tipping point between the glam bands of the 1980s and the alternative rock that followed. And that change happened quickly.
  15. “Smells Like Teen Spirit” was not expected to become the album’s biggest hit.  The band planned its release as a way to generate some play and create buzz for the album.  “Come As You Are” was believed to be have more hit potential.  It was the album’s second single, released almost six months later on March 3, 1992.  It peaked it #32 on the Billboard charts — a respectable second act to “Smells Like Teen Spirit” but in no way overshadowing it.
  16. Nirvana’s music video of the song was filmed on a Culver City, CA soundstage on August 17, 1991.  It was directed by Samuel Bayer.
  17. The video shows a smoky school concert or pep rally witnessed by a group of mostly disinterested students seated on bleachers.
  18. The “students” in the video were people who responded to a general casting call for extras, ages 18-25.  The call requested that each extra in the video “adapt a high-school personna, i.e., preppy, punk, nerd, jock…”*  You can see each of those stereotypes in the video.
  19. Many of the “students” in the bleachers were genuinely bored.  Most of them thought the filming would be done quickly, but the session continued for several hours as the band repeated the song many times. Cobain suggested that the extras be allowed to destroy the set on the final take. The student riot seen at the end of the video came from that real-world release of pent-up energy.
  20. The dancing janitor that appears in the video is said to have been a private joke about Cobain’s own experience. After he dropped out of Weatherwax he took a job as a janitor at the same school.
  21. Cobain was not pleased with the initial edit of the video.  He oversaw the re-edit that was eventually released.
  22. It premiered on the MTV show 120 Minutes on September 29, 1991. Cobain reportedly watched it on a TV in a New York hotel room.  The video received heavy airplay in both the United States and Britain where it attained status in the Guinness Book of World Records as the most aired video of all time.
  23. Over the years “Smells Like Teen Spirit” was covered by various artists in different genres including a capella, acoustic piano, jazz, and swing. The Muppets even sampled it as a barbershop quartet, much to the faux irritation of Jack Black.
  24. “Weird Al” Yankovic asked Nirvana for permission to parody the song. This request came in a phone call to their dressing room while the band waited to perform the song on Saturday Night Live January 11, 1992. With the band’s consent, Yankovic produced “Smells Like Nirvana.” Sample lines: “A garage band / from Seattle / well, it sure beats / raising cattle.” Yankovic mimics Cobain’s unintelligible lyrics by singing with a mouthful of marbles, gargling, and uttering nonsense (e.g., “It’s hard to bargle nawdle zouss”). The parody closely parallels scenes from the original video but is loaded with sound and sight gags: a flexible Fender guitar, kazoos, livestock, an on-stage basketball game that drags away Novoselic, a bearded cheerleader, a janitor eating from the garbage, a bald man renting ad space on his head, and various painful mosh pit incidents. Look for actor Dick Van Patten in the crowd.  ♪ “Well we don’t sound / Like Madonna / Here we are now / We’re Nirvana.” ♫
  25.  Nirvana was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2014. Novoselic and Grohl attended. Cobain died by suicide in his Seattle home in April, 1994.

*Spell-check wasn’t fully developed in 1991.

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