Twenty-five years ago, Nirvana’s hit single “Smells Like Teen Spirit” was released in the U.S., soon to soar to the top of the charts, and later to be called one of the top three best rock songs in music history. It ranked third on Rolling Stone’s 100 Best Pop Songs, under The Beatles’ “Yesterday” and The Rolling Stones’ “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” in 2000. In its heyday, the hit was credited with bringing alternative (and grunge) rock into the mainstream. Released by DGC Records in 1991 as the hit single from the band’s debut album Nevermind, Kurt Cobain wrote the song in the style of the Pixies, a band he greatly admired.
Upon first listen, his bandmates were not so keen on the tune. The bassist, Krist Novoselic, even called it “ridiculous.” Like a true rock star, Cobain responded by making the band play the riff repeatedly. As they played through it over and over again, the three bandmates (including drummer Dave Grohl) worked out the different sections in collaboration, making it the only song on Nevermind to credit all three as composers.
As for the famous title, Cobain claimed after the fact that he’d had no idea “Teen Spirit” was a brand of girl’s deodorant. He got the idea from a message his friend Kathleen Hanna (also a punk rock band singer, for Bikini Kill) spray painted on his wall that read “Kurt Smells Like Teen Spirit.” Ever the punk anarchist rocker, Cobain saw a deeper, more rebellious revolutionary meaning in the comment, aside from the literal, Kurt-smells-like-his-girlfriend-Tobi-Vail’s-deodorant meaning. Looking grungy but smelling sweet, the band recorded a demo of the track on tape which Novoselic played for producer Butch Vig through a boombox cassette player. It naturally sounded awful. “I could sort of hear the ‘Hello, hello’ part and the chords,” Vig said years later to Rolling Stone. “But it was so indecipherable that I had no idea what to expect.” By this point, everybody and their mother was buying Teen Spirit deodorant.
The indecipherable lyrics prompted the lord of all parodies Weird Al Yankovic to cover “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” with his own version of the words (or lack there of), entitled, “Smells Like Nirvana.” Cobain’s original lyrics, however, were “a call to consciousness,” Novoselic said in 2000. It was a retaliation against the corporate invasion of the youth culture, something Cobain stood for on and off the stage. The catchy line from the chorus (one of the only audible phrases), “Here we are now / Entertain us,” was something Novoselic says Cobain used to say at parties as an icebreaker. Although the hit song shot the band into celebrity and brought alternative rock along with it, Nirvana grew weary of the song’s popularity, and the continual pressure to play it at every opportunity and understandably so – try and name another Nirvana song off the top of your right now, go ahead. Not likely, unless you’re a diehard fan. Tragically, Cobain died by his own hand April 5th, 1994, joining the ranks of the talented and gone-too-soon members of the 27 Club.