"Smells Like Teen Spirit" is a song by the American rock band Nirvana. It is the opening track and lead single from the band's 1991 breakthrough album Nevermind. Written by Kurt Cobain, Krist Novoselic, and Dave Grohl and produced by Butch Vig, the song uses a verse-chorus form where the main four-chord riff is used during the intro and chorus to create an alternating loud and quiet dynamic.
The unexpected success of "Smells Like Teen Spirit" propelled Nevermind to the top of the charts at the start of 1992, often marked as the point where alternative rock entered the mainstream. "Teen Spirit" was Nirvana's first and biggest hit, reaching number six on the Billboard Hot 100 and placing high on music industry charts all around the world in 1991 and 1992.
"Smells Like Teen Spirit" received many critical plaudits, including topping the Village Voice Pazz & Jop critics' poll and winning two MTV Video Music Awards for its music video, which was in heavy rotation on music television. The song was dubbed an "anthem for apathetic kids" of Generation X, but the band grew uncomfortable with the success and attention they received. In the years since Nirvana's breakup, listeners and critics have continued to praise "Smells Like Teen Spirit" as one of the greatest rock songs of all time.
I was trying to write the ultimate pop song. I was basically trying to rip off the Pixies. I have to admit it. When I heard the Pixies for the first time, I connected with that band so heavily that I should have been in that band— or at least a Pixies cover band. We used their sense of dynamics, being soft and quiet and then loud and hard.
Cobain did not begin to write "Smells Like Teen Spirit" until a few weeks before recording started on Nirvana's second album, Nevermind, in 1991. When he first presented the song to his bandmates, it comprised just the main riff and the chorus vocal melody, which bassist Krist Novoselic dismissed at the time as "ridiculous." In response, Cobain made the band play the riff for "an hour and a half." In a 2001 interview, Novoselic recalled that after playing the riff repeatedly, he thought, "'Wait a minute. Why don't we just kind of slow this down a bit?' So I started playing the verse part. And Dave [started] playing a drum beat." As a result, all three band members are credited as songwriters.
Cobain came up with the song's title when his friend Kathleen Hanna, at the time the lead singer of the Riot Grrrl punk band Bikini Kill, spray painted "Kurt Smells Like Teen Spirit" on his wall. Since they had been discussing anarchism, punk rock, and similar topics, Cobain interpreted the slogan as having a revolutionary meaning. What Hanna actually meant, however, was that Cobain smelled like the deodorant Teen Spirit, which his then-girlfriend Tobi Vail wore. Cobain later claimed that he was unaware that it was a brand of deodorant until months after the single was released.
"Smells Like Teen Spirit" was, along with "Come as You Are," one of a few new songs that had been written since Nirvana's first recording sessions with producer Butch Vig in 1990. Prior to the start of the Nevermind recording sessions, the band sent Vig a rough cassette demo of song rehearsals that included "Teen Spirit." While the sound of the tape was wildly distorted due to the band playing at a loud volume, Vig could pick out some of the melody and felt the song had promise. Nirvana recorded "Smells Like Teen Spirit" at Sound City recording studio in Van Nuys, California with Vig in May of 1991. Vig suggested some arrangement changes to the song, including moving a guitar ad lib into the chorus, and trimming down the chorus length. The band recorded the basic track for the song in three takes, and decided to keep the second one.
"Smells Like Teen Spirit" utilizes a "somewhat conventional formal structure" consisting of four-, eight-, and twelve-bar sections that includes an eight-bar verse, an eight-bar first chorus (pre-chorus), and a twelve-bar second chorus (main chorus). Elements of the song's structure are marked off with shifts in volume and dynamics, going back and forth from quiet to loud a number of times during the length of the recording. This structure of "quiet verses with wobbly, chorused guitar, followed by big, loud hardcore-inspired choruses" became a much-emulated template in alternative rock because of "Teen Spirit.
The song begins with Cobain strumming the main riff, adding distortion when the rest of the band joins in. During the verse Cobain plays a sparse two-note guitar line over Novoselic's eighth note bassline, which outlines the chord progression. In the pre-chorus, Cobain begins to play the same two notes on every beat of the measure and repeats the phrase "Hello, hello, hello, how low?" Cobain then resumes the main guitar riff for the chorus, where the band plays loudly and Cobain yells the lyrics. The first and second choruses both end with a brief four-bar interlude where Cobain shouts "Yeah!" twice over a new riff. After the second chorus, Cobain plays a 16-bar guitar solo that almost completely restates his vocal melody from the verse and pre-chorus. The band extends the third and final verse and chorus as Cobain sings the refrain "A denial" repeatedly. At this point Cobain's vocals become strained and his voice is almost shot from the force of yelling. The song ends with the feedback of the guitar.
"Smells Like Teen Spirit" was a critical and commercial success. The song topped the 1991 Village Voice "Pazz & Jop" and Melody Maker year-end polls, and reached number two on Rolling Stone's list of best singles of the year. The single peaked at number six on the Billboard singles chart the same week that Nevermind reached number one on the album charts. "Teen Spirit" hit number one on the Modern Rock Tracks chart, and has since been certified platinum (one million copies shipped) by the Recording Industry Association of America. However, many American Top 40 stations were reluctant to play the song in regular rotation due to its sound, and restricted it to night-time play. The single was also successful in other countries. In the United Kingdom, "Smells Like Teen Spirit" reached number seven and charted for 184 weeks. The song was nominated for two Grammy awards —Best Hard Rock Vocal Performance and Best Rock Song— though it lost to the Red Hot Chili Peppers' "Give It Away" and "Layla" by Eric Clapton, respectively. Clapton's win over Nirvana would later be named one of the 10 biggest upsets in Grammy history by Entertainment Weekly.
In the wake of Nirvana's success, Michael Azerrad wrote in a 1992 Rolling Stone article, "'Smells Like Teen Spirit' is an anthem for (or is it against?) the 'Why Ask Why?' generation. Just don't call Cobain a spokesman for a generation. Nevertheless, the music press awarded the song an "anthem-of-a-generation" status, placing Cobain as a reluctant spokesman for Generation X. The New York Times observed that "'Smells Like Teen Spirit' could be this generation’s version of the Sex Pistols' 1976 single, 'Anarchy in the U.K.', if it weren’t for the bitter irony that pervades its title," and added, "As Nirvana knows only too well, teen spirit is routinely bottled, shrink-wrapped and sold. The band grew uncomfortable with the song's success, and in later concerts often pointedly excluded it from the setlist. Prior to the release of the band's 1993 follow-up album In Utero, Novoselic remarked, "If it wasn't for 'Teen Spirit' I don't know how Nevermind would have done," and observed, "There are no 'Teen Spirits' on In Utero. Cobain said in 1994, "I still like playing 'Teen Spirit,' but it’s almost an embarrassment to play it [. . .] Everyone has focused on that song so much."
In the years following Cobain's 1994 death, "Smells Like Teen Spirit" has continued to garner critical acclaim. In 2000, MTV and Rolling Stone ranked the song third on their joint list of the 100 best pop songs, trailing only The Beatles' "Yesterday" and The Rolling Stones' "(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction. The Recording Industry Association of America's 2001 "Songs of the Century" project placed "Teen Spirit" at number 80, above Miles Davis' Kind of Blue and The Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band albums. In 2002, NME awarded the song the number two spot on its list of "100 Greatest Singles of All Time, while in 2003 VH1 placed "Smells Like Teen Spirit" number one on its list of "100 Greatest Songs of the Past 25 Years. The song came third in a Q poll that same year. Rolling Stone ranked "Smells Like Teen Spirit" ninth in its 2004 list of The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time, and described its impact as "A shock wave of big-amp purity, [it] wiped the lingering jive of the Eighties off the pop map overnight. In the 2006 VH1 UK poll The Nation's Favourite Lyric, the line "I feel stupid and contagious/here we are now, entertain us" was ranked as the third-favorite song lyric among over 13,000 voters. In contrast, Time magazine proposed in its entry for Nevermind on "The All-TIME 100 Albums" from 2006 that "'Smells Like Teen Spirit' [. . .] may be the album's worst song.
The lyrics to "Smells Like Teen Spirit" were often difficult for listeners to decipher, both due to their nonsensicality and because of Cobain's slurred, guttural singing voice. This problem was compounded by the fact that the Nevermind album liner notes did not include any lyrics for the songs aside from selected lyrical fragments. This incomprehensibility contributed to the early resistance from radio stations towards adding the song to their playlists; one Geffen promoter recalled that people from rock radio told her, "We can't play this. I can't understand what the guy is saying. MTV went as far as to prepare a version of the video that included the lyrics running across the bottom of the screen, which they aired when the video was added to their heavy rotation schedule. The lyrics for the album—and some from earlier or alternate versions of the songs—were later released with the liner notes of the "Lithium" single in 1992. American rock critic Dave Marsh noted comments by disc jockeys of the time that the song was "the 'Louie Louie' of the nineties" and wrote, "Like 'Louie,' only more so, 'Teen Spirit' reveals its secrets reluctantly and then often incoherently. Marsh, trying to decipher the lyrics of the song, felt after reading the correct lyrics from the song's sheet music that "what I imagined was quite a bit better (at least, more gratifying) than what Nirvana actually sang," and added, "Worst of all, I'm not sure that I know more about [the meaning of] 'Smells Like Teen Spirit' now than before I plunked down for the official version of the facts.
"Teen Spirit" is widely interpreted to be a teen revolution anthem, an interpretation reinforced by the song's music video. When discussing the song in Michael Azerrad's biography Come as You Are: The Story of Nirvana, Cobain revealed that he felt a duty "to describe what I felt about my surroundings and my generation and people my age." The book Teen Spirit: The Stories Behind Every Nirvana Song describes "Teen Spirit" as "a typically murky Cobain exploration of meaning and meaninglessness. Azerrad plays upon the juxtaposition of Cobain's contradictory lyrics (such as "It's fun to lose and to pretend") and states "the point that emerges isn't just the conflict of two opposing ideas, but the confusion and anger that the conflict produces in the narrator—he's angry that he's confused." Azerrad's conclusion is that the song is "alternately a sarcastic reaction to the idea of actually having a revolution, yet it also embraces the idea."
In Heavier Than Heaven, Charles R. Cross' biography of Kurt Cobain, the author posits the lyrics were influenced by something else besides Cobain's anger, boredom, and cynicism. Cross argues that the song is a reference to Cobain's relationship with ex-girlfriend Tobi Vail. Cross cites the line "She's over-bored and self-assured" and states the song "could not have been about anyone else." Cross backs up his argument with lyrics which were present in earlier drafts, such as "Who will be the King & Queen of the outcasted [sic] teens.
Cobain has said, "The entire song is made up of contradictory ideas [. . .] It's just making fun of the thought of having a revolution. But it's a nice thought." Drummer Dave Grohl has stated he does not believe the song has any message, and said, "Just seeing Kurt write the lyrics to a song five minutes before he first sings them, you just kind of find it a little bit hard to believe that the song has a lot to say about something. You need syllables to fill up this space or you need something that rhymes.
The music video for "Smells Like Teen Spirit" was the first for director Samuel Bayer, who would go on to direct videos for artists including Green Day, Metallica, and The Smashing Pumpkins. Bayer believes he was hired because his test reel was so poor the band anticipated his production would be "punk" and "not corporate." The video was based on the concept of a school concert which ends in anarchy and riot. Inspiration was taken from Jonathan Kaplan's 1979 movie Over the Edge, as well as the Ramones film Rock 'n' Roll High School.Filmed on a soundstage in Culver City, the video featured the band playing at a pep rally in a high school gym to an audience of apathetic students on bleachers, and cheerleaders wearing black dresses with the Circle-A anarchist symbol. The video ends with the assembled students destroying the set and the band's gear. The demolition of the set captured in the video's conclusion was the result of genuine discontent. The extras that filled the bleachers had been forced to stay seated through numerous replays of the song for an entire afternoon of filming. Cobain convinced Bayer to allow the extras to mosh, and the set became a scene of chaos. "Once the kids came out dancing they just said 'fuck you,' because they were so tired of this shit throughout the day," Cobain said. Cobain disliked Bayer's final edit and personally oversaw a re-edit of the video that resulted in the version finally aired. One of Cobain's major additions was the next-to-last shot of the video, which was a close-up of his own face after it had been obscured for most of the video. Bayer noted that unlike subsequent artists he worked with, Cobain did not care about vanity, rather that "the video had something that was truly about what they were about."
Like the song itself, the music video for "Smells Like Teen Spirit" was well received by critics. Rolling Stone writer David Fricke described the video as looking like "the greatest gig you could ever imagine." In addition to a number one placing in the singles category, "Teen Spirit" also topped the music video category in the Village Voice's 1991 "Pazz & Jop" poll. The video won Nirvana the Best New Artist and Best Alternative Group awards at the 1992 MTV Video Music Awards, and in 2000 the Guinness World Records named "Teen Spirit" the Most Played Video on MTV Europe. In subsequent years Amy Finnerty, formerly of MTV's Programming department, claimed the video "changed the entire look of MTV" by giving them "a whole new generation to sell to." VH1 placed the debut of the "Teen Spirit" video at number eighteen on its list of "100 Greatest Rock & Roll Moments on TV," noting that "the video [ushered] in alternative rock as a commercial and pop culture force. In 2001, VH1 ranked the video fourth on its "100 Greatest Videos" list. The video has been parodied at least twice: in "Weird Al" Yankovic's music video for "Smells Like Nirvana" and in Bob Sinclar's 2006 music video for "Rock This Party (Everybody Dance Now)."
Nirvana often altered the song's lyrics and tempo for live performances. Some live performances of the song had the line "our little group has always been" changed to "our little tribe has always been," which can be heard on the 1996 live album From the Muddy Banks of the Wishkah. Rolling Stone remarked that the Wishkah version of "Teen Spirit" "[found] Cobain's guitar reeling outside the song's melodic boundaries and sparking new life in that nearly played-out hit. A notable alternate performance of "Smells Like Teen Spirit" occurred on BBC's Top of the Pops in 1991, during which the band refused to mime to the prerecorded backing track and Cobain sang in a deliberately low voice and altered numerous lyrics in the song (for example, "Load up on guns, bring your friends" became "Load up on drugs, kill your friends"). Cobain later said he was trying to sound like former Smiths frontman Morrissey. The Observer stated Nirvana's performance was responsible for "Teen Spirit" entering the UK top ten the following week; when Top of the Pops was cancelled in 2006, The Observer listed Nirvana's performance of "Smells Like Teen Spirit" as the third greatest in the show's history. This performance can be found on the 1994 home video Live! Tonight! Sold Out!!.
The song has been adapted into other forms over the years. Germany's Atari Teenage Riot sampled "Smells Like Teen Spirit" in the song "Atari Teenage Riot" from their 1997 album, Burn, Berlin, Burn!. DJ Balloon, a German techno DJ, also used the sample in his song "Monstersound". An instrumental cover version (slightly altered and named "Self High-Five" to avoid legal complications) was produced by World Championship Wrestling as the entrance music for wrestler Diamond Dallas Page, with clips of Page's voice dubbed in from time to time. A snippet of the song was also performed in a cabaret style in the 2001 movie Moulin Rouge!.
In addition to cover versions, "Smells Like Teen Spirit" has also inspired a few parodies. "Weird Al" Yankovic parodied the song in 1992 with "Smells Like Nirvana," a song about Nirvana itself. Yankovic parodied the difficulty in understanding Cobain's singing as well as the lyrics and their meaning. Yankovic has said Kurt Cobain told him he realized that Nirvana had "made it" when he heard the parody. In 1995, the queercore band Pansy Division recorded a parody of the song called "Smells Like Queer Spirit" for its Pile Up album.
The single edit of "Smells Like Teen Spirit," which was featured in the music video, removes approximately thirty seconds from the album version. In particular, two repetitions of the main riff have been removed from the beginning of the song, as has the repeat of the first section of the guitar solo. Additionally, the CD single falsely lists the length of "Even in His Youth" as 4:20.
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