Smells Like Teen Spirit
|"Smells Like Teen Spirit"|
|Single by Nirvana|
|from the album Nevermind|
|Released||September 10, 1991|
|Studio||Sound City, Van Nuys, California|
|Nirvana singles chronology|
|Nevermind track listing|
"Smells Like Teen Spirit" was Nirvana's biggest hit, reaching number six on the Billboard Hot 100, and placing high on music industry charts around the world in 1991 and 1992. The unexpected success propelled Nevermind to the top of the charts at the start of 1992, an event often marked as the point where grunge entered the mainstream.
"Smells Like Teen Spirit" received 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 attention it brought them. In the years since Kurt Cobain's death, listeners and critics have continued to praise "Smells Like Teen Spirit" as one of the greatest songs in the history of rock music.
- 1 Origins and recording
- 2 Composition
- 3 Release and reception
- 4 Lyrics and interpretation
- 5 Music video
- 6 Live performances
- 7 Parodies and appearances in other media
- 8 Formats and track listing
- 9 Personnel
- 10 Charts and certifications
- 11 Bibliography
- 12 References
- 13 External links
Origins and recording
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 came up with the song's title when his friend Kathleen Hanna, at the time the lead singer of the riot grrrl band Bikini Kill, wrote "Kurt Smells Like Teen Spirit" on his wall. Hanna meant that Cobain smelled like the deodorant Teen Spirit, which his then-girlfriend Tobi Vail wore. Cobain said he was unaware of the deodorant until months after the single was released, and had interpreted it as a revolutionary slogan, as they had been discussing anarchism and punk rock.
"Smells Like Teen Spirit" was, along with "Come as You Are", one of several songs written following Nirvana's first recording sessions with producer Butch Vig in 1990. Cobain began writing it a few weeks before recording Nirvana's second album, Nevermind, in 1991. When he presented the song to his bandmates, it comprised just the main guitar riff and the chorus vocal melody, which bassist Krist Novoselic dismissed as "ridiculous". In response, Cobain made the band play the riff for an hour and a half. Eventually, Novoselic began playing the riff more slowly, inspiring drummer Dave Grohl to create the drum beat. As a result, it is the only song on Nevermind to credit all three band members as writers.
Prior to the Nevermind recording sessions, the band sent Vig a cassette demo of song rehearsals including "Teen Spirit". While the sound of the tape was distorted due to the band playing at a loud volume, Vig felt the song had promise. Vig and the band recorded "Smells Like Teen Spirit" at Sound City recording studio in Van Nuys, California in May 1991. Vig suggested changes to the arrangement, including moving a guitar ad lib to the chorus and shortening the chorus. The band recorded the basic track in three takes, and used the second take. Vig corrected some timing errors created by Cobain switching between his guitar effects pedals. Vig was only able to get three vocal takes from Cobain; the producer commented, "I was lucky to ever get Kurt to do four takes."
Sample of "Smells Like Teen Spirit" from Nirvana's 1991 album Nevermind. The sample illustrates the change in dynamics from verse to pre-chorus and chorus. The band maintains the F-B♭-A♭-D♭ chord progression throughout, relying on the changes in dynamics and the reintroduction of the main guitar riff at the end to indicate the shifts between sections.
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"Smells Like Teen Spirit" follows a F–B♭–A♭–D♭ chord progression, with the main guitar riff constructed from four power chords played in a syncopated sixteenth note strum by Cobain. The guitar chords were double tracked to create a "more powerful" sound. The chords occasionally lapse into suspended chord voicings as a result of Cobain playing the bottom four strings of the guitar for the thickness of sound. The riff resembles that of Boston's 1976 hit "More Than a Feeling", though it is not identical. Cobain said: "It was such a clichéd riff. It was so close to a Boston riff or The Kingsmen's 'Louie Louie.'" During the verses, Cobain used a Small Clone effect pedal to add a chorus effect.
"Smells Like Teen Spirit" uses a "somewhat conventional formal structure" consisting of four-, eight-, and twelve-bar sections, including an eight-bar verse, an eight-bar pre-chorus, and a twelve-bar chorus. Musicologist Graeme Downes, who led the band the Verlaines, says that "Smells Like Teen Spirit" illustrates developing variation. Elements of the structure are marked with shifts in volume and dynamics, moving from quiet to loud several times. This structure of "quiet verses with wobbly, chorused guitar, followed by big, loud hardcore-inspired choruses" became an alternative rock template.
During the verses the band maintains the same chord progression as the chorus. Cobain plays a two-note guitar line over Novoselic's root-note eighth note bassline, which outlines the chord progression. Approaching the chorus, Cobain begins to play the same two notes on every beat of the measure and repeats the word "Hello". Following the first and second choruses, Cobain simultaneously sings the word "Yay" and performs a unison bend on his guitar. After the second chorus, Cobain plays a 16-bar guitar solo restating his vocal melody from the verse and pre-chorus. During the closing refrain, Cobain sings "A denial" repeatedly; his voice becomes strained from the force of yelling.
Release and reception
"Smells Like Teen Spirit" was released to radio on August 27, 1991. On September 10, it was released as the lead single from Nevermind, Nirvana's major label debut on DGC Records. The song did not initially chart, and sold well only in regions of the United States with an established Nirvana fanbase.
The single was intended to be a base-building alternative rock cut from the album, and not expected to be a hit; the follow-up single "Come as You Are" was planned as the single that could cross over to mainstream formats. However, campus radio and modern rock radio stations placed "Smells Like Teen Spirit" on heavy rotation. Danny Goldberg of Nirvana's management firm Gold Mountain said: "None of us heard it as a crossover song, but the public heard it and it was instantaneous ... They heard it on alternative radio, and then they rushed out like lemmings to buy it."
The video received its world premiere on MTV's late-night alternative rock program 120 Minutes, and proved so popular that the channel began to air it during its regular daytime rotation. MTV added the video to its "Buzz Bin" selection in October, where it stayed until mid-December. By the end of the year, the song, music video, and the Nevermind album had become hits. "Smells Like Teen Spirit" and Nevermind became a rare cross-format phenomenon, reaching all the major rock radio formats including modern rock, hard rock, album rock, and college radio.
"Smells Like Teen Spirit" was also a critical success. It 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 albums chart. "Teen Spirit" hit number one on the Modern Rock Tracks chart, and has 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, 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 Performance with Vocal and Best Rock Song. Entertainment Weekly would later name Nirvana's loss to Eric Clapton in the Best Rock Song category as one of the 10 biggest upsets in Grammy history. Outside the United States, the song topped the charts of Belgium, France, New Zealand, and Spain. It charted within the top five of several European countries and reached number five in Australia. It appeared on several year-end charts, including number 10 in New Zealand, number 17 in Belgium and Germany, and number 32 on the Billboard Hot 100 Year-End Chart.
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 wrote 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 ... as Nirvana knows only too well, teen spirit is routinely bottled, shrink-wrapped and sold."
Nirvana grew uncomfortable with the song's success, and in later concerts often excluded it from the set list. 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 ... 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 suicide and Nirvana's breakup, "Smells Like Teen Spirit" has continued to garner critical acclaim, and is often listed as one of the greatest songs of all time. It was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame's list of "The Songs That Shaped Rock and Roll" in 1997. In 2000, VH1 rated the song at number forty-one on its "100 Greatest Rock Songs" list, while MTV and Rolling Stone ranked it third on their joint list of the "100 Greatest Pop Songs". The Recording Industry Association of America placed "Smells Like Teen Spirit" at number eighty on their 2001 "Songs of the Century" list. In 2002, NME awarded the song the number two spot on its list of "100 Greatest Singles of All Time", with Kerrang! ranking it at number one on its own list of the "100 Greatest Singles of All Time". VH1 placed "Smells Like Teen Spirit" at number one on its list of "100 Greatest Songs of the Past 25 Years" in 2003, while that same year, the song came third in a Q poll of the "1001 Best Songs Ever". In 2004, Rolling Stone ranked "Smells Like Teen Spirit" ninth on its list of "The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time", and described its impact as "a shock wave of big-amp purity", noting that "[it] wiped the lingering jive of the Eighties off the pop map overnight." The song was placed at number six in NME's "Global Best Song Ever Poll" in 2005.
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 the third-favorite lyric by over 13,000 voters. VH1 placed "Smells Like Teen Spirit" at number one on its list of the "100 Greatest Songs Of The '90s" in 2007, while Rolling Stone ranked it number ten on its list of "The 100 Greatest Guitar Songs of All Time". In 2009, the song was voted number one for the third time in a row on the Triple J Hottest 100 of All Time in Australia (it was first place previously in 1991 and 1998). That year, VH1 ranked the song seventh on its list of the "100 Greatest Hard Rock Songs". Despite previously proposing in its 2006 entry for Nevermind on "The All-TIME 100 Albums" that "'Smells Like Teen Spirit' ... may be the album's worst song," Time magazine later included it on its list of "The All-TIME 100 Songs" in 2011. That same year, "Smells Like Teen Spirit" kept its number nine ranking on Rolling Stone's updated list of "The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time". NME placed the song at number two on its list of the "100 Best Tracks Of The '90s" in 2012, and at number one on its list of "The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time" in 2014. In 2015, the song was also named the most iconic song of all time according to a study by Goldsmith's College, which analysed various songs featured in numerous 'all-time best' lists, using analytical software to compare their key, BPM, chord variety, lyrical content, timbral variety, and sonic variance – the result of which designated the title to this song.
"Smells Like Teen Spirit" was rereleased as a limited edition 7-inch vinyl single in December 2011. In an attempt to emulate a successful 2009 Facebook campaign to promote Rage Against the Machine's song "Killing in the Name", an online campaign was launched to promote "Smells Like Teen Spirit" to 2011 Christmas number one in the UK Singles Chart in protest at the dealings of The X Factor television series with the children's charity Rhythmix. A similar campaign was also launched in Ireland to get the track to 2011 Christmas number one in the Irish Singles Chart. The campaign resulted in the song reaching number 11 on the UK Singles Chart, selling 30,000 copies.
Lyrics and interpretation
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, 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."
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 Cobain, 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."
"Teen Spirit" is widely interpreted as a teen revolution anthem, an interpretation reinforced by the music video. In an interview conducted the day Nevermind was released, Cobain stated the song was about his friends, explaining, "We still feel as if we're teenagers because we don't follow the guidelines of what's expected of us to be adults ... It also has kind of a teen revolutionary theme." In Michael Azerrad's biography Come as You Are: The Story of Nirvana, Cobain said he felt a duty "to describe what I felt about my surroundings and my generation and people my age". He also 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." As Cobain did more interviews, he changed his explanation of the song and rarely gave specifics about the meaning. Grohl 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. Bayer believed he was hired because his test reel was so poor the band anticipated his production would be "punk" and "not corporate". The video is based on the concept of a school concert which ends in anarchy and riot, inspired by Jonathan Kaplan's 1979 film Over the Edge and the Ramones' film Rock 'n' Roll High School. It had an estimated budget between $30,000 and $50,000.
The video was filmed August 17, 1991 on a soundstage in Culver City. The music video features Nirvana 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 features an appearance by Burton C. Bell, later known as frontman of heavy metal band Fear Factory. Occasionally, the scene cuts to a janitor (played by Tony De La Rosa) wearing a navy blue jumpsuit and dancing with a push broom handle. The video ends with the students destroying the set and the band's gear. The discontent was genuine; 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 '[...] you', because they were so tired of this [...] throughout the day," Cobain said. Cobain disliked Bayer's final edit and oversaw a re-edit of the video, creating the final version. One of Cobain's major additions was the penultimate shot, a close-up of his face after it had been obscured for most of the video. Bayer said that unlike subsequent artists he worked with, Cobain was not vain, and was more interested 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" received positive reviews. 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". Rolling Stone placed the music video for "Smells Like Teen Spirit" at number two on their 1993 list of "The 100 Top Music Videos". MTV ranked the song's music video at number three on its "100 Greatest Music Videos Ever Made" list in 1999. VH1 placed the debut of the "Teen Spirit" video at number eighteen on its 2000 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)".
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"Smells Like Teen Spirit" was first performed live on April 17, 1991 at the OK Hotel in Seattle, Washington. The performance is featured on the DVD of the 2004 box set With the Lights Out, while shorter clips are included on the Nevermind Classic Albums DVD, as well as the documentary film Hype! As the song's lyrics had not yet been entirely written, there are notable differences between it and the final version. For example, the first performance started with "Come out and play, make up the rules" instead of the eventual opening of "Load up on guns, bring your friends". A recording of the earlier version appears on With the Lights Out and again on Sliver: The Best of the Box. A similar early live performance of the song is found in the documentary 1991: The Year Punk Broke, filmed during a 1991 summer tour in Europe with Sonic Youth.
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 pre-recorded 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. 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!!.
Parodies and appearances in other media
"Smells Like Teen Spirit" has 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 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. Pansy Division guitarist Jon Ginoli insisted that his band's version of the song was not a parody but "an affectionate tribute". In 2018, a video of the original Nirvana version was posted on Vimeo that had been auto-tuned to be in a major key. This resulted in the song sounding like a "mainstream pop song" or a Top 40 Rock song.
In 1996, World Championship Wrestling (WCW) debuted a theme song for a wrestler known as Diamond Dallas Page. The song, named "Self High-Five", resembled "Smells Like Teen Spirit" very closely. Dave Grohl took notice and called it a "rip-off", saying, "WCW owes us money." The music was subsequently altered to sound different enough from "Teen Spirit". No lawsuits or further action took place, but on WWE Network that version was dubbed over an alternative version known as "Diamonds".
The song has also appeared in films. In the 2001 film Moulin Rouge!, the song was sung during the "Can Can" scene introducing the titular nightclub. In the 2011 film The Muppets and its soundtrack, one of the acts of the Muppet Telethon involves Rowlf the Dog, Link Hogthrob, Sam Eagle, and Beaker performing the song as a barbershop quartet, where unwilling special guest Jack Black accuses them of "ruining one of the greatest songs of all time". A cover of the song (performed by the band Think Up Anger with Malia J) was featured in one of the trailers for the 2015 film The Gallows. In the 2015 film Pan, a version of the song is sung by Blackbeard (Hugh Jackman) and the miners when Peter first arrives in Neverland.
Formats and track listing
UK 7" single (DGC 5)
UK 12" single (DGCT 5)
UK CD single (DGCTD 5)
UK picture disc 12" single (DGCTP 5)
US 7" single (DGCS7-19050)
US CD single (DGCDS-21673)
US cassette single (DGCCS-19050)
- Kurt Cobain – guitar, vocals
- Krist Novoselic – bass guitar
- Dave Grohl – drums
- Butch Vig – recording and mixing engineer, producer
- Andy Wallace – mixing
Charts and certifications
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