On this day in 1991, Nirvana changed music history. At the O.K. Hotel in Seattle, Washington, they casually announced to the crowd “this song is called ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit.'” In the video, the audience doesn’t react until the song starts playing. And it’s strange to see. Typically, if Kurt Cobain announced they were playing the song, the audience would go wild, but this was the first time.
The Success of ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’
The effect the song had on the audience was instantaneous. The instantaneous effect the song had on the audience was similar to the effect Smells Like Teen Spirit had when it was officially released. The four chords that make up Smells Like Teen Spirit weren’t necessarily the groundbreaking part of the song. The melody and Cobain’s consistently astonishing vocals left a permanent imprint.
Smells Like Teen Spirit went from its debut at a fairly modest venue by a popular indie band to a top ten pop hit. The song, which was included on their second album Nevermind, launched Nirvana into fame. The song was later performed on Saturday Night Live. Smells Like Teen Spirit became a staple song for not only the music scene in Seattle but the music of the 90s. It would later go on to be listed under Rolling Stone’s “Top 500 Greatest Songs of all Time.”
It’s undeniable that Cobain’s scribbled out lyrics of Smells Like Teen Spirit, with doodles and all, were later transformed into one of the most iconic songs in history. But that success, unfortunately, wasn’t necessarily a positive experience for Cobain.
The Complex Legacy of Nirvana’s ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’
When it comes to the inspiration for the song, Cobain cited The Pixies in a 1994 Rolling Stone interview.”I was trying to write the ultimate pop song.” Cobain said, “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 I should have been in that band — or at least in a Pixies cover band.”
The title for the song came from a phrase written on his motel room wall by a friend, Kathleen Hannah, that said “Kurt Smells Like Teen Spirit.” It was a reference to Hannah’s former bandmate, Tobi Vall, who Cobain used to date. Vall wore “Teen Spirit” deodorant. Cobain wasn’t aware that “Teen Spirit” was a deodorant until after the release of the song.
The meaning of the song is infamously murky. Cobain would even change what he said about the meaning of the lyrics from interview to interview. Many interpret the song as an anthem about teen revolution. Others interpret the song as a more satirical representation of teenage apathy.
Eventually, performing Smells Like Teen Spirit became a near chore for Cobain. It’s clear that it wasn’t one of his favorite songs. He repeatedly described the chorus as “clichéd”. During the same interview with Rolling Stone in January of 1994, Cobain said of the song, “Everyone has focused on that song so much. The reason it gets a big reaction is people have seen it on MTV a million times. It’s been pounded into their brains. But I think there are so many other songs that I’ve written that are as good, if not better, than that song.”
The Loss of Kurt Cobain
Almost three years after Smells Like Teen Spirit first debuted, Kurt Cobain passed away in his Seattle home after struggling with drug addiction and suicidal thoughts. His death by suicide left a permanent wound on the music industry and the world at large. It’s a wound that can still be felt to this day.
While Cobain passed almost thirty years ago on April 4th, 1994, his legacy shines bright. Those who weren’t even alive at the same time, people in the communities he spoke up for, and fellow singers continue to pay tribute to him and lament the tragic loss. Even last week, Rapper Kid Cudi wore a dress to pay tribute to Kurt Cobain. Cobain wore a dress in 1993 on the cover of The Face, a now-defunct British magazine.
Whether you love or hate Smells Like Teen Spirit, its place in music history is undeniable. Though, in honor of Cobain, it’s worth it to check out his other songs. Cobain’s outspoken and bold persona and masterful vocals have placed him in music infamy long after his tragic passing.