"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 second album, Nevermind (1991), released on DGC Records. 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" in late 1991 propelled Nevermind to the top of the charts at the start of 1992, an event often marked as the point where alternative rock entered the mainstream. "Smells Like Teen Spirit" was Nirvana's 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 it received as a result. In the years since Cobain's death, listeners and critics have continued to praise "Smells Like Teen Spirit" as one of the greatest rock songs of all time.
- 1 Origins and recording[edit source | editbeta]
- 2 Composition[edit source | editbeta]
- 3 Release, success, and acclaim[edit source | editbeta]
- 4 Lyrics and interpretation[edit source | editbeta]
- 5 Music video[edit source | editbeta]
- 6 Live performances[edit source | editbeta]
- 7 Cover versions and parodies[edit source | editbeta]
- 8 Formats and track listing[edit source | editbeta]
- 9 Charts and certifications[edit source | editbeta]
Origins and recording[edit source | edit]
In a January 1994 Rolling Stone interview, Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain revealed that "Smells Like Teen Spirit" was an attempt to write a song in the style of the Pixies, a band he greatly admired. He explained:
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, it is the only song on Nevermind to credit all three band members as authors.
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, 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 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 theNevermind 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 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. Vig incorporated some sonic corrections into the basic live band performance because Cobain had timing difficulties when 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".
Composition[edit source | edit]
|"Smells Like Teen Spirit"MENU 0:00 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 syncopatedsixteenth note strum by Cobain. The guitar chords were double tracked because the band "wanted to make it sound more powerful," according to Vig.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. Listeners made many comments that the song bore a passing resemblance to Boston's 1976 hit "More Than a Feeling". Cobain himself held similar opinions, saying that it "was such a clichéd riff. It was so close to a Boston riff or [The Kingsmen's] 'Louie Louie.'" However, Rikky Rooksby points out that "Smells Like Teen Spirit" and "More Than a Feeling" follow different chord progressions.
"Smells Like Teen Spirit" uses 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). Musicologist Graeme Downes, who led the band The Verlaines, says that "Smells Like Teen Spirit" illustrates developing variation. 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".
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. As the song moves closer to the choruses, 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 that almost completely restates his vocal melody from the verse and pre-chorus. During the closing refrain, Cobain sings "A denial" repeatedly; his voice becomes strained and is almost shot from the force of yelling.
Release, success, and acclaim[edit source | edit]
Issued to radio on August 27, 1991, "Smells Like Teen Spirit" was released two weeks later on September 10 as the lead single from Nevermind, the band's major label debut on DGC Records. The song did not initially chart, and it sold well only in regions of the United States with an established fanbase for the group. "Smells Like Teen Spirit" was not expected to be a hit, for it was merely intended to be the base-building alternative rock cut from the album. It was anticipated that the follow-up single "Come as You Are" would be the song that could cross over to mainstream formats. However, campus radio and modern rockradio stations picked up on the track, and placed it on heavy rotation. Danny Goldberg of Nirvana's management firm Gold Mountain later admitted that "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 program120 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, its accompanying video, and the Nevermind album had become hits. Both the song 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" became 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 albums chart. "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 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.
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 Timesobserved 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 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," 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. 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 2009 the song was voted number one on Triple J Hottest 100 of All Time in Australia. In contrast, Timemagazine 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.".
"Smells Like Teen Spirit" was re-released 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", a similar online campaign has been launched to promote the Nirvana single 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, with 30,000 copies sold.
Lyrics and interpretation[edit source | edit]
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. 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". As Cobain did more interviews, he changed his explanation of the song and rarely gave specifics about the song's meaning. 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 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." The title of the song refers to the fact Vail teased Cobain by suggesting he smelled of her deodorant, Teen Spirit and would often say "Kurt smells like Teen Spirit!" The phrase "smells like teen spirit" was also scrawled on Vail's Bikini Kill bandmate Katherine Hanna's wall, which is also mentioned in Cross' book.
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."
Music video[edit source | edit]
The music video for "Smells Like Teen Spirit" was the first for director Samuel Bayer. Bayer stated he believed 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 that 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." The video had an estimated budget between $30,000 and $50,000.
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)".
Live performances[edit source | edit]
|"Smells Like Teen Spirit" (live)MENU 0:00 Sample of "Smells like Teen Spirit" by Nirvana, from the live album From the Muddy Banks of the Wishkah (1996). The band performs the song at a faster tempo than the studio recording.----|
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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!!
Cover versions and parodies[edit source | edit]
|"Smells Like Teen Spirit" (Tori Amos cover)MENU 0:00 Sample of "Smells Like Teen Spirit" as covered by Tori Amos on the Crucify EP (1992). Amos performs the song by herself on piano, where she slows down the tempo and enunciates the lyrics to the chorus clearly.----
"Smells Like Teen Spirit" (Paul Anka cover) MENU 0:00 Sample of "Smells Like Teen Spirit" as covered by Paul Anka on his album, Rock Swings (2005). Anka performs the song in an upbeat swing style.---- Smells Like Nirvana ('Weird Al' Yankovic parody) MENU 0:00 Sample of "Smells Like Nirvana" a parody of the song by 'Weird Al' Yankovic in which Kurt gave him permission while Nirvana was play on Saturday Night Live.----
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"Smells Like Teen Spirit" has been covered by numerous artists. One of the first cover recordings was an acoustic piano version by Tori Amos on her 1992Crucify EP, which Cobain referred to as "a great breakfast cereal version". The jazz trio The Bad Plus recorded the track for its CD These Are the Vistas, the Melvins recorded a version featuring former child star Leif Garrett, and the industrial act Xorcist also released a tribute. The Moog Cookbookput out a synthesizer-based cover version on The Moog Cookbook and the Japanese Beatboxer Dokaka has recorded a beatboxed cover version. British group The Flying Pickets released an a cappella version of the song on their album The Original Flying Pickets: Volume 1. Covers of the song on tribute albums include Blanks 77 on Smells Like Bleach: A Punk Tribute to Nirvana, and Beki Bondage on Smells Like Nirvana; both released in 2000. In 2002,Scala & Kolacny Brothers covered the song in choir style. In 2005, "Teen Spirit" was covered as a swing song by 1950s star Paul Anka. In 2006, the bandFlyleaf covered the song for Yahoo!'s LAUNCHcast service. In 2007, Patti Smith included a cover version, which incorporated a piece of her poetry, on her album of cover songs Twelve.
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. In 2011, an a capella, family-friendly version of the song was performed by Beaker, Link Hogthrob, Rowlf the Dog and Sam the Eagle for the film The Muppets and its soundtrack.
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. Pansy Division guitarist Jon Ginoli insisted that his band's version of the song was not a parody but "an affectionate tribute".
Formats and track listing[edit source | edit]
Charts and certifications[edit source | edit]
Peak positions[edit source | edit]
Certifications[edit source | edit]