Was Nirvana's angry, culture-shifting 1991 anthem really a revolution? Maybe not. But it changed my life.
The first time I heard “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” I was sitting in the passenger seat of a pickup truck in Tampa, Fla. It was the fall of 1991 and I was a washed-up baseball player who had just graduated from college.
My next idea was to become a writer. I played in a band, wrote in my journal and went drinking with my buddies every night. This was on my parents’ bill. America was locked in a deepening recession and I was a slacker, in the days before slackerdom became a viable marketing demographic.
There was more missing in my life than a steady job. College had been a great disappointment. All we did was sit around and talk about other times. I listened to Bob Dylan and wished I had been alive in the early 1960s. The Gulf War had stirred things up briefly, but how can you aim your discontent at a video game? I had been bred to believe that I had been born at the wrong time, that nothing happened in my generation and that the last real cultural and artistic revolution was at least 20 years in the past. I was thinking about getting a job in sales.
The stereo system in my friend’s pickup was the ultimate. He was the drummer in his own band and he needed sound, loud sound, to surround him at all times.
“Listen to these guys,” he said, putting on the album “Nevermind” by Nirvana. “Teen Spirit” clinked its first guitar riff, then roared to life. It was easy not to listen to music then. The Milli Vanillis and Tiffanys seemed to have drained the life out of the record charts.
But halfway through “Teen Spirit,” I sat up in my seat. Clearly, the singer was pissed off, though I couldn’t understand a word he was saying. But he was also reaching into the melodic stratosphere and coming back with a simple tune that made you want to do something, even if you were a washed-up ballplayer who thought you just wanted to drink beer.
“Jesus,” I said to my friend. “Who are these guys?” I was probably more alarmed than impressed.
He handed me the CD case. The cover’s picture of a naked baby swimming underwater, reaching for a dollar bill hung on a hook, seemed to say, “Nothing is sacred.” I opened it, and on the inside, there they were: Nirvana. And the blond guy was shooting me the bird.
The story of “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” and the success that this five minutes and two seconds attained, is the story of rock ‘n’ roll: ugly and beautiful and triumphant and tragic.
Music fans know about its writer, Kurt Donald Cobain of Aberdeen, Wash., by now. The product of divorce and other family dysfunction, heroin addiction and his own apparent psychological problems, Cobain in hindsight seems predestined for suicide, which came at the age of 27, at his Seattle home, with material success all around him.
Long before that, Cobain was a familiar character to anyone who attended high school in the United States. He was the skinny burnout, the guy who would pick a fight with a redneck, then get his ass kicked. He was Jeff Spicoli from “Fast Times at Ridgemont High,” but with an intellect and a venomous bite.
Cobain was different from the stereotypical burners in one crucial way. For whatever reason — practice, God’s gift, random fate — he was able to churn his cauldron of discontent into delicious, consumable music.
In the spring of 1991, Cobain’s rock ‘n’ roll dream was about to come true. Since his teenage days, when he was bouncing through foster homes and other shelters not his own, he had wanted to be a rock star. And anybody who was anyone in the music industry knew about his Geffen-signed band, Nirvana, and how it was about to break out.
Nirvana’s first record, 1989′s “Bleach,” was produced for a little over $600 and became the scuffed jewel of the alternative world (this being when “alternative” was something slightly more than a meaningless marketing label). Songs like “Blew,” “School,” “About a Girl,” “Floyd the Barber,” “Negative Creep” and a roaring cover of “Love Buzz” had a decidedly raw sound, a guttural collage of grunts and screams that every once in a while found middle ground in gorgeous melodies powered by Cobain’s sugary, coarse vocals.
Cobain was 24 years old in the spring of ’91, and his songwriting had hit that plateau that merges confidence and wisdom. He had become consistent with structure, sardonically tailoring a song around verse-chorus-verse, packaging the whole thing in Beatles-esque singalong. Spurred by the carrot of rock success, delving into his depression and addictions, he was writing the best lyrics of his life.
On April 17 of that year, Nirvana played “Teen Spirit” live for the first time at the O.K. Hotel in Seattle. It received a positive response, though Cobain and bassist Krist Novoselic joked that it was a Pixies rip-off.
The title of the song had roots in heartbreak, according to the sterling, disturbing Charles Cross biography “Heavier Than Heaven.” Before Courtney Love, Cobain had dated Tobi Vail, who played in Bikini Kill. Apparently, he had it bad for her, though she was less interested and eventually dumped him. One night, while hanging out at Cobain’s apartment, Vail’s Bikini Kill bandmate, Kathleen Hanna, took a can of spray paint and scrawled on the wall, “Kurt smells like Teen Spirit.”
See, Vail wore Teen Spirit, the deodorant. According to Hanna, Vail had marked Cobain with her scent.
Part of Cobain’s genius was that he was able to use this material objectively. The phrase is not found in the song itself. But as the song’s wry title, it hints at something primal: To the casual observer, whatever “it” he’s referring to doesn’t sound or look like teen spirit, something found at a high school football game. It smells like it. The reference is sexual, but it’s also a nod to a product that’s marketed and sold to young people like songs on the radio. It smells like something fake. And the singer wants, above all, something real.
The song was recorded with producer Butch Vig during Nirvana’s Los Angeles sessions in May and June of 1991. Though Cobain deserves most of the credit, “Teen Spirit” would not have been the same song without Dave Grohl on drums and Novoselic energetically bouncing along on bass. Grohl — like Ringo Starr, the late addition to the band, but one you can’t imagine missing — hit the skins so hard they had to change them every couple of songs during those recording sessions. His pounding in “Teen Spirit,” as much as Cobain’s overwhelming guitar, shove the song down the listener’s throat. But it’s Cobain’s lyrics and delivery that elevate it.
“Teen Spirit” wasn’t even close to being the first alternative or punk song to make it to Top 40. And he didn’t really say anything new; everything has already been written, after all, and most of it was covered by Shakespeare.
But “Teen Spirit” is something like Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind.” Old folksters will tell you that what Dylan said in that song wasn’t revolutionary to those in the know in 1963; he just managed to capture the right words and feelings floating around Greenwich Village and present it in a package the whole world could buy. “Teen Spirit,” too, was one of those rare moments when a song was pulled from the air of a scene — Seattle and its spreading ethos of youthful malaise and artistic meanderings — and became greater than the sum of its parts.
It’s a picture of modern youth, including those who have just entered adulthood but are unsure they actually want to stay there. It’s a group of friends sitting around on a couch in some apartment, overbored, not wanting to be bothered as they zone out to the Discovery Channel. They are completely detached from any political considerations; no politics engage them and no candidate moves them. And most of all, in this environment, it’s about the human need for something more — love, inspiration — and the realization that it might exist.
“Here we are now, entertain us,” a throwaway line used by Cobain, as the legend goes, when he entered a party, was the central force in the song’s chorus. Taking a first-person point of view, it reveals the song as an acerbic rant against those who follow the herd, those who buy records simply because they’re at the top of a chart or because MTV tells them to. Cobain, playing the role of the dupe, says he feels “stupid and contagious/ Here we are now, entertain us.” It’s a direct challenge to young consumers to find their own music, their own life.
Even the guitar solo is purposefully self-conscious and sarcastic: Cobain hated those hair-metal riffs so popular in the late ’80s, but the song needed something as a bridge, so he laid down a lazy, direct rip-off of the verse, and it ends up sounding like the voice of an adult in Charlie Brown’s world: “Wah-wah, wah-wah, wah-wah, wah-wah.”
At the moment Cobain should wrap up his point in poignant reflection, he does the entirely accurate thing. He sings, in a tired, cracked voice: “I find it’s hard, it’s hard to find/ Oh well, whatever, never mind.”
The line, perhaps more than any other pop lyric of the 1980s and ’90s, sums up the collective post-boomer generation and their apathetic reputations, without actually saying anything. It’s as if it’s the middle of a lazy day on that couch, and Cobain is trying to make a point about this strange world. But then he loses his train of thought, and since he doesn’t matter much anyway, and since there’s something halfway worth watching on TV, he’ll just let it go.
At the musical climax, with guitars and drums raging, Cobain’s apathy turns into a tirade, finally screaming what he truly believes: “A denial, a denial, a denial, a denial.” In Cobain’s furious voice, a denial is a crime, the worst kind.
With “Teen Spirit,” Cobain managed to put his finger on something that was lingering — at least subconsciously — in the minds of many who listened: a general, angry disenchantment with (take your pick) the music industry, ’80s greed that turned into ’90s recession, TV-news patriotism, Republican politics, baby boomers and their self-centered view of their lives and history, etc.
The album “Nevermind,” with “Teen Spirit” as the lead single, was released on Sept. 24, 1991. Although Nirvana clearly had a salable product, MTV, which had looked like a vehicle for music revolution just 10 years earlier, balked at playing the “Teen Spirit” video. According to Cross, some hard lobbying from 22-year-old MTV programmer Amy Finnerty landed the clip a place on “120 Minutes.”
The “Teen Spirit” video — masterminded by Cobain — takes the song’s lyrics a step further: Not only is the lead singer upset about something, he’s doing something about it. He’s turning a high-school pep rally of misfits into a mosh-pit riot. It’s a giant release, a microcosm of the nation’s malcontents finally demanding control of their own history.
And the essence of Nirvana is clearly portrayed. Grohl is a monster on the drums, hair and arms flying like a cartoon caricature. Novoselic was drunk and high during the filming, according to biographer Michael Azerrad, and his stringy dark hair disguises his baby-faced mug and turns him into a way-out rocker. Cobain, with his greasy blond locks and striped Freddy Krueger shirt, looks downright insane, bouncing like an ape at one point, then literally mugging the camera. It’s rock ‘n’ roll — a celebration, with a message.
The collective power of a catchy tune, meaningful lyrics and a kick-ass video is undeniable. But “Teen Spirit” was so infectious, and the other songs on the album so strong, that “Nevermind” (which was almost titled “Sheep”) became the thing it tried to mock — a hot commodity. It hit No. 35 on Billboard’s charts within four weeks, and would’ve risen more quickly than that, according to Cross, if the label hadn’t underestimated demand, causing a shortage of “Nevermind” CDs.
On Jan. 11, 1992, Nirvana’s major-label debut took the No. 1 Billboard spot from Michael Jackson. The culmination reeked with symbolism — a ’90s band unseats the king of 1980s pop. Five months earlier, the idea of an alternative band with hardcore leanings and a troubled lead singer topping the pops would have seemed laughable. But this was clearly the start of something new, something fresh, something young. It might not be considered a revolution in the purest sense of the word. Ultimately, no bills were passed; no capital buildings were burned; no battles were fought; no queens were miffed. But a pop-culture movement, led by Cobain’s “Teen Spirit,” altered the American landscape.
Eventually, in the media’s suddenly open eyes, everything youthful was hip again. Coffeehouses — the daytime hangouts for Seattle’s young people — became the basis for a burgeoning business empire. Flannel shirts and torn jeans found their way onto Manhattan fashion runways. Sitcoms revolved around the use of a goatee. Movies like “Wayne’s World” mocked slackers while taking their money. Commercials used the word “dude” far too often.
In short, alternative became commercial. It all started with “Teen Spirit,” a song that lamented that very idea. Then, the media started calling the song an anthem, and they called Cobain — who slept in his car the week “Teen Spirit” was released — the spokesperson for a generation.
There were many pop culture forces at work in the early 1990s. Douglas Coupland had already published the book “Generation X” (and, for better or worse, named a generation). Other bands, like Sonic Youth and Pearl Jam, were making indelible, generation-defining music. A deeper look reveals that Cobain was not a spokesperson for anything. He simply was a grand musician, a troubled talent.
Lost in all the hype was the message of the song. As Cobain himself once derisively predicted, people were marching to the stores to buy the record because the marketing machine told them to. The flock of sheep had not found a spokesperson; they simply found another bellwether.
I was just the type of fan that Cobain would’ve hated — the redneck who doesn’t know Bikini Kill from the Go-Gos, who had spent his teen life listening to Tom Petty and Bryan Adams before coming across Dylan’s greatest-hits album.
But Cobain’s music and lyrics confronted and changed me. They forced me to see a world I had previously avoided, mainly because my friends and I never walked that direction. Cobain was the first writer from my own age group to capture my attention.
When you want to write for a living, this is a seductive and powerful thing. You see that it’s possible to communicate ideas to a large audience, and you feel envy that someone else in your generation is getting the glory. Most of all, it empowers you to chase your own thoughts.
It helps that the artist in question is eccentric. Cobain served a necessary role for any wannabe. He was like Brad Pitt in “Fight Club”; he was the artist in your mind, the rebellious alter ego bubbling up inside everyone who lives a conformist cubicle existence.
I fell hard into the pop-culture swoon of the early ’90s. I moved to Atlanta, imagining it to be a Southern version of Seattle. I took on odd jobs (greens keeper, waiter, telemarketer) while scribbling my thoughts on life. Looking back on my journals, I can see that my stuff was poorly written, goateed posing, none of which I’ll share here, thanks. But I had invented a new person, one completely different from the one I had been before Kurt Cobain.
But pop culture fantasies never last, and, though it wasn’t apparent at the time, “Teen Spirit” and its revolution were finished the moment the song hit No. 1.
I went to see Nirvana for the first and only time in Atlanta in November of 1993. Their new album, “In Utero,” was out, and since it didn’t have another “Teen Spirit” on it, it was earning less radio play and fewer sales.
I didn’t really know about Cobain’s worsening heroin addiction, which in five months would lead him, directly or indirectly, to suicide. But I remember that he broke a string on his guitar and then pissed and moaned about how long it took the stagehands to get him a new one.
“What are they tuning,” he asked into the microphone, “a fucking harp?”
The audience laughed — surly Kurt was as surly as ever! Months later, when MTV aired Nirvana’s “Unplugged in New York” broadcast following Cobain’s suicide, I watched him say the same thing in the same situation. It was an act, after all, no more genuine than a singer inserting a city’s name into a song, just to get the crowd to cry out that it has been acknowledged.
Nirvana played “Teen Spirit” that night in Atlanta, and it pretty much sucked. Cobain sprinted and screeched his way through, and the mosh pit below moshed as they should, not unlike Pavlov’s dogs drooling at the sound of a bell. “Teen Spirit” had run the full course of rock. It was stale, two years after it had changed everything.
So was Cobain. Life was stale for him and he’d end it soon.
I was back home in Tampa again when he killed himself. I was working as a writer for local television news, where I had the honor of writing the 25-second voice-over on his death for the evening newscast. I stretched it to 35 seconds.
A few weeks later, I went with a group of people to this “alternative” bar in Tampa’s Ybor City district. The place was lit by black lights, with odd dance mixes and people with multiple piercings moving in interpretive styles. When I was in college, I used to go there to make fun of people; but on this night, we were there to have fun.
Then the D.J. put on “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and the dance floor was packed. I stood and watched. It was an odd thing: It looked like an energetic mourning, because the song was no longer an angry release, a spear in the ground. It was just a reminder that the guy who wrote it and sang it was dead.
People moshed with peculiar intensity. But it didn’t look like they were having fun. They just looked like they felt the need to do this as a sort of private salute — or maybe they did it just because everyone else was doing it.
After five minutes and two seconds, the music growled to an end. Some people filtered off the dance floor as another song came on. But others stayed to dance to the new song, whatever it was.