Retro Perspective: A Look Back At Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” (1991)
As I write this, and most likely as you are reading this, it is not the anniversary of Kurt Cobain’s death (or celebration of his birthday) or of the release date of “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” Yet here I sit, transfixed over 25 years after this song was first heard ‘round the world and Nirvana, specifically Kurt Cobain, became a household name – and the (anti-)hero of Generation X (and Y and…).
Why did “Smells Like Teen Spirit”, off the album Nevermind, go down in musical history as such a famous song? It was heavily, yes, grungy and sludgy, but underneath the grimy murk were seriously shiny melodies, a catchy, shout-along chorus, brazen guitar hooks (especially that nimble intro), and a propulsive drum beat.
The lyrics of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” were also part ironic mockery, part perceptive mirror of that era’s disaffected and apathetic youth – at least from what can be heard and understood by the at times oblique lyrics. But what really caught fire was Cobain and company’s raw, anarchic catharsis, in sonic and emotional form.
The winding verses radiated an aura of lurking danger. Who was that weirdo drawling out his words with a tangy twang? And then the treacley, sing-song verses with Cobain’s needling vocal tone were blown to bits by the potently exploding and yes, angst-driven, chorus.
Who knew what the conflicted Cobain was singing about and what he really meant by it (What’s up with the line, “A mulatto, an albino, a mosquito, my libido” anyway?). What I was floored by was the power and the pain; by Cobain’s emotional vocal self-flagellation. He sounded like he was teetering on the edge on the chorus sections and falling off of it at the very end of the song.
As the guitars lungingly plunge and the drums dynamically batter around him, Cobain drains all his aggravation and frustration into his ferociously howling exclamations. He wasn’t holding back. He was sincere here and giving it his all. He was (for) real - and that’s what mattered.