Article about Smells Like Teen Spirit
Album: Nevermind. Release date: September 1991. Peak chart position: No. 6 (twenty weeks on the chart). Songwriters: Kurt Cobain, Nirvana. Producers: Butch Vig, Nirvana.
The first time Butch Vig heard "Smells Like Teen Spirit", in early 1991, it sounded like shit. Vig, who was about to produce Nevermind, the first major-label album by Nirvana, had received a tape of the song in the mail from the singer, songwriter and guitarist Kurt Cobain – a boom box cassette recorded by Cobain, bassist Krist Novoselic and drummer Dave Grohl in a barn in Tacoma, Washington.
"I couldn’t hear anything," Vig says, laughing. "I could sort of hear the ‘Hello, Hello’ part, and the chords. But it was so indecipherable that I had no idea what to expect."
The next time Vig heard "Teen Spirit" was in a Los Angeles practice space, during a preproduction session for Nevermind. The band was "goofing around," Vig recalls. "I said, ‘Why don’t you guys run through some stuff?’ And they played that first. It fucking blew my mind. I kept trying to figure out excuses to get them to play the song again: ‘We could tighten up the arrangement. Why don’t you play it again, let me take some notes?’
"Kurt could never bother with doing things more than once or twice," Vig says. "But he was really into playing that song. He knew it was good."
"Smells Like Teen Spirit" was better than good. It was revolution in a bottle, an agent of change in the tradition of the Beatles’ "I want to hold your hand" and Bob Dylan’s "Like a Rolling Stone". Within weeks of its release, on September 10th, 1991 (two weeks ahead of Nevermind), "Teen Spirit" – five minutes of lyric choler and power-trio armageddon – had shut the door on the 1980s with withering finality. Michael Jackson, big-hair metal and stadium-rock ham was out. Bawling guitars, thrift-shop flannel and dysfunctional candor were in with a vengeance.
"The song was a call to consciousness", Novoselic says today. "There was this conservative government. Culture was stagnant. The song was this sledgehammer that came along and bonged it all." With "Teen Spirit", Nirvana – minor celebrities in the Northwest underground – became superstar totems of a rock & roll America waiting to happen: Alternative Nation.
"Teen Spirit" was also a paragon of howling-pop architecture, a lesson in the depths of simplicity. The song is built on a four-chord sequence rooted in the primitive magnetism of classic garage and arena rock; Cobain once likened his guitar part in "Teen Spirit" to "a Boston riff or ‘Louie, Louie.’ "The drama is in the song’s devilish cycle of mood swings: from Cobain’s grainy vocal melancholy and the band’s swinging menace in the verses to the Who-ish ferocity and shredded-larynx despair in the choruses. A short, vicious hook – an avalanchelike drum roll by Grohl and Cobain’s sour "Yeah!" doubled no guitar – acts as a bridge back into the soft-loud loop. And there is no guitar solo. In his break, Cobain, who had a pathological fear of rock-god corn, just plays his vocal line note for note – an effective echo of the melody’s black beauty.
The structure of "Teen Spirit" was virtually complete by the time Nirvana arrived at Sound City, a studio in Van Nuys, California, on May 2nd, 1991 to begin recording Nevermind. Novoselic describes the writing of the song, up in Tacoma, as quick and instinctive: "Kurt had the chorus of the song – that four-chord riff and the vocal melody. We jammed on that riff, broke it down into a groove, and that turned out to be the verse of the song. There’s that little bridge. And that’s the song". The recording was just as brisk. Nirvana cut the basic track for "Teen Spirit" live in three takes; the second was the keeper.
Vig suggested minor changes in the band’s arrangement. "There was an alternate melody in the verse that didn’t move around as much", he says. "It was more monochromatic." Vig encouraged Cobain to go with the stair-step effect of the recorded version. Vig also moved the bridge from the end of the song, where Nirvana originally had it, to the heart of the turmoil. "The song sounded weird to me, coming out of the chorus, back into the quiet verse. That stop-and-go thing with the guitar and vocal breaks up the roar of the chorus."
Cobain admitted cribbing the seesaw tension of "Teen Spirit" from one of his favorite bands, the Pixies. "When I heard the Pixies for the first time, I connected with that band so heavily that I should have been in that band", Cobain said in a 1993 interview. "We used their sense of dynamics, being soft and quiet and then loud and hard."
But as a songwriter, Cobain worked according to an even higher standard. "Kurt loved the Beatles", says Novoselic. "He thought John Lennon was his spiritual father. He had a dream one time that John Lennon was his uncle." According to Novoselic, Cobain once spent a night at home listening non-stop to Meet the Beatles!, then came to Nirvana’s next rehearsal with "About a Girl", a Lennon-esque highlight of the band’s 1989 Sub Pop album, Bleach.
"He wrote all the time," Vig says of Cobain. During the Nevermind sessions, Vig always caught Cobain playing a guitar or singing to himself between takes. "We’d be setting up to do an overdub or a vocal and he would start strumming. I would go, ‘Kurt, what’s that?’ It would be a gorgeous melody, and I would think, ‘We should get this on tape.’
"But as soon as I made an attempt to do that, he would stop. He squashed his pop sensibility. He had that dichotomy of punk rage and alienation but also this vulnerable pop sensibility. In ‘Teen Spirit’, a lot of that vulnerability is in his singing, in the tone of his voice."
The distress in Cobain’s vocal performance is also the sound of mocking rage. In that ’93 interview, Cobain – then deep into a love-hate affair with "Teen Spirit" – tried to pass off his lyrics as a kind of joke. "Here we are now, entertain us" was, he said, "something I used to say every time I used to walk into a party to break the ice."
Novoselic says "Teen Spirit" is much deeper and darker than that – "an insight into how Kurt thought of the world", Cobain would sit in his apartment for hours watching TV "and record things that he thought were interesting," In a 1989 [it was actually in 1990, RH] show at Evergreen Stage College in Olympia, Washington, Nirvana performed in front of a video montage Cobain created from footage of press-on-nail commercials and young women with poodle hairdos.
"Teen Spirit" is an indictment of all that", Novoselic claims. "’Here we are now, entertain us’ – that could have been him sitting there, watching TV, aghast at popular culture."
The song title refers to an actual brand of deodorant and comes from a phrase that singer Kathleen Hanna of Bikini Kill spray-painted on Cobain’s bedroom wall during a night of exuberant drinking: KURT SMELLS LIKE TEEN SPIRIT.
"Teen Spirit" is also vividly autobiographical – and eerily prophetic. A conflicted soul who broadcast his terrified introversion with headbanging bravado, Cobain was at his best as a songwriter when he turned his flair for paradoxical wordplay on himself. "I’m worse at what I do best/And for this gift I feel blessed," Cobain sings in the second verse. You can hear, in those lines and Cobain’s anguished voice, the next – and last – three years of his life in all of their explosive contradiction."
Vig could see the sobering evidence in the studio. "He was so polar", he says of Cobain. "He would be really engaging and witty, and ten minutes later he would sit in the corner and not speak to anyone for an hour. I was like, ‘Kurt, are you OK?’ He wouldn’t answer me."
But Vig says he never saw Cobain give less than his best when he sang "Smells Like Teen Spirit": "For him, it was the adrenaline rush, the fix you get from exorcising demons. The way he would push his vocals in the choruses – he would go for it every single time. He would never do a lame take."
Novoselic is reluctant to say if "Teen Spirit" is Cobain’s best song. Nevermind and Nirvana’s final studio album, 1993’s In Utero, are loaded with contenders: "In Bloom", "Lithium", "Dumb", Pennyroyal Tea". But "Teen Spirit", Novoselic admits, "is our flagship song. It changed the world. And ourselves. "I’m telling you – Kurt was an amazing talent. He had an ear for melody and a very high standard in how he wanted to present himself. That’s why it’s a quality song."