“Smells Like Teen Spirit” developed slowly, and via a period of accretive gestation. Kurt Cobain, the singer and songwriter whose presence dominates Nevermind, had been spending time with the leading lights of the riot grrrl band Bikini Kill. One of their recreational activities was leaving graffiti on the walls of their friends apartments (in the bohemian circles that constitute indie rock subculture, this is and remains de rigueur). Bikini Kill singer Kathleen Hanna scrawled the phrase “Kurt smells like Teen Spirit” on a wall; she was referring to Teen Spirit, a deodorant marketed to teenagers. The phrase suggests both different kinds on insecurity and bodily awareness, and it stuck in Cobain’s mind. Cobain, along with Krist Novoselic and newly-added drummer Dave Grohl, went to Los Angeles to record Nevermind in the spring of 1991. It is here, in the studio, that Cobain initiated the musical and lyrical ideas that led to “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” The musical elements of this song are deceptively simple: a handful of chords, all major, a sense of alternation between loud and soft parts (often thought to be inherited from indie rockers The Pixies, who had their heyday as Cobain was coming of age), a tight pop song structure (verse-chorus-verse, with a guitar solo that echoed the melody of the verses), and an addictive melody. What set “Teen Spirit” apart immediately was how ominous these chords were, and how skillfully Cobain had interwoven a melody catchy enough to fit into a Beatles tune.
As compelling as these elements were, they wouldn’t stick as a sort of popular musical handbook for revolutions if the lyrics didn’t also present extraordinary qualities. The lyrics are extraordinary, for in them we find one key to the psyche of the American teenager in the early 1990s. In a kind of dramatic monologue, we find a protagonist who wavers between diffidence and aggression; who attempts to define himself and then hide himself from being defined; who wants to join into social situations but mocks others who join in; and who ends his monologue with what could be called an “affirmative denial,” which seems to point fingers at all of those around him, exposing weaknesses, expressing deep self-hatred and a need to abase whatever crosses his path. It is an ominous monologue, with threats and overtones and undercurrents of violence that make themselves clear as soon as the lyrics kick in. Combined with ominous chords, and a slithering bass line that dominates instrumentally during the verses, “Teen Spirit” unsettles preconceived notions of normalcy among American adolescents. It is a song that cuts across lines, specifically sub-cultural lines, because it had (and has) something for everyone— melody for the nicer kids, grunge for the metal-heads and stoners, interesting lyrics for bookish nerds, etc. The video extends all these facets by presenting Cobain and his band-mates in a high school gymnasium, dimly lit, with a crowd of angry teenagers flailing away to the song. Sam Bayer, who directed the video, was careful to hide Cobain’s face for most of the video; Cobain is dressed casually; the whole video is geared visually from sepia to black, and with cheerleaders also dressed in black, and with anarchy signs pinned to their outfits, it is clear that, despite the song’s extreme catchiness, we are not meant to be comforted. Confrontations often beget revolutions; this confrontational moment was so effective on so many levels that the floodgates opened, a sea of bands, often from Seattle, became overnight successes, and Alternative Rock, that dominated the popular music landscape of the 1990s, was born.
It needs to be iterated, however, that the mores and structural apparatuses of indie rock were more or less in place by the time Nirvana took center-stage in 1991. The most obvious precursors to Nirvana were R.E.M., a pop band based in Athens, Georgia, who reaped considerable critical acclaim for their music before 1987, when “The One I Love,” which shares certain thematic elements with “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” became a bona fide pop hit. R.E.M. were the quintessential indie band of the 1980s; loners who almost immediately received major label attention, but who nonetheless progressed gradually into the higher echelons of the music business, all the while staying true to their roots. Because their music was enormously successful on college radio stations before it was heard on major radio stations, because they put out several successful albums on indie labels before signing to a major label in the late 1980s, R.E.M. were seen to be paragons of indie integrity; good guys who had a healthy disdain for the machinations of big record labels; mavericks whose gradual upward movements set precedents; and genuine artists, who evinced a sense of responsibility towards several worlds at once every time they made an aesthetic decision. “The One I Love” has many constituent elements of what came to be called, in the late 1980s, “classic rock”: a sound dominated by guitars, melodious vocals, and tight pop song structures. However, the mood of this particular song is foreboding: singer Michael Stipe’s lyrics express alienation, frustration, and a sense of irony about the possibilities inherent in relationships, rather than faith, inspiration, and moon-in-June dreaminess.
All the same, “The One I Love” was not quite strong enough to start the revolution that “Teen Spirit” did. “The One I Love” was, however, a kind of interior revolution within the confines of the indie rock world. Bands like Nirvana realized that they could be successful in a competitive marketplace; that pop song structures did not have to be inimical to indie instincts; that being content to grow gradually was the best survival strategy for indie bands; and that there was, in fact, a substantial audience for songs with dark, brooding subtexts, and for lyrics with multiple meanings. By the time Kurt Cobain and Nirvana became famous, genuflecting to R.E.M. had become another de rigueur move. The sense of revolutions dictated that Cobain had to respect and venerate those that had cleared the path for him, his band, and his songs. Nevertheless, the dynamic progression Cobain made took him far beyond the bounds of what R.E.M. had achieved. The world of “Teen Spirit” is a realm of almost total darkness; but it is a realm of well-articulated darkness, with many layers of lyrical meaning creating a sense of Dantescan rings around characters like his most famous, and famously unnamed, protagonist. It is ironic that many older listeners claimed not to be able to hear Cobain’s lyrics; many generations of kids, and around the world, have understood these lyrics only too well. I was fifteen in 1991; what Cobain had done was to take my alienation, and the alienation of the kids around me, and to put it into palpable form, without sugarcoating it or turning it into hokey, facile rebellious moves, as so many other rock lyricists have done. The Alternative Rock that followed in the 1990s mostly tried to articulate the same things, with varying levels of success. It may be that, as far as posterity is concerned, “Teen Spirit” was its own, self-enclosed, revolution: complete, self-sufficient. Perhaps that is the case when any masterpiece breaks through in a meaningful way.
Adam Fieled, 2010