Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” was released on this day, 23 years ago….and it’s still as powerful now as it was back then.
I spent the better part of my teenage years listening to a lot of 90s hip-hop and some R&B (the Boys II Men, All For One and R. Kelly-kind, not the early 60s The Who, Cream or Jeff Beck, guitar-orientated kind) because that was the music I had available to me at the time via TV and local radio stations in Botswana, where I lived.
In the mid to late 90s the internet and satellite TV came to town and with it both MTV and VH1 and a whole new world of music opened up for me. I would spend countless hours after school sitting in front of the TV, watching video after video on MTV and instead of going out and partying on Friday nights, I’d often spend it at home (at least for a while), listening to and watching the “Friday Rocks” show on VH1, which was an even deeper plethora of rock music and videos from bands I’d never heard from before.
It was during these music video binges that I came across a video and a band and a song that would forever change the way I looked at and experienced music. The band was Nirvana and the song (and subsequent video) was the gigantic hit “Smells Like Teen Spirit”. From the opening riff to the last fading scream, I was hooked and hooked hard. This was something I had never heard before. It was scary, it was loud, it was angry, it was new (to me) and I loved it. I’d hook up my stereo to the TV and wait for the song just so that I could record it on cassette and listen to it all the time on my Walkman. And I wasn’t the only one hooked on this track and on the subsequent album, Nevermind, that it was featured on.
On September 10th of 1991 “Smells Like Teen Spirit” was released just a few days before the release of Nirvana’s magnificent album “Nevermind” and it was the first single and the first track on the record. It reached #1 in Belgium, France, New Zealand, Spain and on the US Hot Modern Rock Tracks chart and the single went Platinum in the US where it sold over 1 million copies. Today marks 23 years since the song was released and it doesn’t seem to have aged a bit. I won’t go into all the analysis or interpretation or influence the song had on popular culture at the time because there’s a lot of that stuff all over the web. This is more a personal insight into what the song meant to me at the time (and how its influence echoes in my soul to this day).
Like most teenagers at the time, I was angry, frustrated, annoyed with everything and, as with most teenagers who heard “Smells Like Teen Spirit” at the time, the song, the music and Kurt Cobain’s raw and gritty vocals and lyrics spoke to me and made me feel a little better about things and about my life at that time. The song begins with a simple riff, loud, explosive drumming from Dave Grohl get things underway and then, in stark contrast Krist Novoselic’s steady and simple bass line slows it all down again before Cobain comes in with the infamous lyrics “Load up on guns, bring your friends…” in a slow, calm manner. The song then literally erupts into a chorus of anger and furious energy as all three musicians beat hard on their instruments as Kurt sings “With the lights out, it’s less dangerous….here we are now, entertain us…”
To me, the song represented everything I felt at the time, as young teenager. It got me hooked onto rock music and even inspired me to want to learn to play the guitar. I started going for lessons where one day, after learning a few basic chords and the rhythm of “Kumbaya”, I brought my cassette to my guitar teacher and told him “I want to learn to play THIS!” I played him the song and the guitar teacher put down his acoustic guitar, pulled out a black hard case from under the table, opened it up and brought a gleaming Gibson Les Paul electric guitar. He plugged it into his amp and within a few minutes (after having me play him the opening riff a couple of times from the cassette) he showed me how to play the intro to the song. Needless to say, once I heard that sound live and in person, so to speak, I was over the whole “G, A, Dm” and “Kumbaya” nonsense! I wanted to play me some real rock music.
The song “Smells Like Teen Spirit” was a “teenage anthem” as the media called it at the time (even though the title came from a graffiti Cobain’s friend sprayed on a wall saying that Kurt smelt like the deodorant “Teen Spirit”) but it still resonated to this very day, not only among a new generation of teens but among the 90’s teens that have gotten older and more mature. The song changes perspective as the listener changes and grows, which is what makes it a timeless classic… one that is capable of holding its own with the likes of Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven”, “Hendrix’s “Purple Haze”, The Who’s “My Generation”, AC/DC’s “Highway to Hell” and so on and so on. It has morphed from a song about teenage rebellion and dissatisfaction (“I feel stupid and contagious…Here we are now, entertain us”) to a song that reflects the mood of the times and how things haven’t really changed that much which is something that many of us today, and not just teenagers, can relate to.
I eventually learned to play “Smells Like Teen Spirit” on guitar and would drive my folks up the wall by playing it over and over again. I learned the lyrics off by heart and subsequently became obsessed with Nirvana (as seen by my collection of album, books, tshirts, stickers, posters etc). Looking back to that period in my life, the song opened up a whole new musical world to me and this song, along with a couple of others at the time, inspired me to focus on the lyrics in a song as well, rather than just the music. I collected all of Nirvana’s albums on CD’s back then and as I grew older and started getting more and more serious about the music I was listening to and thus started collecting vinyl records (read my article on the vinyl revival here), I started collecting records of my favourite and most influential bands. It became my unwritten goal to collect all the albums on vinyl of my favourite bands, which included Led Zeppelin (complete), Pink Floyd (complete), AC/DC (almost complete), Metallica (almost complete) and of course Nirvana (complete).
A few years ago, three to be exact, “Smells Like Teen Spirit” was re-released as a single to commemorate the 20-year anniversary of the release of the track and a number of vinyl singles were issued as well, of which I managed to get a copy of. It wasn’t because the song brought out my inner teenage rebel (not that I was much of a teenage rebel anyway), but rather because “Smells Like Teen Spirit” had changed the way I thought about music and because it’s a song that explores the depth of human emotion, anger, suffering, fear and denial and those are issues that will always be prevalent in society and Cobain managed to capture that essence in his lyrics and this essence is valid and relevant today as it was back in 1991 and probably will be 23 years from today.
“I’m worse at what I do best and for this gift I feel blessed.” – Kurt Cobain