Tuesday, January 04, 2005


For sale in the local grocery store: Teen Spirit stick deodorant. Orchard smell. From the good folks @ Colgate-Palmolive.

What Would Kurt Say?

As it turns out, not much.

"Smells Like Teen Spirit" was the song that brought Nirvana and grunge music to the attention of teenagers around the world. While melodically and harmonically simple, it featured a minimalistic, moody verse with stream of consciousness lyrics rising to a ferocious chorus, and Kurt Cobain's voice showing its range from tuneful melancholy to primal scream. It is vaguely based around a riff using four power chords (F-Bb-Ab-Db) with more than a passing similarity to a section of Boston's AOR classic "More Than a Feeling", as well as Blue Öyster Cult's "Godzilla".

The song reached number 1 for many weeks on singles pop charts around the world in 1991. Sales of the single and album in the United Kingdom were slowed by an appearance on the BBC's Top of the Pops music chart show, during which Cobain sang in a falsetto, emphasizing the non-conformist message of the song and band.

"Teen Spirit" is a U.S. deodorant brand. Cobain got the song name when Kathleen Hanna of Bikini Kill spray painted "Kurt Smells Like Teen Spirit" on his wall. Since they had been talking about anarchy, punk rock and similar and other topics, Cobain took it to be a slogan in that vein. Hanna, however, had meant that Kurt smelled like the deodorant - the brand that Tobi Vail, her band mate, and Kurt's then-girlfriend, wore. Cobain claimed that he did not know it was a brand of deodorant, and in retrospect was unhappy that a commercial product was named in the song.

In Heavier Than Heaven (ISBN 0786865059), Charles Cross' biography of Kurt Cobain, an argument is made that the song is a reference to Kurt's break-up with Tobi Vail. This argument is backed up by lyrics which were present in earlier drafts, which can be seen in Kurt's Journals (ISBN 1573222321), such as "Why don't you cry when I'm away / Oh yeah we want what's best for you" and "Who will be the King & Queen of the outcasted teens".

Nirvana's Nevermind album, on which "Smells Like Teen Spirit" appears, took its title from the name of an album by the Sex Pistols (whom Kurt was very fond of) - Never Mind the Bollocks, Here's the Sex Pistols, as well as from a line in "Teen Spirit" which goes "I find it hard, it's hard to find / Oh well, whatever, never mind". It is also important to note that the word "nevermind" truly fit Kurt's apathetic, defeated view of life in general.

The music video with its surreal high school setting was also notable. It was inspired by the 1979 film Over the Edge, of which Kurt Cobain was a fan. The video featured the band playing at a dimly-lit high school pep rally that quickly transformed into a mosh pit.

The song was covered by Tori Amos on the Crucify E.P. and by the jazz band The Bad Plus. It was parodied by Weird Al Yankovic as "Smells like Nirvana", a song about Nirvana itself. Weird Al's parody was about how nobody can understand Cobain's lyrics, which was appropriate as Kurt's vocal was mixed down in the song, rendering it unintelligible. Kurt admitted in interviews to being very fond of the parody. In a diary entry later published in Journals, Kurt described "Weird" Al as the closest thing America has to punk rock. Band mate Krist Novoselic later said that the band realized that it had arrived as rock stars when Weird Al parodied them.

In a January, 1994 Rolling Stone magazine interview, Kurt, months away from his death, admitted that "Smells Like Teen Spirit" was an attempt to write a song by the Pixies: "I was trying to write the ultimate pop song. I was basically trying to rip off the Pixies. I have to admit it." He also talked about his dislike for the song, mostly because of its success, and how "Drain You", from the same album, was "definitely as good as 'Teen Spirit'." -- from Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia


Anonymous said...

I think he spelled it Kurt with a K. =)

- Chris Elam

Anonymous said...

yeah, i thought it looked wrong when i typed it ... b. jones