Depending how you look at it, Nirvana’s Smells Like Teen Spirit either celebrated its 25th birthday last month or will do so next month. Either way, it remains one of the most seminal songs of the 20th century.
Widely acknowledged as catapulting the alternative rock genre into the mainstream and adopted as an anthem for the disaffected kids of Generation X, Teen Spirit still feels as raw and visceral now as it did back in the autumn of 1991.
Released in the US on 10th September 1991 (its tenth anniversary was the day before the 9/11 bombings) and in the UK in early November, the single went platinum on both sides of the Atlantic despite failing to reach the top five in either country (#7 US, #6 UK). It was the first of three top ten UK singles for the band (Come As You Are reached number nine while Heart-Shaped Box peaked at five) and helped propel the album Nevermind to global sales of more than 30 million units.
The song’s title was famously born out of a misunderstanding. Cobain’s friend Kathleen Hanna from the band Bikini Kill scrawled the message ‘Kurt Smells Like Teen Spirit’ on his wall. He mistook it for an anti-establishment slogan – in fact, Teen Spirit was merely a brand of deodorant.
Cobain freely admitted the song was an attempt to produce a song in the style of the Pixies, one of his favourite bands.
The video is almost as famous as the song itself, and played no small part in ensuring the track was placed on heavy rotation by MTV. It was directed by rookie video-maker Samuel Bayer, who went on to create videos for, among others, Robbie Williams (Angels), Green Day (American Idiot and Boulevard of Broken Dreams) and Maroon 5 (Payphone).
Shot on a high school gym set at Culver City Studios in California, the fans featured in the video all came from a gig the band had done two days previously, where they were handed flyers inviting them to attend the shoot. The video finishes with the crowd destroying the set – an act of genuine frustration after being forced to stay seated through an entire afternoon of filming.
Cobain committed suicide at his home in April 1994, leaving behind a note in which he proclaimed that ‘it’s better to burn out than to fade away’, a line from the Neil Young song My My, Hey Hey (Out of the Blue). He was just 27 – the same age at which Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison, Janis Joplin and Amy Winehouse died.
A few months after the song’s initial release, it received the ultimate tribute in the form of a parody version by Weird Al Yankovic. Smells Like Nirvana was shot on the same set and featured the same actor (Tony de la Rosa) playing the janitor in the video. Cobain himself gave it his seal of approval, saying, “I loved, it, it was really amusing.” It is.