Nirvana changed pop music forever with a single song.
IN the history of pop music, there are certain bands, albums and songs that changed everything. Just like in your own life, it’s tough to recognise the impact of a turning point as it happens – you just know that something big is going on. And in the fall of 1991, something huge was happening with Nirvana’s Smells Like Teen Spirit.
Nirvana, led by singer-guitarist Kurt Cobain, was a band out of Aberdeen, Washington. Prior to Smells Like Teen Spirit, Nirvana was like countless other small bands, treading water during the last wave of college rock (“underground” music that played on university radio stations). Some of the most popular college rock bands, such as Cobain favourite R.E.M., had gone from releasing albums on tiny, independently owned record labels to receiving big-money contracts from major labels owned by corporations.
And in 1990, Nirvana did this, too. After putting out their debut, Bleach, on Seattle indie label Sub Pop, Cobain and his band signed to DGC Records for their second release. Nirvana moved up a floor – but no one had any idea that they’d blow the roof off the building.
In the early 1990s, pop radio was wall-to-wall balladeers (Michael Bolton and Mariah Carey), rappers (MC Hammer and Vanilla Ice) and Jacksons (Michael and Janet). The closest thing to rock was still several universes away from the world inhabited by Nirvana.
It’s not like Cobain didn’t have great affection for pop music. He was a huge admirer of The Beatles, and many of his punk, metal and college rock heroes had a knack for burying beautiful melodies under raging guitars or murky noise. Nirvana’s new drummer, Dave Grohl, could even sing harmony.
Nirvana would record Nevermind, the band’s major label debut, with producer Butch Vig in the spring of 1991. Smells Like Teen Spirit would end up being the album’s lead track. Cobain was responsible for the song’s charging guitar riff. While playing his new riff with bandmates Grohl (drums) and Krist Novoselic (bass guitar), the trio experimented with quietening down the riff for the verses, creating a loud-quiet-loud dynamic that would be endlessly copied by those influenced by Nirvana.
Of course, the band didn’t come up with the idea out of nowhere. Cobain later admitted that Teen Spirit was an attempt to write a song in the style of The Pixies. The Nirvana frontman had loved the first album by the college radio stars (if such a thing ever existed), because of their roaring guitars, dynamic shifts and strong melodies.
And then there’s the song title, which Cobain took from a message spray-painted on his wall by Bikini Kill frontwoman Kathleen Hanna. The singer had written “Kurt Smells Like Teen Spirit,” namechecking the deodorant that Cobain’s girlfriend wore, called Teen Spirit. The story goes that Cobain was unaware of the brand name, and thought Hanna was referencing some sort of youth revolt.
Indeed, some fans have interpreted the song’s lyrics as being about the indifferent teenage experience: “I feel stupid and contagious. Here we are now, entertain us.” Grohl had dismissed this, saying that Cobain chose the words for how they sounded, not what they meant.
In September 1991, DGC released Teen Spirit to college radio as the album’s first single, just to stir up attention about Nirvana and Nevermind. The label executives thought that another song, Come As You Are, had more hit potential, and that Teen Spirit would simply be a way to introduce Nirvana’s sound.
Boy, were they wrong. From September until the end of the year, Teen Spirit grew in popularity – from college rock fans to mainstream rock fans to, well, almost everybody. What was expected to be a modest college radio hit became a mainstream smash, earning play on radio stations worldwide.
The specific reasons why the song became such a hit are unknown. Faced by a wasteland of wimpy ballads and overly synthetic music, perhaps listeners craved something edgier. The song’s conventional structure and catchy riff helped smooth over the noisier elements for fans of slicker pop. Of course, the music video (in constant rotation on MTV by the end of 1991) featuring Nirvana playing at an anarchistic high school pep rally, only helped the song become a titanic moment in rock history.
And then, in early 1992, came the coup de grace: Nirvana’s Nevermind took over the No. 1 position on the Billboard Albums Chart from Michael Jackson’s Dangerous. The King of Pop was dethroned by a raggedy rock band. You couldn’t have written the fairy tale any better.
Sadly, Cobain wouldn’t live this fairy tale for very long. About two and a half years after Teen Spirit found a fanbase, the troubled musician would commit suicide.
Smells Like Teen Spirit ushered in a new era. Loud and angry rock had a home on pop radio. College rock’s funeral pyre gave way to “alternative rock,” which would bring more interesting and varied strains of rock and roll into the mainstream. Young kids today, inspired by Nirvana’s punk ethos, continue to pick up guitars and start their own bands.