The meaning behind Nirvana’s ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ and how it began a whole new era

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Nirvana is amongst the most significant bands ever. Consisting of Kurt Cobain, Krist Novoselic and Dave Grohl who went on to form Foo Fighters, Nirvana was a band that changed the scenario of rock music in a way that was almost disruptive.

Nirvana was formed in 1987 and ended after the death of Kurt Cobain in 1994. Even though they were active for about 7 years which was quite a short period of time for a band, Nirvana cemented its legacy and paved the way for a new genre of alternative rock music known as grunge rock.

Nirvana actually gained stardom and worldwide attention from their song ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ which gave the other hard rock bands like Guns N Roses, Motley Crue etc a run for their money.

The story of ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’

So, it all began when Kathleen Hanna and Tobi Vail (Kurt’s then girlfriend), who were part of the feminist punk band Bikini Kill was hanging out with Dave Grohl and Kurt Cobain. Story has it, that they went to Cobain’s place after vandalizing a fake abortion clinic.

They were all heavily drunk at the time. Hanna started scribbling on Cobain’s bedroom wall and wrote a cryptic message which said – ‘Kurt smells like teen spirit’, ‘Teen Spirit’ being a popular perfume at the time. Kurt’s girlfriend Tobi wore ‘Teen Spirit’ deodrant at the time and the idea was that Kurt was marked by Tobi’s scent. Cobain took a mental note of the message at the time.

We ended up in Kurt’s apartment and I smashed up a bunch of s–t. I took out a Sharpie marker and I wrote all over his bedroom wall – it was a rental so it was really kind of lame that I did that. I passed out with the marker in my hand, and woke up hung over.”

We were having a great time talking about revolutionary things, and we ended up destroying my bedroom, the mirrors, the bed, everything that we found. We started to smudge the walls with spray and Kathleen wrote “Kurt smells Like Teen Spirit”. I took it as a compliment.

Kurt Cobain

Kurt broke up with Vail because their ideologies didn’t match. Vail was a girl wanting an open relationship while Kurt was a bit more conservative at least compared to her. She made him feel old even though he was just 2 years elder to her.

When the song was released, people assumed that Kurt was venting his frustration caused by Tobi. Tobi in turn made it clear that Kurt was the one who had broken up with her and that she shouldn’t be getting the flak for being the one that instigated his heartbreak.

Contrary to popular belief, he broke up with me. The idea that I broke his heart, and that he was helpless and fatally wounded by that, is just stupid romantic tripe. I am sick of being the girl who is blamed for his suffering. That idea doesn’t come from anything that really happened.

Tobi Vail

Song Meaning

Smells Like Teen Spirit was a weird song in the sense that there was no direct meaning behind it and just sounded like random phrases put together.

However, it presented people with the idea of a rebellion. Kurt was disgusted with his generation’s apathy as well as his own apathy and spinelessness.

He talked about the song being about wanting to remain a kid and not wanting to grow up.

I’m disgusted by my own and my generation’s apathy. I’m disgusted at what we allow to go on, by how spineless, lethargic and guilty we are.

Basically it’s a song about friends, about peers. We still feel like teenagers because we don’t want to follow adults. We go around, we try to have fun. The heart of the song is about making a mockery of the idea of putting a revolution in place. But it is still a good idea.

Kurt Cobain

Kurt talked about mockingly trying to put a revolution into picture. The idea of a rebellion is also emphasized when he says ‘Load up on guns and bring your friends’.

In a world that was obsessed with success and getting ahead, Kurt talked about it being fun to loose. In a way, he was angry about how fake people can be and pretend to be something they are not.

With the lights out, its less dangerous is about not wanting people to take notice of you. When the lights are out, one can do whatever he wants because no one can see you and judge you for your actions.

When Cobain says ‘I feel stupid and contagious’ it could signify feeling lost in a society. It appeals to people who are not able to fit in with the general crowd.

Through the lyrics ‘I’m worse at what I do best and for this gift I feel blessed’, he could be referring to the fact that there were many music artists and geniuses who were better than him, nevertheless he feels grateful for whatever creativity God blessed him with.

The line ‘Here we are now, entertain us was something Kurt used to say when he entered a party’.

Even though we’re not really sure what Kurt is singing about, there’s something in there that you understand; the sense of frustration and alienation. To me, ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ reminds me a little bit of how Bob Dylan’s songs affected people in the ’60s. In a way, I feel the song affected a generation of kids in the ’90s. They could relate to it.

Butch Vig

The song was about revolting against the mass mentality of conforming to stupid norms. A lot of teenagers related with his thoughts and the song ignited a sense of anarchy within themselves.

The song is vaguely criticizing the capitalistic nature of society in general. Kurt obviously couldn’t make a whole revolution through a song against an idea that was prevalent since ages.

His breakup with Tobi also fueled certain feelings of anger which he probably made use of in the song. The song features high school students of all sorts – nerds, misfits and cheerleaders gathering in an underground arena to just rave and release their pent up aggression.

This style of music appealed to the young crowd most likely because of how much they related to it. Smells Like Teen Spirit was raw and a direct form of an aggression that most youth in the country felt during that time and it became a anthem for the apathetic youth of the nation.

Anyway, that was my take on the song. Let me know what you all think of the song.

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