Nirvana: The Story Behind ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’


A classic Nirvana promo photo from the 1990s taken by Chris Cuffaro.

Nirvana – Story by Anne Erickson, photo by Chris Cuffaro

Here’s the dramatic story behind “Smells Like Teen Spirit” by Nirvana

The story of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” has been told many times. But, it never gets old. After all, “Smells Like Teen Spirit” wasn’t just a song. It was a piece of musical life that resulted in an entire shift in music and pop culture. With “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” everything changed, from fashion to guitars. So, the story behind “Smells Like Teen Spirit” is one that needs to be told and, more importantly, understood.

‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’: The early process

Nirvana were hoping for moderate success with “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and their sophomore album, “Nevermind.” What they got was much more.

Nirvana wrote “Smells Like Teen Spirit” along with a handful of other songs with producer Butch Vig in 1990 and 1991 to comprise their “Nevermind” album. Vocalist and guitarist Kurt Cobain has said wanted to write the song in the style of the Pixies, one of his favorite bands.

“I was trying to write the ultimate pop song,” he said, via Rolling Stone. “I was basically trying to rip off the Pixies; I have to admit it. When I heard the Pixies for the first time, I connected with that band so heavily that I should have been in that band—or at least a Pixies cover band. We used their sense of dynamics, being soft and quiet and then loud and hard.”

The title of the song came from a phrase written on Cobain’s wall by his friend Kathleen Hanna, the singer of Bikini Kill. “Kurt smells like Teen Spirit,” it said (via Our Hit Parade). Hanna was referring to the popular teen deodorant Teen Spirit, which she and Cobain’s then-girlfriend Tobi Vail found at a local grocery store.

The reception

Geffen and Nirvana released “Smells Like Teen Spirit” to radio on August 27, 1991, and to the general public as the lead single from “Nevermind” on Sept. 10. Contrary to what many believe, the song wasn’t a smash out the gate. It didn’t even chart at first and only did well among Nirvana’s small fanbase. But, college and modern rock radio stations started playing “Smells Like Teen Spirit” in heavy rotation, and MTV added the music video to its regular daytime rotation, and it took off. It also hit No. 1 on the Modern Rock Tracks chart and made its way into the Top 40. The song solidified Nirvana as the new influencer in rock music.

The music video

Not only is the song “Smells Like Teen Spirit” iconic, but so is the music video. First-time director Samuel Bayer was tasked with directing the clip. He has said that he thinks he was brought on to direct the video because his test reel was so bad that the band thought he could make a non-corporate.

Nirvana based the music video on the idea of a school concert that ends in chaos, taken by Jonathan Kaplan’s 1979 movie “Over the Edge” and the Ramones’ film “Rock ‘n’ Roll High School.” The clip shows Nirvana playing at a pep rally in a high school gym, with cheerleaders wearing black dresses and looking very grungy and gothic. Burton C. Bell of Fear Factory also makes an appearance. The video became one of the most iconic rock videos of all time. Moreover, it won Nirvana the Best New Artist and Best Alternative Group awards at the 1992 MTV Video Music Awards.

It was the right song at the perfect time

Sure, “Smells Like Teen Spirit” is a fantastic song. But, it takes more than a great song to top the charts. Nirvana released “Smells Like Teen Spirit” at the right time. Music fans were growing tired of the over-the-top antics of the Sunset Strip’s hair metal. Fans were yearning for something that was really the opposite of that. They wanted real, raw music about life’s struggle, not sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll.

Hair metal didn’t see it coming, either. They didn’t even necessarily see grunge as the enemy. Speaking with Steve Riley of glam metal bands Steve Riley’s L.A. Guns and W.A.S.P., Riley told Audio Ink Radio that he loved Nirvana when he heard “Nevermind.” He didn’t think their popularity would lead to the demise of hair metal.

“Obviously, when Nirvana came out, everybody noticed, because it was such a hit,” he said. “It was such a big hit, and everybody loved it. Even we loved it.”

He added that he first heard Nirvana on tour with Skid Row in 1991 in Europe, when he was with L.A. Guns and they were touring with Skid Row. “That was when ‘Nevermind’ came out with Nirvana and their album,” he said. “It was such a big hit, that we didn’t really notice that it was going to be a shift in music and shifting locales from L.A. to Seattle. We weren’t noticing that. We just noticed that it was really a great album, and we thought it was a great album, all of L.A. Guns, and we were listening to it on the bus, and even jamming some of the stuff during sound check. It was fun.”

Pearl Jam’s Stone Gossard was very familiar with Nirvana, since both bands hailed from the same Seattle scene. Gossard told Audio Ink Radio that he knew Nirvana would be big.

“Nirvana to me was just like, that was- once I started hearing their records and kind of going, ‘Oh my God,’ because of the nature and the simplicity of Nirvana and the directness of it and the sort of dynamics,” Gossard said. “The band’s dynamics and their sort of rootedness in really blues. I mean, (their music is) just so rooted in blues. Just, to me, they seemed like, ‘Oh my God. This is a slam dunk.'”

The legacy of “Smells Like Teen Spirit”

“Smells Like Teen Spirit” lives on in pop culture today. On Christmas Day in 2019, the music video for the song surpassed one billion views on YouTube. Bands and artists continue to cover it today. Red Hot Chili Peppers made headlines in 2022 when they covered the song during a benefit concert for the Silverlake Conservatory of Music. Other artists who have covered the song include Tori Amos, Melvins, Xorcist, Patti Smith, Paul Anka and more.

It goes without saying that “Smells Like Teen Spirit” will remain one of the most influential songs in music history. Listen to the song and watch the iconic music video below. Read Audio Ink Radio’s feature on 10 grunge bands that should have been bigger here.

Anne Erickson
Posted by Anne Erickson | Alternative, Features, Grunge, Music

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