29 years ago today, Nirvana released the classic single, “Smells Like Teen Spirit”, and the music landscape was never the same.
“Smells Like Teen Spirit” was the band’s lead single off the 1991 album Nevermind and in just a few short months catapulted Nirvana from the underground music scene to mainstream superstars.
The song was written by band members Kurt Cobain, Krist Novoselic, and Dave Grohl and produced by Butch Vig. Cobain told Rolling Stone in January 1994 that he was trying to write the ultimate pop song.
“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 I should have been in that band — or at least in a Pixies cover band. We used their sense of dynamics, being soft and quiet and then loud and hard.”
The title was inspired by Bikini Kill vocalist Kathleen Hanna who was Cobain’s friend and had sprayed painted the phrase ‘Kurt smells like teen spirit’ on his wall. She was referring to the deodorant Teen Spirit. However. Cobain didn’t know about this brand and thought it was a great anti-establishment rally cry.
The band first performed the song live at a small club in Seattle in April 1991, five months before it was released. The historic moment is captured in this grainy video.
Danny Goldberg, Nirvana’s former manager and author of the memoir Serving the Servant: Remembering Kurt Cobain, says the chorus of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” pulls off a tricky balancing act: mocking the culture of mainstream arena rock, while at the same time celebrating the joys of listening to your favorite underground band in a dimly lit club.
Ironically Nirvana’s label and management didn’t expect Smells Like Teen Spirit to be a hit. They had their money on “Come as You Are” which was set for release later in the fall.
“Smells Like Teen Spirit” was released quietly and without significant promotion in the hopes that it would begin building awareness of the new album among listeners to college and alternative radio.
The video was shot at Culver City Studios in California on August 17, 1991. The fans in the video were all from a gig the band had done two days previously at The Roxy in West Hollywood. They gave out flyers there, inviting everyone to come along for the taping. The cheerleaders in the video were hired from a local strip club.
On Nov. 23, 1991 – two months after its Sept. 10, 1991 release – “Smells Like Teen Spirit” topped Billboard’s Alternative Songs chart. The generation-defining song also peaked at No. 6 on the Hot 100 and was nominated for two Grammys in 1993, but lost out on both. In the Best Rock Song category, they were pipped by Eric Clapton’s unplugged version of “Layla” (regarded as one of the biggest upsets in Grammy history), and the Best Hard Rock Performance went to the Red Hot Chili Peppers with “Give It Away.”
For more stories from the 1990s, make sure to check out my podcast “History of the 90s” on ApplePodcasts, Spotify, Google Play and anywhere else you stream audio. You can also listen at http://www.curiouscast.ca