Kurt Cobain wrote this song for Nirvana; it came together in a jam session when he played it for the band. He said: "I was trying to write the ultimate pop song. I was basically trying to rip off The Pixies."
Kathleen Hanna, the lead singer of the group Bikini Kill, gave Cobain the idea for the title when she spray painted "Kurt Smells Like Teen Spirit" on his bedroom wall after a night of drinking and spraying graffiti around the Seattle area. In his pre-Courtney Love days, Cobain went out with Bikini Kill lead singer Tobi Vail, but she dumped him. Vail wore Teen Spirit deodorant, and Hanna was implying that Cobain was marked with her scent.
Hanna explained that early in the night, she was Cobain's lookout as he spray pained "God Is Gay" on the wall of a religious center that they believed was posing as an abortion clinic and telling women they would go to hell if they aborted their child. They got quite inebriated that night, and Hanna said, "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." Six months later she got a call from Cobain, asking her if he could use what she wrote on the wall for a lyric. Said Hanna, "I thought, how is he going to use 'Kurt Smells Like Teen Spirit as a lyric?"
Cobain didn't know it when he wrote the song, but Teen Spirit is a brand of deodorant marketed to young girls. Kurt thought Hanna was complimenting him on his rebellious spirit, as someone who could inspire youth. Sales of Teen Spirit deodorant shot up when this became a hit, even though it is never mentioned in the lyrics.
This was the first "Alternative" song to become a huge hit, and in many ways it redefined the term, as "alternative" implies lack of popularity and the song was embraced by the mainstream. In an effort to save the label for acts like Porno For Pyros and Catherine Wheel, some industry folk referred to the genre as "Modern Rock," which became a common radio format. "Alternative" became more of a catchall for music played by white people that didn't fit the pop or country formats, and Nirvana quickly became a "Classic Alternative" band.
With this track, Nirvana helped ignite the "grunge" craze, which was characterized by loud guitars, angst-ridden lyrics, and flannel. Grunge was a look and sound that was distorted and emotive, led by bands coming out of the Northwest. Pearl Jam and Soundgarden were other top grunge bands of the era. Cobain would often dismiss the term as a meaningless label when asked about it in early interviews, but their bass player Krist Novoselic explained that it was a growling, organic guitar sound that defined it.
Cobain said he wrote this song because he was feeling "disgusted with my generation's apathy, and with my own apathy and spinelessness." This feeling of detachment is what led to lyrics like "Oh well, whatever, nevermind." Krist Novoselic added: "Kurt really despised the mainstream. That's what 'Smells Like Teen Spirit' was all about: The mass mentality of conformity."
The video was a huge hit on MTV. The concept was "Pep Rally from Hell," and it was shot at Culver City Studios in California on August 17, 1991, directed by Samuel Bayer, who was a 1987 graduate of the New York City School of Visual Arts. The kids were recruited at a show the band played two days earlier at The Roxy Theater in Los Angeles, where flyers were handed out saying, "Nirvana needs you to appear in their upcoming music video. You should be 18-25 year old and adopt a high school persona, i.e. preppy, punk, nerd, jock. Be prepared to stay for several hours. Come support Nirvana and have a great time."
The shoot took more like 12 hours, with the extras ordered to sit in the bleachers and look bored while the song played over and over. Said Bayer: "Nobody wanted to be there for more than a half hour, and I needed them for 12 hours. By the 11th hour when the band had had it with me and the kids were so angry with me, they said, 'Can we destroy the set?'"
Bayer let the kids come down and form a mosh pit, and with all that pent-up energy they proceeded to smash up the set. This impromptu and genuine destruction provided a nice finale for the clip.
The video was inspired by the movie and song Rock And Roll High School
by the Ramones, and was also influenced by a 1979 movie called Over the Edge
, which was a favorite of Cobain and showed rebellious kids destroying a high school.
According to Bayer, Cobain was getting very frustrated with the shoot, but Bayer needed another take. Cobain channeled his frustration into the performance that you see near the end of the video, where he is screaming and mashing his face near the camera. It was great acting trigger by his real anger.
Bayer did the first edit of the video
, which Cobain didn't like - he used a principal character in a lot of shots and cut it too literal, with the music synching up to the playing. Cobain worked with him to recut the video and make it much more surreal, inserting his crazy look as the second to last shot, and making sure that for his guitar solo, his hands were in the wrong place on the guitar.
The girls who played the cheerleaders in the video were originally supposed to be very fat and unattractive (Cobain's idea). The Director Samuel Bayer did not like this idea, but still allowed the cheerleaders to have "sleeve" tattoos and the symbol for anarchy on their shirts. He says he recruited them from a local strip club, which helps explain their unorthodox cheers.
Weird Al Yankovic did a parody of this called "Smells Like Nirvana." He shot his video in the same gym with the same janitor, but in his video, the janitor was wearing a tutu. Cobain said he was flattered by the parody: "I loved, it, it was really amusing."
The distinctive bridge was originally at the end of the song. Producer Butch Vig
had them move it to the middle.
A lot was made of Cobain being a spokesperson for Generation X when this song became a hit. Cobain responded by saying, "I don't have the answers for anything. I don't want to be a f--king spokesperson."
Producer Butch Vig explained, "That ambiguity or confusion, that's the whole thing. What the kids are attracted to in the music is that he's not necessarily a spokesman for a generation. He doesn't necessarily know what he wants but he's pissed. It's all these things working at different levels at once. I don't exactly know what 'Teen Spirit' means, but you know it means something and it's intense as hell."
The line "Here we are now, entertain us" was something Cobain used to say when he entered a party.
In a sign of the cultural apocalypse, the February 20, 1992 issue of Rolling Stone
magazine featured the cast of the TV show Beverly Hills 90210
with the tag line "Smells Like Teen Spirit," turning Kurt Cobain's diatribe against the culture of conformity into a convenient headline for a story about a TV series about rich kids. Here's the cover
For a while, MTV refused to air the video. When they finally did, it was on their alternative show 120 Minutes. When the song became a hit, the video went into hot rotation.
The album cover shows a baby swimming toward a dollar bill. Cobain and Nirvana bass player Krist Novoselic had seen a documentary on underwater birth and wanted to use that image on the cover. Pictures of babies being born underwater were too gross, so they hired a photographer to take some underwater shots during a water babies class. The baby they chose was Spencer Elden, who was 4 months old at the time.
At many of their later shows, Nirvana did not play this song, helping root out the people coming just to hear a hit.
Courtney Love deliberated a long time before allowing this to be used in the 2001 movie Moulin Rouge. Dave Grohl and Krist Novoselic, who along with Love control the Nirvana catalog, claimed Love was trying to get the title role in the movie, which went to Nicole Kidman.
The song was later used in the 2011 movie The Muppets (where it is performed to a captive Jack Black by The Muppet Barbershop Quartet), and in the 2015 film Pan, where it is sung by a large group of rebellious child slaves. It's use in this last film was, er... panned by Entertainment Weekly, which wrote, "The song's satirical lyrics make an already gauche movie even dorkier."
The opening guitar part is a small variation on the main riff of Boston's "More Than A Feeling
." This was noted by a Rolling Stone
magazine writer years later, but not as an accusation of plagiarism. Influences and similarities like this are everywhere in rock music.
The Nevermind album title is taken from the song's lyric: "And I forget just why I taste / Oh yeah, I guess it makes me smile / I found it hard, it's hard to find / Oh well, whatever, never mind."
Dave Grohl recalled to Mojo
magazine March 2011: "Teen Spirit definitely established that quiet/loud dynamic thing that we fell back on a lot of the time. It did become that one song that personifies the band. But the video was probably the key element in that song becoming a hit. People heard the song on the radio and they thought, 'This is great,' but when kids saw the video on MTV they thought, 'This is cool. These guys are kinda ugly and they're tearing up their f--king high school.' So I think that had a lot to do with what happened with the song.
But do I think it's the greatest single of all time? Of course not! I don't even think it's the greatest Nirvana single. And compared to Revolution
by The Beatles or God Only Knows
by The Beach Boys?! Give me a break! Smells like Teen Spirit was a great moment in time… but there's better."
A version by Miley Cyrus performed by the pop singer on her Gypsy Heart tour topped Rolling Stone
's 2011 reader list of the top 10 Worst Cover Songs of All Time. It was so bad that it even outranked Britney's much-maligned version of "I Love Rock and Roll
Tori Amos did a popular cover of this song in 1992 that Nirvana sometimes played as their introduction music when they took the stage.
Amos was on tour when Cobain died in 1994 and performed her version two days later at a show in Dublin. Patti Smith also recorded the song for her covers album Twelve.
The song was re-released as a limited edition 7-inch vinyl single in December 2011 for an online campaign to get it to the Christmas number one in the UK Singles Chart. However, the track only reached #11 - four places lower than the peak originally scaled by the song 20 years previously.
The band's producer, Butch Vig, heard this song for the first time on a low quality cassette recording the band made. He couldn't make out much of the song because it was so distorted. When the band started rehearsing it in the studio, however, Vig heard the potential in the song. He made sure it was the first track on the album, since it made a statement. Vig told NPR: "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."
The lines, "And we all just. Entertainers. And we're stupid. And contagious," were interpolated by Jay-Z on his 2013 song "Holy Grail
." Hova's track debuted at #8 on the Hot 100 resulting in Kurt Cobain receiving his first Top 10 writing credit since this song charted.
When Nirvana was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2014, the surviving members performed a selection of songs with various female singers. For this song, Joan Jett joined them. The following year, Jett was inducted into the Rock Hall.