The Number Ones

The Number Ones Bonus Tracks: Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit”

Welcome to the Number Ones Bonus Tracks, the addendum to our regular Number Ones column. We at Stereogum recently wrapped up our fundraising campaign, and we’d like to thank everyone who donated to support this site and keep it going. To those All Access donors who pledged $1,000, I promised that I’d write a Number Ones-style column on a song of their choosing, as long as that song charted on the Billboard Hot 100. We’ll publish those once a week for the next couple of months.

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Nirvana – “Smells Like Teen Spirit”

PEAKED: #6 on February 8, 1992

SONG AT #1 THAT WEEK: Right Said Fred – “I’m Too Sexy”

This column is at the request of Stereogum donor Alec Hanley Bemis from Brassland. Alec sent this bio for himself:

Alec Hanley Bemis is a manager and creative producer. In 2001, he co-founded the Brassland label with Aaron and Bryce Dessner of The National. For that work, he has been covered by The Irish Times, The Guardian, Print Magazine, and The Wall Street Journal. He has also worked as an independent manager with artists such as Alexi Murdoch, Dirty Projectors and !!! and consulted/curated for institutions such as All Tomorrow’s Parties and the Stavros Niarchos Foundation’s Summer Nostos festival. In his first career as a writer & journalist, he was published in The New Yorker, The New York Times, Bookforum and LA Weekly on topics ranging from Beck to backyard wrestling.

Alec’s Brassland co-founder Aaron Dessner will eventually appear in The Number Ones as a producer and songwriter. Here’s what Alec has written about his pick:

It was difficult to make a pick for The Number Ones because I am not a student of the Billboard Hot 100. But on impulse let’s go with Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” I’m not choosing it because the song is incredible — it is! — but for the way it reshaped our entire generation’s approach to understanding the music scene. (I am defining “our generation” as folks in their mid-to-late 40s in 2020. Those of us who started Brassland were teenagers when this song came out in the fall of 1991.)

You can easily trace how “Smells Like Teen Spirit” was a bridge to cultural viability for an entire scene. Sure it’s a big deal that the album the song ended up on, Nevermind, overtook Michael Jackson as a #1 on Billboard’s album chart. But dealing a small blow to the king of crossover pop is irrelevant in the long view. What’s more important is the huge role the song played in helping true underground culture grow and thrive. Here’s an example: the song was released just a few weeks after the International Pop Underground Convention (IPU) which took place in Washington’s capital of Olympia, a town where Nirvana’s leader Kurt Cobain lived for a time. The IPU was a small festival with maybe one thousand attendees — but many artists who played at it ended up as cornerstones of the 1990s underground: Fugazi, Beat Happening, Unwound, Bikini Kill. And you could make a direct tie between this festival and the biggest song in the country. Famously the singer of Bikini Kill and core mover in riot grrrl — Kathleen Hanna—inspired the actual title of “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” (It was adapted from some graffiti that she had scrawled on the wall of Kurt’s apartment in Olympia.) The IPU also coincided with the launch of the Kill Rock Stars record label and an eponymous compilation album which included a track by Nirvana, selling a ton more copies than it would have otherwise.

In a pre-internet world, you’d only hear about this stuff via word-of-mouth (or word-of-mail in a zine). And you certainly couldn’t discover physical artifacts of this kind of independent culture unless you lived in a big city or a college town and sought it out. “Smells Like Teen Spirit” was the breadcrumb trail that led you there. And after having this hit, Cobain continued to use his platform to highlight these subcultures that surrounded his band.

In the brief period between Nirvana becoming superstars and Cobain’s suicide in 1994, he consistently used his highest visibility moments (magazine covers, MTV Unplugged) to point back his 1980s inspirations — artists like the Meat Puppets, Daniel Johnston, and the Jesus Lizard, labels like SST and Touch And Go. Even today, if you want a history of the American underground in the 1980s, you’ll probably start with the book This Band Could Be Your Life, written by Cobain’s acquaintance and biographer Michael Azerrad. There is a very clear lineage between this one song and how an entire world gained a sliver of mainstream exposure and a place in pop culture history.

It is also worth differentiating this stuff from alternative culture at large. Coincidentally, the first touring edition of the Lollapalooza festival wrapped up in Seattle on August 28, 1991, around the same date as the IPU. I bet there were people who chose to attend one or the other, a few who went to both. One of my first concerts was the Lolla tour stop in New Jersey, and it was cool: Nine Inch Nails, Butthole Surfers, Jane’s Addiction, and Ice T’s hardcore band Body Count. But these were just individual artists signed to majors who could be marketed to teenagers. What Cobain used his leverage to highlight was an an entire scene full of truly independent culture that could appeal to weird adult tastes.

I won’t linger on the band’s continuing influence, be it Post Malone and other mumble rappers having Nirvana face tattoos or their smiley face t-shirt being adapted into bootleg Rihanna merch. But in an era where America is reckoning with its dark racial history, it’s incredible that this piece of very white culture looks like it will survive as as a relevant symbol for future generations and a portal to something else.

So, looking back at “Smells Like Teen Spirit” it’s not just a song, it’s a fulcrum for almost 40 years of eclectic cultural production. I certainly think the example of Nirvana and ‘90s Seattle was a template for how indie rock and Brooklyn was portrayed in the 2000s blog era. Which brings me to the fact that we at Brassland are well aware that, for most people, our label is a footnote to The National’s incredible career. They’ve been very cool about sharing their spotlight and emphasizing that, in many ways, a band is the community around the project. I give some credit for that ethic to “Smells Like Teen Spirit” which remains a compass, a map, a north star.

p.s. It also just so happens that all three members of the band, Kurt, Krist Novoselic and Dave Grohl, got a writing credit on “Smells Like Teen Spirit”—apparently the only time in the band’s discography that that happened! I didn’t know this fact before writing this introduction, but learned it on Wikipedia and am pretty into the democracy of it.

It’s hard to think about Nirvana — ultimate weird-kid band, archetypal rock-tragedy myth, generational dividing-line signifier — as a group that made pop music. But Nirvana did exist within the pop-chart realm. From a certain angle, it’s weird that Nirvana only ever had one Billboard top-10 hit. From another, it’s weird to think that Nirvana ever landed on the Billboard Hot 100 at all.

For people in my generation and for those slightly older than me, the January 1992 week that Nirvana knocked Michael Jackson’s Dangerous out of the #1 spot on Billboard’s album chart is a sign of a sudden shift, a changing of the guard. But if you look at Billboard’s album chart that week, you’ll see that Dangerous actually plummeted to #5 that week. Dangerous had spent four weeks at #1 in December and January, and that presumably had to do with a lot of parents buying the album for their kids as a Christmas present. Once those kids got back to spending their own money, Dangerous took a dive.

If it hadn’t been Nevermind that knocked Dangerous out of #1, it would’ve been Garth Brooks’ Ropin’ The Wind or MC Hammer’s Too Legit To Quit or U2’s Achtung Baby, and none of those would’ve been considered generational signifiers. Actually, though, Ropin’ The Wind was a way bigger commercial juggernaut in 1992. Nevermind ascended to #1 twice. Both times, Ropin’ The Wind knocked Nirvana’s album out of the spot, on its way to selling more than 10 million copies and being named Billboard’s #1 album of 1992.

There’s a popular idea that Nevermind ended the era of Sunset Strip glam-metal, that the hair bands all disappeared from the mainstream as soon as Nirvana led the grunge charge. That’s not quite accurate, either. The week that “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” Nirvana’s generational anthem and biggest-ever hit, reached its Hot 100 peak, the glam-metal band Mr. Big entered the top 10, on their way to hitting #1. After a couple of the albums that topped the album charts soon after Nevermind fell out of the spot were Def Leppard’s Adrenalize and the glam-metal-heavy Wayne’s World soundtrack. (Def Leppard will eventually appear in The Number Ones.)

In its time on the Hot 100, “Smells Like Teen Spirit” shared space with novelty dance-pop and fluffy R&B and adult-contemporary balladry. And that, ultimately, is what’s so amazing about the song’s success. Nirvana were essentially beamed into the pop universe from another world, and people had to rush to catch up. They were leading a rising wave. The week that Nevermind first hit #1, Soundgarden’s Badmotorfinger was at #88. Pearl Jam’s Ten was at #143. Alice In Chains’ Facelift was at #163. R.E.M. and the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Nine Inch Nails Jane’s Addiction and Pixies and Primus were all hanging around the Hot 100. Things were shifting.

Before “Smells Like Teen Spirit” broke out, there had been alternative rock bands who crossed over and hit pop radio. But R.E.M. aside, those bands had not come up in the American underground. Instead, most of those bands, groups like EMF and Jesus Jones, were British acts who had acid house and Madchester influences, whose music didn’t sound too different from the novelty dance-pop that was big at the time. If you were into the euphoric silliness of EMF or the starry-eyed utopianism of Jesus Jones, you could still get something out of “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” Nirvana’s song had a physical, anthemic rush to it. It had a certain energy. It wasn’t forbidding. It was welcoming.

Anyone who looks at that album chart can see that dark, churning sounds were already starting to impact the charts before Nirvana’s big breakthrough, but that breakthrough still changed things. If you were a scuzzy underground band at the turn of the ’90s, there’s a very good chance that a major label, hoping to surf on some of Nirvana’s cachet, offered you vast sums of money.

Most of those bands who signed in Nirvana’s wake didn’t come anywhere near the pop charts. Plenty were destroyed by the experience. But “Teen Spirit” still had a seismic impact on the tastes and ideas of a couple of generations of kids. 10 years after “Teen Spirit” hit, the American rock underground was mostly made up of people who’d learned about that world as a direct result of what Nirvana had done.

At the time that “Smells Like Teen Spirit” hit its chart apex, Kurt Cobain was 24 years old. Cobain grew up a working-class kid in Aberdeen, Washington. (The #1 single on the day of Cobain’s birth: The Buckinghams’ “Kind Of A Drag.”) Cobain hated sports and liked drawing, and he got into punk rock and local heroes Melvins as soon as he was able. (Later on, Melvins were one of the bands who got a major-label deal in Nirvana’s wake.)

After playing around with a joke punk band called Fecal Matter, Cobain formed Nirvana with high-school friend Krist Novoselic in 1987. Melvins’ Dale Crover was one of the band’s early drummers, but Nirvana had settled on drummer Chad Channing when they signed with the local indie Sub Pop and released their 1988 debut single “Love Buzz” — a cover of an old song from Dutch band and previous Number Ones subject Shocking Blue.

Nirvana were part of a whole world — fuzzed-out and punk-derived underground stomp-rock. The British press had already taken to referring to the music coming out of Seattle as grunge, and the label fit Nirvana well enough, though they never seemed too comfortable with it. Nirvana’s 1989 debut album Bleach sold 40,000 copies — pretty good numbers for an underground band on an indie label, but Nirvana weren’t happy with it. Nirvana got help from Soundgarden’s manager Susan Silver, and Sonic Youth’s Kim Gordon talked the young band up to the A&R people at her band’s label DGC. In 1990, DGC bought Nirvana out of their Sub Pop contract, and they became major-label artists.

Nirvana recorded their major-label debut Nevermind in Madison, Wisconsin with producer Butch Vig; Cobain wanted Vig because of the work he’d done with the Madison scuzz-rock power trio Killdozer. In writing the songs for Nevermind, Cobain walked a tricky line. He wanted to keep the heavy intensity of Nirvana’s early records, but he also wanted tracks that were bright and melodic and catchy.

After he came up with the riff and the hook for “Teen Spirit,” Cobain took the song to the band — Novoselic and Maryland native Dave Grohl, who’d replaced Channing. They hated it. But Cobain forced them to play the song over and over at rehearsal, and the track began to take shape eventually. (That whole process is why all three Nirvana members got writing credit on “Teen Spirit.” Later on, Cobain sought to have himself retrospectively granted 75% of the writing credit, which pissed his bandmates up mightily and which almost broke up Nirvana.)

There’s been a whole lot written about the way “Teen Spirit” works — the quiet-loud-quiet structure, the way the riff resembles the one on Boston’s “More Than A Feeling.” (“More Than A Feeling” peaked at #5 in 1976. It’s a 10. Boston will eventually appear in The Number Ones.) But it’s hard to analyze just how fun and sticky of a song “Teen Spirit” is. Nirvana released “Teen Spirit” as a single two weeks before Nevermind came out. The “Teen Spirit” release day happens to be my 12th birthday, which means I was at the perfect age for that thing to rip its way out of my radio and into my frontal lobe. The opening riff, the quick staticky melody before the monstrous fuzz comes in, was a total endorphin-rush moment.

The story behind the “Teen Spirit” title was part of rock lore almost from the beginning. One night, Cobain and his friend Kathleen Hanna were out spray-painting a local right-wing anti-abortion center that posed as an abortion clinic. Then they got drunk together back at Cobain’s apartment, and Hanna wrote “Kurt smells like Teen Spirit” on his wall after he passed out. At the time, Cobain was dating Hanna’s Bikini Kill bandmate Tobi Vail. Vail wore Teen Spirit deodorant. When Cobain woke up and saw Hanna’s graffiti, he didn’t even realize what Teen Spirit was, which meant he didn’t understand that this was his friend making fun of his sex life. The phrase stuck anyway. After “Smells Like Teen Spirit” hit, sales of the deodorant spiked, even though the lyrics never mention it.

Lyrically, “Teen Spirit” is a famously confused tangle. Some of Cobain’s words reflect his general awe and self-consciousness around Vail: “She’s over-bored and self-assured.” Some of them sound like bitchy, sarcastic comments: “Here we are now, entertain us.” Some of them sound like mission statements: “Our little group has always been and always will until the end.” Some of them sound like Cobain is either embodying or satirizing gen-x disaffection and ennui: “I found it hard, it’s hard to find/ Oh well, whatever, nevermind.” Those words were vague enough that they could mean just about anything, and maybe that’s the best and easiest way to write an anthem. You just throw up a Rorschach blot, and people project whatever they want onto it.

There was also the matter of Cobain’s voice, a strained yelp-howl that made it hard to make out the words. (Cobain spent a good chunk of 1991 correcting interviewers at metal magazines, clarifying that he was singing “our little group” and not “our metal group.”) That voice — the strained urgency, the feverish ambient need — is a huge part of the power of “Teen Spirit.” I’ve always heard just a touch of Hank Williams in the way Cobain’s voice breaks high on the “oh no, I know a dirty word” part.” He sounds huge, but he sound vulnerable, too.

In writing “Teen Spirit,” Cobain told Rolling Stone, “I was trying to write the ultimate pop song. I was basically trying to rip off The Pixies.” These are two different goals, and somehow Cobain achieved both. “Teen Spirit” carries on the spirit of nerve-jangled turn-of-the-’90s college-rock monsters like Pixies, but it translates it into physical headrush music. At this point, I’ve heard “Teen Spirit” so many times in my life that I have trouble hearing it just as music. The importance has come to overwhelm the song itself. But if I try hard enough, I can access the excitement that this thing caused me when I was just the right age to feel it.

Nirvana played “Teen Spirit” live for the first time at Seattle’s OK Hotel in April of 1991. At the time, they hadn’t quite finalized the lyrics. Nirvana kept playing the song as they toured through that summer, hitting clubs on the West Coast and festivals in Europe. In 1991, Nirvana played “Teen Spirit” on the main stage of the UK’s Reading Festival, holding down a mid-afternoon slot in between Silverfish and Chapterhouse. The very next year, they headlined the festival’s final night, and Cobain handpicked the day’s mainstage lineup himself — booking Seattle buddies Mudhoney and Screaming Trees and Melvins, as well as Nick Cave and Teenage Fanclub and L7 and Pavement. That’s how fast Nirvana’s rise was.

DGC’s plan was to release “Teen Spirit” to alternative radio to help build goodwill for the big single, which was going to be “Come As You Are.” The label booked director Samuel Bayer to make a video. (Bayer would later direct a whole fuckload of rock videos, including a couple for songs that will end up in The Number Ones, as well as the pretty-bad 2010 Nightmare On Elm Street reboot.) Bayer wanted to make something that would carry on the tradition of kids-gone-wild movies like Over The Edge and Rock ‘N’ Roll High School, both from 1979. So he filmed the band and a bunch of extras at a Culver City soundstage that had been made up to look like a high-school gym. Bayer found the blank-faced punk rock cheerleaders at a local strip club, and the extras were fans recruited via flyering.

The look of the “Teen Spirit” video — yellow-tinted, with heavy grey curtains and steam everywhere — would go on to define rock videos until around the time that Limp Bizkit broke through. In the clip, Cobain is slouchy and unkempt and magnetic. Bayer filmed the band and the extras for 12 hours, and by the time it was over, everyone was pissed off and eager to leave. Cobain got Bayer to let the kids mosh and, ultimately, to let them destroy the set. That, more than the goofy high-school-riot concept, is what made the “Teen Spirit” video pop the way it did.

Thanks in part to that video, “Teen Spirit” took off, going into rotation on all the different rock-radio formats. Nirvana themselves quickly became sick of the song and the fuss around it. At later shows, they’d refuse to play it, and they aped and mocked its riff a couple of years later on the In Utero track “Rape Me.”

But “Teen Spirit” still came to define its moment, even if the song never got past #6. “Teen Spirit” was by far Nirvana’s highest-charting single. The follow-up “Come As You Are” peaked at #32, and none of the band’s other singles made the top 40. Cobain, of course, did not last much longer. Uncomfortable with his overwhelming fame and suffering from addiction and stomach ailments, Cobain died by suicide in April 1994, just over two years after “Teen Spirit” hit its chart peak.

After Cobain’s death, Novoselic became a crusty libertarian weirdo, and Grohl started the Foo Fighters. (The highest-charting Foo Fighters single, 2005’s “Best Of You,” peaked at #18.) When Nirvana went into the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame in 2014, their first year of eligibility, the surviving members of the band reunited, and previous Number Ones artist Joan Jett led them through “Teen Spirit” at the induction ceremony. It’s hard to think of a better replacement. Jett, after all, was punk and pop at the same time — just like “Smells Like Teen Spirit.”

GRADE: 10/10

BONUS BEATS: On his 1992 single “Smells Like Nirvana,” “Weird Al” Yankovic parodied both “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and the entire idea of Nirvana. It’s the rare Yankovic single that directly clowns the original song and also works as music criticism: “We’re so loud and incoherent! Boy, this oughta bug your parents!” Cobain loved it. Here’s the video, shot on the same soundstage as the “Teen Spirit” and starring the same actor as the janitor:

(“Smells Like Nirvana” peaked at #35. “Weird Al” Yankovic’s highest-charting single, 2006’s “White & Nerdy,” peaked at #9. It’s a 7.)

BONUS BONUS BEATS: Tori Amos included a solo-piano “Smells Like Teen Spirit” cover as a B-side to her 1992 single “Crucify.” At some of their shows, Nirvana used the Amos cover as entrance music. At this point, according to Setlists.fm, Amos has played “Teen Spirit” live more times than Nirvana did. Here’s the Amos version:

(Tori Amos’ highest-charting single, 1998’s “Spark,” peaked at #49.)

BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s Beavis and Butt-Head offering up an appreciation of the “Smells Like Teen Spirit” video and of “grudge music” in general on a 1993 episode of their show:

BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s the scene from the 2011 movie The Muppets where a barbershop quartet of Muppets tortures Jack Black with their rendition of “Smells Like Teen Spirit”:

BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Jay-Z and Justin Timberlake interpolated “Smells Like Teen Spirit” on Jay’s 2013 single “Holy Grail.” All three members of Nirvana got songwriting credit on “Holy Grail,” and when the track hit the top 10, it became the first top-10 hit for all three since “Teen Spirit.” Here’s the “Holy Grail” video:

(“Holy Grail” peaked at #4 — two spots higher than “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” It’s a 3. Jay-Z and Justin Timberlake will both eventually appear in The Number Ones.)

Thank you, Alec!

Tags: Nirvana