“Smells Like Teen Spirit” is a song by the American rock band Nirvana. It is the opening track and lead single from the band’s second album, Nevermind (1991), released on DGC Records. Written by Kurt Cobain, Krist Novoselic, and Dave Grohl and produced by Butch Vig, the song uses a verse-chorus form where the main four-chord riff is used during the intro and chorus to create an alternating loud and quiet dynamic. The sound of the song (as Cobain admitted) is modeled after the sound of the Pixies.
The unexpected success of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” in late 1991 propelled Nevermind to the top of the charts at the start of 1992, an event often marked as the point where alternative rock entered the mainstream. “Smells Like Teen Spirit” was Nirvana’s biggest hit, reaching number six on the Billboard Hot 100 and placing high on music industry charts all around the world in 1991 and 1992.
“Smells Like Teen Spirit” received many critical plaudits, including topping the Village Voice Pazz & Jop critics’ poll and winning two MTV Video Music Awards for its music video, which was in heavy rotation on music television. The song was dubbed an “anthem for apathetic kids” of Generation X, but the band grew uncomfortable with the success and attention it received as a result. In the years since Cobain’s death, listeners and critics have continued to praise “Smells Like Teen Spirit” as one of the greatest songs of all time.
In a January 1994 Rolling Stone interview, Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain revealed that “Smells Like Teen Spirit” was an attempt to write a song in the style of the Pixies, a band he greatly admired. He explained:
When Nirvana became popular, you could very easily slip and get lost during that storm. I fortunately had really heavy anchors – old friends, family.
Cobain did not begin to write “Smells Like Teen Spirit” until a few weeks before recording started on Nirvana’s second album, Nevermind, in 1991. When he first presented the song to his bandmates, it comprised just the main riff and the chorus vocal melody, which bassist Krist Novoselic dismissed at the time as “ridiculous.” In response, Cobain made the band play the riff for “an hour and a half.” In a 2001 interview, Novoselic recalled that after playing the riff repeatedly, he thought, “‘Wait a minute. Why don’t we just kind of slow this down a bit?’ So I started playing the verse part. And Dave [started] playing a drum beat.” As a result, it is the only song on Nevermind to credit all three band members as authors.
Cobain came up with the song’s title when his friend Kathleen Hanna, at the time the lead singer of the riot grrrl band Bikini Kill, wrote “Kurt Smells Like Teen Spirit” on his wall. Since they had been discussing anarchism, punk rock, and similar topics, Cobain interpreted the slogan as having a revolutionary meaning. What Hanna actually meant, however, was that Cobain smelled like the deodorant Teen Spirit, which his then-girlfriend Tobi Vail wore. Cobain later claimed he was unaware that it was a brand of deodorant until months after the single was released.
There’s a reason why the Foo Fighters don’t blast out Nirvana songs every night: because we have a lot of respect for them. You know, that’s hallowed ground. We have to be careful. We have to tread lightly. We have talked about it before, but the opportunity hasn’t really come up, or it just hasn’t felt right.
“Smells Like Teen Spirit” was, along with “Come as You Are”, one of a few new songs that had been written since Nirvana’s first recording sessions with producer Butch Vig in 1990. Prior to the start of the Nevermind recording sessions, the band sent Vig a rough cassette demo of song rehearsals that included “Teen Spirit”. While the sound of the tape was wildly distorted due to the band playing at a loud volume, Vig could pick out some of the melody and felt the song had promise. Nirvana recorded “Smells Like Teen Spirit” at Sound City recording studio in Van Nuys, California with Vig in May 1991. Vig suggested some arrangement changes to the song, including moving a guitar ad lib into the chorus, and trimming down the chorus length. The band recorded the basic track for the song in three takes, and decided to keep the second one. Vig incorporated some sonic corrections into the basic live band performance because Cobain had timing difficulties when switching between his guitar effects pedals. Vig was only able to get three vocal takes from Cobain; the producer commented, “I was lucky to ever get Kurt to do four takes.”
The chords occasionally lapse into suspended chord voicings as a result of Cobain playing the bottom four strings of the guitar for the thickness of sound. Listeners made many comments that the song bore a passing resemblance to Boston’s 1976 hit “More Than a Feeling”. Cobain himself held similar opinions, saying that it “was such a clichéd riff. It was so close to a Boston riff or [The Kingsmen’s] ‘Louie Louie.'” However, Rikky Rooksby points out that “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and “More Than a Feeling” follow different chord progressions.
“Smells Like Teen Spirit” uses a “somewhat conventional formal structure” consisting of four-, eight-, and twelve-bar sections that includes an eight-bar verse, an eight-bar first chorus (pre-chorus), and a twelve-bar second chorus (main chorus). Musicologist Graeme Downes, who led the band The Verlaines, says that “Smells Like Teen Spirit” illustrates developing variation. Elements of the song’s structure are marked off with shifts in volume and dynamics, going back and forth from quiet to loud a number of times during the length of the recording. This structure of “quiet verses with wobbly, chorused guitar, followed by big, loud hardcore-inspired choruses” became a much-emulated template in alternative rock because of “Teen Spirit”.
Growing up, I was a little hippie kid. I went to some good concerts… Amnesty International with Bob Dylan and Tracy Chapman… The best concert I ever went to was this one at the Cow Palace my freshman year in college on New Year’s Eve. It was Pearl Jam opening for Nirvana opening for Red Hot Chili Peppers.
During the verses the band maintains the same chord progression as the chorus. Cobain plays a two-note guitar line over Novoselic’s root-note eighth note bassline, which outlines the chord progression. As the song moves closer to the choruses, Cobain begins to play the same two notes on every beat of the measure and repeats the word “Hello”. Following the first and second choruses, Cobain simultaneously sings the word “Yay” and performs a unison bend on his guitar. After the second chorus, Cobain plays a 16-bar guitar solo that almost completely restates his vocal melody from the verse and pre-chorus. During the closing refrain, Cobain sings “A denial” repeatedly; his voice becomes strained and is almost shot from the force of yelling.