Nirvana’s ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’: From Graffiti to Grunge Hit
Long before Nirvana’s 1991 single “Smells Like Teen Spirit” became the defining anthem for the grunge revolution, it was just a phrase scribbled on Kurt Cobain’s wall.
In August 1990, Cobain and his close friend, Bikini Kill frontwoman Kathleen Hanna, decided to vandalize a teen pregnancy center that had recently opened in their neighborhood. "It was a right-wing con where they got teenage girls to go in there and then told them they were gonna go to hell if they had abortions,” Hanna later recalled in the book Everybody Loves Our Town: An Oral History of Grunge. That night, the two artists spray-painted the facility: Hanna wrote “Fake Abortion Clinic, Everyone” while Cobain opted for “God Is Gay.”
Following the graffiti shenanigans, the duo spent the night drinking with friends. At one point, Hanna and Bikini Kill drummer Tobi Vail (whom Cobain was dating at the time) went to a local grocery store. While wandering the aisles, they began laughing at the name of a deodorant called Teen Spirit.
“We were laughing, saying, ‘Your arm smells like Teen Spirit' or whatever. We were both joking around because the name looked so funny,” Hanna recalled to ABC Australia. “I mean, who names a deodorant Teen Spirit? What does teen spirit smell like? Like a locker room? Like pot mixed with sweat? Like the smell when you throw up in your hair at a party?”
Once back at Cobain’s apartment, further drinking led to destructive behavior.
“We got pretty drunk and did this thing where we turned off all the lights and smashed everything in Kurt's room,” Hanna explained. “I started drawing on the wall in Sharpie markers. I wrote ‘Kurt smells like Teen Spirit', because it was in my head from earlier in the grocery store.”
The phrase stuck with Cobain. Six months later, while working on material for Nirvana's sophomore album, the frontman would use the words for the title of a song.
Listen to an Early Demo of 'Smells Like Teen Spirit'
“I wish I had a tape of what Kurt was playing,” bassist Krist Novoselic said, recalling the first time Cobain brought the “Smells Like Teen Spirit” song idea into rehearsal, in the book Guitar World: The Life & Genius of Kurt Cobain. "We were just playing the chorus, 'When the light's out, and it's dangerous, here we are now,' over and over again. I said, 'Wait a minute. Why don't we just kind of slow this down a bit?' So I started playing the verse part. And Dave [Grohl] started playing a drumbeat."
"I was trying to write the ultimate pop song," Cobain later confessed to Rolling Stone, adding that he was "basically trying to rip off the Pixies” with the tune’s loud-soft dynamic.
Lyrically, Cobain tapped into his own angst and frustration toward the commercialization of youth culture. The famous line “Here we are now, entertain us” was part of his own regular vernacular.
“That came from something I used to say every time I used to walk into a party to break the ice,” the frontman admitted to Rolling Stone. “A lot of times, when you’re standing around with people in a room, it’s really boring and uncomfortable. So it was, ‘Well, here we are, entertain us. You invited us here.’”
“He was talking about kids, commercials, Generation X, the youth bandwagon and how he’s really disappointed in it, and how he doesn’t want anything to do with it,” Novoselic later recalled of the “Smells Like Teen Spirit” lyrics, admitting he “didn’t get” the message until he heard Cobain sing the words.
On April 17, 1991, Nirvana performed “Smells Like Teen Spirit” in concert for the first time during a headlining gig at the OK Hotel in Seattle. A month later, they’d record the track with producer Butch Vig at Sound City studios in Van Nuys, Calif.
Watch Nirvana Play 'Smells Like Teen Spirit' in Concert for the First Time
"I was just completely floored," Vig admitted, looking back at the first time he heard the song. "It sounded huge and crushing loud. I just was pacing around 'cause it sounded so fuckin' cool."
It didn’t take long to get “Smells Like Teen Spirit” on tape, with the band knocking the majority of the song out in just three takes. “On the chorus, we double tracked,” Vig recalled years later, noting a method in which one take of Cobain’s vocals was layered on top of another. “He was great at double tracking. He would just run down a take and do another take, and they would always lock up really, really well.”
Cobain’s pained vocal delivery would become one of the song’s most alluring traits. Listening to the track decades later, Vig admitted the frontman’s voice was “starting to get pretty shot": “He’s been going so hard through the song, pushing so hard. Sounds like his vocal cords are starting to come right out of his throat.”
For the song’s guitar solo, Cobain made a simple yet impactful choice. “He basically copped the vocal melody, instead of trying to come up with something punky or frantic or strangled guitar, like he usually did,” Vig explained. “He just copped the exact vocal melody. And it works really well.”
“Smells Like Teen Spirit” was released as the lead single from Nevermind on Sept. 10, 1991. Initially, the song didn’t chart. But it began picking up steam at college and non-commercial radio stations. When MTV premiered the music video on Sept. 29, things quickly accelerated. By October, the clip was in heavy rotation on the network, while the proudly anti-commercial Nirvana were suddenly thrust into the mainstream.
Watch the Music Video for Nirvana's 'Smells Like Teen Spirit'
As “Smells Like Teen Spirit” became a massive global hit, Cobain grew to resent the song, with Nirvana regularly removing it from their set lists.
“Everyone has focused on that song so much. The reason it gets a big reaction is people have seen it on MTV a million times. It’s been pounded into their brains,” Cobain explained in 1994.
He went on to admit he enjoyed the initial spark of attention generated by “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” before noting that things quickly got out of hand. “Once it got into the mainstream, it was over. I’m just tired of being embarrassed by it. I’m beyond that.”