The 500 Greatest Songs of the 1990s – Number One: Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit”

Written by | December 10, 2020 4:30 am | No Comments

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“Smells Like Teen Spirit”
Nirvana Songwriters: Kurt Cobain, Krist Novoselic, Dave Grohl
#5 pop
1991

You say you want a revolution?

In 1991, it took Nirvana less than five minutes to make classic rock and hair bands irrelevant, to make the long ignored spirit of the Ramones and the Sex Pistols a staple of mainstream radio.

I remember the first time I heard “Teen Spirit,” watching MTV in a Lancaster, Pennsylvania hotel room. I was gobsmacked by the power of the music and, perhaps even more shocked, that it was being played on a mainstream media outlet.

Kurt Cobain on his inspiration, “I 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 that I should have been in that band—or at least a Pixies cover band. We used their sense of dynamics, being soft and quiet and then loud and hard.”

You can make any interpretation of the lyrics that you want, what mattered was Cobain’s voice – a combination of pain and confusion that sounded like an open wound. “Smells Like Teen Spirit” unleashed the frustrations of a young man who understood that life is a rigged game and both taking it too seriously or not serious enough are losing propositions, leading to the conclusion, “Oh, well…whatever…nevermind.”

Former band manager Danny Goldberg, “’With the lights out, it’s less dangerous/ Here we are now, entertain us.’ It was rock ‘n’ roll, and kind of an ironic commentary on rock ‘n’ roll, at the same time. That was the genius of the song: It combined a fierce commentary on shallowness while still having a mass-appeal musicality.”

Producer Butch Vig, “The first day I met Nirvana (with drummer Dave Grohl) was in the rehearsal space in North Hollywood. The first song they played was ‘Teen Spirit.’ It was the first time I saw Dave Grohl drum and his playing just floored me. I remember just pacing around the room thinking, ‘This song is fantastic.’ Kurt had that dichotomy of punk rage and alienation but also this vulnerable pop sensibility. In ‘Teen Spirit’ a lot of that vulnerability is in his singing, in the tone of his voice. I went into the studio (after the record was released) and there were all these messages on the answering machine from people I didn’t know, like, ‘Dude, I’m a radio programmer in Atlanta and blah blah blah, we just heard ‘Teen Spirit’ and it’s going to blow the doors off rock ‘n’ roll!’”

Journalist Al Horner in 2014, “It encapsulated not just a generation, but a feeling that had never been captured so truly in song before – a malaise for the establishment, a nothingness at an increasingly corporate world. Which is why it remains so powerful, and why, here we are now, still celebrating it today.”

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