This Day in History: September 10th
This Day In History: September 10, 1991
Nobody suspected it at the time, but on September 10, 1991, a three-piece alternative band out of Seattle released a single that sparked a cultural revolution and changed the sound, look and vibe of rock music in ways unimaginable. Within a few months the band Nirvana, thanks to the song “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” went from being complete unknowns to the newly reigning rock gods.
Kurt Cobain, singer and frontman of the band, had a bit of a deer-caught-in the-headlights thing going on when the song became a hit. “Smells Like Teen Spirit” was released as the alternative rock single from Nirvana’s first major label album “Nevermind,” and was never expected to be a chart-topper. Kurt was embarrassed because the song was such as blatant homage to the Pixies:
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.
Kurt needn’t have worried. The majority of the kids rushing out to buy “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and “Nevermind” had never even heard of the Pixies or Sonic Youth or Mudhoney – at least until they started worshiping at the altar of Nirvana.
“Smells Like Teen Spirit” is the only song on “Nevermind” that was written by all three band members. When Cobain brought the song to his bandmates, all he had was the chorus vocal melody and the main guitar riff, which bassist Krist Novoselic thought was “ridiculous.” Kurt’s response to this criticism was to make Novoselic and drummer Dave Grohl play that ridiculous riff over and over for an hour and a half.
Years later, Novoselic remembered that after repeating that riff for 90 minutes 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 playing a drum beat.” So “Smells Like Teen Spirit” is truly a collaborative effort between all three members of Nirvana.
And the title? Kurt took it to have a revolutionary meaning when his pal Kathleen Hanna from the riot grrrl band Bikini Kill band spray painted “Kurt Smells Like Teen Spirit” on the wall of his bedroom. Hannah’s message was completely literal – meaning than Kurt actually smelled like Teen Spirit, the deodorant his current girlfriend wore at the time. Cobain said he was unaware that Teen Spirit was a deodorant brand until the single had been out for months.
So there you have it. One of the most revered, iconic, culturally relevant rock songs in history is actually named for an early 1990s brand of deodorant.
“Smells Like Teen Spirit” took us from Aqua Net and spandex to flannel and work boots, but it was so much more than that. Grunge was a short-lived fad, but even in 2014, “Smells Like Teen Spirit” still sounds great, and takes its place as one of the greatest rock songs of all time.
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