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Famous Musical Pieces: Smells Like Teen Spirit

Smells Like Teen Spirit


As clichéd as it sounds, this song truly did define a generation and the whole grunge rock movement. It was dubbed "the anthem for apathetic kids" for Generation X, and brought alternative rock into mainstream music.

Information
Written and performed by: Nirvana
Album: Nevermind
Released on: September 1991

Band members:
Kurt Cobain - singer, guitarist
Krist Novoselic - bass
Dave Grohl - drummer



The song's inspiration: 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."

In a 1994 Rolling Stone magazine interview, Kurt Cobain, the songwriter for the song, said he tried to create a song that would sound like one of his favourite bands - The Pixies (seen in the photo on the left).



A ridiculous song
Today, people around the world hold this song in high regard. But in its early stages, Krist, the bassist, had dismissed the song, calling it "ridiculous". At the time it simply consisted of the main riff and the chorus melody. Cobain made the band play this riff for over an hour, and bassist Krist suggested that they slow it down.

Smells Like Deodorant!
Cobain decided to call the song "Smells Like Teen Spirit" during a conversation with his friend Kathleen Hanna - a singer from the punk band Bikini Kill. She had spray painted "Kurt Smells Like Teen Spirit" on his wall. Cobain thought this was a slogan which had a revolutionary meaning. But Hanna actually meant that he smelled like Teen Spirit, a deodorant that was marketed to teen girls at the time. Cobain had no idea of this until months after the single was released.



Musical analysis
"[The song] was such a clichéd riff. It was so close to a Boston riff or 'Louie Louie.'" - Kurt Cobain

For those of you who a little about music theory, you might find this section of interest. The song was written in the key of F minor, and the main guitar riff use four basic power chords: F5, Bb5, Ab5 and Db5. These chords were double-tracked so it would sound more powerful. The main riff in this song was similar to a 1976 song by Boston, "More Than a Feeling". Even Cobain admitted that the song "was such a clichéd riff. It was so close to a Boston riff or 'Louie Louie.'"

The song begins with Cobain only, and distortion is added when the other band members join Kurt's strumming. This song really did emulate Kurt's original intention - to be soft and quiet, then loud and hard. By the end of the song, Cobain's voice becomes extremely strained and his voice is almost shot from the force of yelling. The song ends with guitar feedback.



Lyrical analysis
"The entire song is made up of contradictory ideas. It's just making fun of the thought of having a revolution. But it's a nice thought." - Kurt Cobain

The words sung are actually quite difficult to understand at first. Widely regarded as a teenage revolution anthem, author Michael Azzerad has said this song is "a sarcastic reaction to the idea of actually having a revolution, yet it also embraces the idea."

"Just seeing Kurt write the lyrics to a song five minutes before he first sings them, you just kind of find it a little bit hard to believe that the song has a lot to say about something. You need syllables to fill up this space or you need something that rhymes." - Drummer Dave Grohl

The chorus, which says "Here we are now - entertain us!" was a phrase which Cobain often said when he entered parties in order to break the ice. This song and its meaning has a punk anger and feelings of alienation - but at the same time it also has catchy pop hooks and riffs. This contradiction of ideas is probably the reason why the song managed to gain so much popularity while still being so far away from the typical notion of what "popular" was at the time.


Impact on music history
The band felt tortured to play this song over and over again once it had become popular. Uncomfortable with how successful it had become, they often excluded from playing it at their concerts. By 1994, Kurt's thrust into popularity and his natural instincts to avoid it had collided. He killed himself in 1994 by shooting himself in the head.

"Smells Like Teen Spirit" was incredibly successful - both by critics and by audiences. It allowed for alternative music to enter mainstream popularity. It has been named one of the best pop songs of all time. It started a new generation of young kids with a type of music which would appeal to them. It made the "grunge" rock sound from Seattle popular across the country. You can watch the original music video here.

Cover versions include:




References/Images
WRIT 1301
shots ring out
Wikipedia 1, 2
Paste Magazine
The modern word
The 217
Rolling Stone

  1. MayMay saidFri, 24 Oct 2008 21:07:28 -0000 ( Link )

    I love it, I love it, I love it! Great lesson, Tiffany!

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  2. oLahav saidTue, 28 Oct 2008 14:29:54 -0000 ( Link )

    This is definately one of the biggest musical pieces of the 90’s… in a way, it did define a generation. Great analysis!

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  3. lucyinthesky saidThu, 11 Dec 2008 08:03:54 -0000 ( Link )

    Thanks guys! I still can’t believe the name of this song was named after a deodorant. It’s very sad this song of alienation ended up alienating the very man who wrote it, Kurt Cobain.

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