It’s conventional music industry practice for record labels trying to break an up-and-coming band to release what’s termed a “base-building” cut as the first single from an album. The idea is that this lead single—specifically chosen because it contains the core recognizable elements of an artist’s sound—will get diehard fans excited enough to send it up the charts devoted to that artist’s designated format. A more melodic single with broader appeal will be issued next, with the intention that it will build upon the momentum established by the base-builder to quite possibly (fingers crossed) cross over to other formats and become a genuine sensation with consumers.
This is the tactic DGC Records had in mind when it selected “Smells Like Teen Spirit” as the initial a-side from Nirvana’s major label debut Nevermind, both of which it unveiled to the public in September 1991. “Come as You Are” was already slotted as the follow-up, as it was pegged as the potential modern rock radio hit, quite likely because its warbly guitar tone and more restrained, moody atmosphere made it more palatable to the format’s Cure/Depeche Mode-dominated post-punk leanings at the time than “Teen Spirit’s” aggressive, in-your-face alterna-rockism. Some at parent company Geffen held hopes that the possible breakout track (if it did emerge) would be “Lithium”, the eventual third single from the LP. This was the best-case scenario that Geffen/DGC could envision for its promotional plan, given the market for alt-rock at the time.
But history didn’t work out that way. What instead happened was that “Smells Like Teen Spirit” became a wholly unexpected phenomenon, the magnitude and rapid diffusion of which bulldozed DGC’s little marketing strategy so utterly that the label had to throw up its hands and (in its words) simply get out of the way. Conquering sales charts, music television, and all rock radio formats over the course of late 1991 and early 1992, the song not only became a ubiquitous epoch-defining commercial hit—peaking at number six on the Billboard Hot 100 in the United States and attaining similar heights worldwide—but it also quickly ensconced itself into the canon of modern popular music. Today, it sits in that rarified echelon of all-time greats as the one song from the last 20 years that even baby boomers in thrall of the 1960s’ overbearing cultural legacy can’t dispute is an “important” record.
What is it that’s so enrapturing about this particular song? The appeal of “Smells Like Teen Spirit”—and by extension, Nevermind as a whole—is primal and visceral, rooted in gut impulses triggered by the song’s attack. From the moment Kurt Cobain’s scratchy four-chord guitar intro is interrupted by Dave Grohl’s bone-thuddingly massive drum fills and the switching-on of a distortion pedal, it’s clear that “Teen Spirit” is a tremendous song. Driven by a lurching, thrashing rhythm and well-placed dynamic shifts to amp up or dial down the intensity as needed, the whole thing practically compels listeners to mosh along. The tune’s chord progression is so catchy that the band built “Teen Spirit” around it, relying on Pixies-inspired contrasting loud choruses and subdued verses (where the distorted parts drop off so Cobain can play a hanging two-note lick) to move the song forward. One killer bit that is not often discussed by critics is the transitional riff that connects the choruses back to the second verse and the guitar solo, where Cobain’s gnarled, chromatic chord changes are interrupted by well-placed exclamations of the word “Yay”, which are themselves augmented by a string bend that matches the note he’s singing.
“Teen Spirit”‘s melody exhibits a simple, nursery-rhyme quality that makes it compulsively singable; it’s unsurprising then that Cobain also utilized it for the track’s guitar solo. Even though his straightforward replication of it for his lead break would forever earn him critical marks from more technically proficient players, that decision ensured that no one would ever forget it. According to Grohl, Cobain’s songwriting mantra was that music came first, lyrics second. Thus, subordinate to the main melody and Cobain’s nuanced vocal delivery, the song’s subject matter—where the lyricist ruminates on his generation, while both advocating and dismissing the concept of a teen revolution—is pretty irrelevant. On paper the words for “Teen Spirit” might come off as patent nonsense at points (“A mulatto / An albino / A mosquito / My libido / Yeah!”), but one really shouldn’t be following the song with a lyric sheet in hand—Nevermind notably did not include full lyrics in its liner notes anyway, merely snippets of lines. And that’s how you perceive Cobain’s words on the tune, as verbal snatches slip out from his mumbled, hoarse singing to create impulsive sensations in the listener’s mind (“Load up on guns and bring your friends”; “Hello, how low?”; “With the lights out / It’s less dangerous / Here we are now / Entertain us.”; “Oh well, whatever, never mind”; “A denial”). It’s Cobain’s attitude—alternately antsy, aggravated, and snarky—that imbues his words their power. As Nevermind producer Butch Vig once said about the track, “I don’t know exactly what ‘Teen Spirit’ means, but you know it means something, and it’s as intense as hell.”
Listening to the track now, its appeal is almost mundanely obvious—it’s no wonder legions of alt-rockers spent years trying to rip it off. Indeed, those involved with making “Teen Spirit” knew it was a great song, even if they could never have anticipated how huge it would become. Vig recalled being impressed when he first heard a grainy cassette demo of the song, and, when Nirvana first rehearsed it live for him, he was so wowed that he asked the trio to play it again and again. Yet “Teen Spirit”‘s massive success was by no means ordained, and there was indeed a time when it wasn’t the reliable radio standard that it always seems to have been. As detailed in Jim Berkenstadt and Charles Cross’s Nevermind book from the now-defunct Classic Rock Albums series, commercial radio programmers were in fact gun-shy about playing the track when it first hit the airwaves, restricting it to nighttime play due to its abrasive nature. However, market research showed that “Teen Spirit” was appealing enormously to all sorts of listeners regardless of age and gender, even when they were only played a 15-second snippet over the phone. Sure enough, overwhelming public demand sent the song into heavy rotation, where it has stayed ever since.
That tidbit reveals much about why “Smells Like Teen Spirit” ultimately became a humongous hit and the defining anthem of the 1990s. Endless analyses have offered explanations ranging from Vig’s production and Andy Wallace’s mixing making Nirvana’s music more palatable to a mainstream audience, to MTV’s support of its music video, to the song simply existing at the right cultural moment. What commentators often overlook is the most basic and probably most accurate explanation. Put aside the radio-ready production, the generational ennui, the iconic pep-rally-from-hell promo—“Teen Spirit” grabbed the attention of listeners of all stripes first and foremost because it fucking rocked. In an era when dance music and hip-hop were gaining huge ground, and the popular face of hard rock was ballad-friendly glam metal, Nirvana delivered a powerful demonstration of rock music at its cathartic, riff-driven best. The caliber of what the grunge trio had wrought was immediately evident to awed listeners even after a fleeting exposure to the tune, a true testament to the group’s songwriting ability and performance chops. Hell, if you cue up Nevermind right now, the sound of the full band kicking in nine seconds into that first cut will still feel like a hit to the stomach. That’s why 20 years later, the exhilaration of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” cannot be denied. AJ Ramirez