Music producer and longtime friend of the show Brent Bodrug helps deconstruct what makes Nirvana’s Smell’s Like Teen Spirit the ultimate Grunge Rock track, Sound City was its legendary home, and we learn the track has its roots in the last vestiges of Boomer hair-metal bands, the Pixies, and BOSTON!??
Knowing nothing about Nirvana, a skeptical Michael got a primer in this last-minute email pounded out by ace producer Vanessa Azzoli:
Kurt Cobain wrote this song for Nirvana; it came together in a jam session when he played it for the band. He said: “I was trying to write the ultimate pop song. I was basically trying to rip off The Pixies.”
Kathleen Hanna, the lead singer of the group Bikini Kill, gave Cobain the idea for the title when she spray painted “Kurt Smells Like Teen Spirit” on his bedroom wall after a night of drinking and spraying graffiti around the Seattle area. In his pre-Courtney Love days, Cobain went out with Bikini Kill drummer Tobi Vail, but she dumped him. Vail wore Teen Spirit deodorant, and Hanna was implying that Cobain was marked with her scent.
Cobain didn’t know it when he wrote the song, but Teen Spirit is a brand of deodorant marketed to young girls. Kurt thought Hanna was complimenting him on his rebellious spirit, as someone who could inspire youth. Sales of Teen Spirit deodorant shot up when this became a hit, even though it is never mentioned in the lyrics.
Cobain said he wrote this song because he was feeling “disgusted with my generation’s apathy, and with my own apathy and spinelessness.” This feeling of detachment is what led to lyrics like “Oh well, whatever, nevermind.” Krist Novoselic added: “Kurt really despised the mainstream. That’s what ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ was all about: The mass mentality of conformity.”
The video was a huge hit on MTV. The concept was “Pep Rally from Hell,” and it was shot at Culver City Studios in California on August 17, 1991, directed by Samuel Bayer, who was a 1987 graduate of the New York City School of Visual Arts. The kids were recruited at a show the band played two days earlier at The Roxy Theater in Los Angeles, where flyers were handed out saying, “Nirvana needs you to appear in their upcoming music video. You should be 18-25 year old and adopt a high school persona, i.e. preppy, punk, nerd, jock. Be prepared to stay for several hours. Come support Nirvana and have a great time.”
The shoot took more like 12 hours, with the extras ordered to sit in the bleachers and look bored while the song played over and over. Said Bayer: “Nobody wanted to be there for more than a half hour, and I needed them for 12 hours. By the 11th hour when the band had had it with me and the kids were so angry with me, they said, ‘Can we destroy the set?'”
Bayer let the kids come down and form a mosh pit, and with all that pent-up energy they proceeded to smash up the set. This impromptu and genuine destruction provided a nice finale for the clip.
The distinctive bridge was originally at the end of the song. Producer Butch Vig had them move it to the middle.
The line, “Here we are now, entertain us,” was something Cobain used to say when he entered a party.
At many of their later shows, Nirvana did not play this song, helping root out the people coming just to hear a hit.