If you were a plaid-clad musician in the ’90s, chances are you found inspiration in “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” Maybe the drumming guitar riffs spoke to the headbanger in you. Maybe the opening riff hit your disillusioned heartstrings.
Either way, its cultural impact is undeniable, and it’s still one of the most iconic songs of the ’90s. MCUs Black widow even opened with a devastating rendition of it covered by singer Malia J.
No one thought the song would explode the way it did – including former Nirvana drummer Dave Grohl. In fact, Grohl remembered that the band thought it would just be “another cool song for the record”. So what made this song such a surprising hit?
Grunge meets pop
Surprisingly, “Smells Like Teen Spirit” started as a Pixies-inspired pop song. Musician Kurt Cobain was a fan of the legendary alternative rock band and wanted to emulate their style.
Instead, it was something Cobain saw as stupid and contagious with a cliché riff. So they slowed it down. The result was the percussive and stinging riffs that make the ears of 90s kids spread everywhere when they hear them.
Another unexpected influence? Singer Kathleen Hanna (Bikini Kill) climbed “Kurt Smells of Teen Spirit” on Cobain’s bedroom wall. Cobain thought it was a reference to teenage rebellion. It turns out that it was actually a reference to a deodorant brand for girls.
Despite popular belief, Grohl expected a positive response to Nirvana releasing their second studio album forget it. But he expected people to pay attention to songs like “Lithium” or “In Bloom”.
Grohl even remembered that the band did not pay much attention to the song while recording it. Still, it brought them almost uncomfortable success levels after release. Cobain eventually came to hate playing the song at all.
Years after its release, Cobain’s suicide marked the end of the legendary band. Krist Novoselic went into politics. Grohl formed the Foo Fighters. But the impact of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” lives on.
At the age of twenty-two, Grohl was sadly unprepared for the enormous levels of fame that Nirvana would achieve. They had mainly created a hymn for the disillusioned youth of Generation X, while still being disillusioned youths themselves. Grohl was one of the credited authors along with Cobain & Novoselic.
But perhaps the unexpected success prepared Grohl for his own fame. In 1994, Grohl formed the equally legendary Foo Fighters. They released hits like “Monkey Wrench”, “Everlong” and “Best of You”.
The legacy of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” has been alive for thirty years. Disillusioned teens eventually became disillusioned adults with bills, families, and community obligations. But even they can not help but rock a little when they hear this song.
The influence of both the song and the band can still be heard to this day. Bands like Placebo & Nickelback both cite Nirvana as musical influences. They are certainly not the only ones.
Echoes of Cobain’s melancholy warble can be heard in the vocals of Scott Weiland (Stone Temple Pilots). The energetic drumming of Zac Farro (Paramore) may sound familiar to fans of Grohl’s expertise with a solid pair of drumsticks. Ironically, Grohl recently admitted that his own style was influenced by black artists like The Gap Band.
Grohl was surprised by the success of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and so was everyone else. No one expected it to be as big a hit as it was and continues to be. But the fact is that when the plaid-clad youth of the 90s shouted for someone to entertain them, Nirvana appeared.
Is “Smells Like Teen Spirit” your favorite song? Or do you prefer one of Nirvana’s many other hits? Let us know in the comments below!
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