"Smells like Teen Spirit" - Nirvana
Victoria Scott, Nikki Burnett, Kristen Zulli
The song we chose is “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” This song is the lead single from Nirvana’s second album entitled Nervermind released in 1991. This album was a major debut for Nirvana with DGC record company. The band members of Nirvana, who perform the song, include Kurt Cobain, Krist Novoselic, and Dave Grohl. Kurt Cobain wrote the lyrics to “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” A band in which he looked up to, named The Pixies, inspired his lyrics. The success of this song was not expected to be huge. In 1992 however, it reached the top of the charts. At this point in time alternative rock, the style of this song started to reach the mainstream. This song was written with the idea to be a teen revolution anthem, as noted by the title. Cobain said he wrote this song because he was feeling "disgusted with my generation's apathy.” It started to gain its popularity as rock stations and many college campuses released it on the radio. The song was appealing to many, reaching all the major rock radio stations including modern, hard, and album rock. Its popularity also was connected to the music video released. The music video launched its world premiere on MTV's late-night rock program. The video is meant to portray a concept of a pep rally from hell, which ends in a riot.
As watched, the music video helps portray the "grunge" craze during this time period, which was characterized by things such as loud guitars, angsty lyrics, and flannel, making teens feel almost power ridden and more interested. All and all “Smells like Teen Spirit” was wildly successful. To name only a few successful moments, it was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame's list of "The Songs That Shaped Rock and Roll" in 1997, and MTV ranked the song's music video at number three on its "100 Greatest Music Videos Ever Made" list in 1999. It is still covered often, and I personally love to jam out to it playing the hit video game, Guitar Hero.
Nirvana was part of an innovative trend of its time, called “grunge”. “Smells Like Teen Spirit” was one of the first really popular grunge songs to make it on the radio, MTV, and other national mediums, as the trend mainly started in Seattle and in small enclaves. It was also part of a larger “alternative rock” movement. It combined pop and heavy rock, with its both slow and fast, heavy parts.
The most controversial thing about “Smells like Teen Spirit” was Kurt Cobain’s grumbled and nonsensical lyrics, which led some radio stations to refuse to play it sometimes. It also led some fans to overanalyze the lyrics, but band members have straight out said in interviews that the lyrics were just meant to be fun and nonsensical. Also, while audiences took the song to be an anthem, the band started to hate that it was the one song that they were really known for. Kurt noted that he thought they had written much better songs, and so when they played concerts they liked to refuse to play the song or purposely play it poorly or differently than the audience expected.
The song was listened to mostly by young people and teenagers, especially through college radio stations, concerts, and the growing popularity of MTV. Generation X took the song to be one of apathy and social destruction, and Nirvana made this socially acceptable and even “cool”. This is exemplified with the sound of the song, how it is both slow and very heavy. The video also inspired this mix of apathy and anarchy, with an originally overwhelmingly bored high school concert with real destruction at the end by the extras who were forced to sit still for hours.
As previously mentioned, Nirvana was one of the first grunge bands to reach the mainstream. “Smells like Teen Spirit” provides an example of how popular culture can be spread from the bottom-up. Nirvana and other alternative rock bands originally had a strong following from a subset of people far from the mainstream. However, Kurt Cobain set out to “write the ultimate pop song” allowing the heavily grunge influenced song to enter popular culture, especially through facets like MTV. As the grunge movement became more widespread, “Smells like Teen Spirit” gained popularity, eventually becoming one of the defining songs of the generation. The purpose of the alternative rock movement was to be so radical that it stays on the outskirts of popular culture. In order to do so, many bands took on a postmodern approach. “Smells like Teen Spirit” utilizes this trend both lyrically and musically. Throughout the whole song, the lyrics are sung in such a way that makes them difficult to understand, which adds to the anarchy and chaos of both the song and the genre. Additionally, the lyrics of the song don’t seem to really have much of a solid meaning. The chorus says,
“With the lights out, it's less dangerous
Here we are now, entertain us
I feel stupid and contagious
Here we are now, entertain us”
The lyrics don’t seem to suggest deeper meaning, there’s just a focus on letting loose and having fun. This focusing on just the surface meaning combined with the chaotic nature of the song contributes to its postmodern aspects. Another factor that we discussed in class about postmodernism is its breaking down of the distinction between high and low culture. As mentioned earlier, although Kurt Cobain intended for “Smells like Teen Spirit” to be “the ultimate pop song”, no one knew how popular it would become. It completely broke down the barrier between interest groups. Its popularity among all types of people is why the song is often noted as one of the most important songs of the generation, inspiring countless artists afterward.
Question: Why do you think a grunge song, intended to be the antithesis of mainstream music, gained so much popularity throughout the ‘90s?
Like with “Video Killed the Radio Star”, its music video on MTV allowed the song to spread to a more mainstream audience. Its catchy beat appeals to the pop genre but its grunge undertones and rebellious feel stays true to its alternative rock roots. Also, the younger generation at the time probably wanted to break away from the typical pop songs of their parent’s generation, making the rebelliousness of grunge even more appealing. “Smells like Teen Spirit” and the grunge genre as a whole also seem to criticize the commercialization of the pop genre. This can be seen simply in the name of the song, which is shared by a popular deodorant.
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