Flashback Friday: “Smells Like Teen Spirit” by Nirvana

Smells Like Teen Spirit album

In the early 1990’s, alternative music was just that – alternative. When the 4-chord riffs of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” hit the airwaves in 1992, it was a turning point in alternative music – alternative was now mainstream.

Kurt Cobain led the 3-man band Nirvana. In the late 80’s, they developed a style for their songs with dynamic contrasts, often between muted verses and loud, heavy choruses. This song layout became the trademark sound of the grunge era, and whether you believe that Nirvana or Pearl Jam was the ultimate Grunge band, you can’t deny that it was the signature sound of the genre.

Critics accuse Nirvana as being a “sellout band” because they struck deal with a major record label, but they did that because no indie label could buy the group out of its existing contract. Fame was tough for Kurt Cobain, and I remember the day he committed suicide just as clearly as the first time I heard “Smells Like Teen Spirit.”

Smells Like Teen Spirit was on their second album, Nevermind. It became the anthem of the Apathetic Kids of Generation X

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

Nirvana Nevermind

I am very loyal to my roots to Portland. And living my early adolescent year in the Northwest during the early 1990’s meant that Grunge was a part of life. Even though the heart of Grunge was 175 miles up the road in Seattle, it was no less prevalent in PDX. When Nirvana came on the scene, I first listened to it on 970 The Beat, an AM station with very poor reception. The distortion and static of the reception made listening to one of the underground stations even cooler.

According to Wikipedia, “Grunge is generally characterized by heavily distorted electric guitars, contrasting song dynamics, and apathetic or angst-filled lyrics. The grunge aesthetic is stripped-down compared to other forms of rock music, and many grunge musicians were noted for their unkempt appearances and rejection of theatrics.”

Smells like Teen Spirit Kurt CobainAt a time when my body was developing a more womanly shape, I could hide it with no qualms because baggy shirts and sloppy dressing were in. The fashion style of Grunge was the flannel shirt and other items from thrift stores. As a poor tween with little pocket money, it was an easy style to pull off.

The ubiquity of Nirvana’s music was undeniable. Before they hit the mainstream, loud bands that didn’t sing about sexy women and expensive cars didn’t get sold at mall records stores. Within a week of “Teen Spirit” playing on MTV, punk rock was everywhere. Echoes of Cobain’s music can be heard in today’s bands that contrast wailing guitars with brooding lyrics and diffident performances.

Interesting bonus factoid: Paul McCartney replaced Kurt Cobain for a Nirvana reunion performance for the 12-12-12 Benefit Concert for Superstorm Sandy.