Teen Spirit was the brand of deodorant worn by Kurt Cobain’s one-time girlfriend. A friend spray painted “Kurt Smells Like Teen Spirit” on his bedroom wall one night, alluding to the fact that he was acting like he was still marked by his old flame’s scent. He used the phrase to title a culture-changing song.
But first, a brief digression about Dave Grohl, who was the drummer for Nirvana. His memoir, “The Storyteller: Tales of Life and Music,” is an excellent read which I would highly recommend to anyone who wants a view into music and life from the 1970s through today. Grohl is an engaging writer with a distinctive voice, and the book ranges from the hilarious to the transcendent with ease, its moments of grace and poignancy contrasted with crass humor and rowdy recollections. You know, rock ‘n’ roll.
“Smells Like Teen Spirit” burst the bubble of early 1990s as part of a hard rock onslaught from Seattle, which included Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, and Stone Temple Pilots, among others. This grunge era slammed a melodious fusion of punk, rock, and metal into the world and reinvigorated rock music. It drives sales of flannel shirts to this day.
The song became a paradox of its own making — written to criticize mainstream conformity, it created a new type of the same.
Cobain’s voice was a marvel — raw, soulful, and rangy. His tragic suicide, expedited by a heroin addiction, shocked the world. He was 27.
Written in the key of F minor, the song has a loping tempo of 116 bpm, and some of the most dramatic shifts in dynamics you’ll encounter in rock music. Grohl’s initial drum hits feel fresh and vital every listen.
The song has been included in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s list of “Songs That Shaped Rock and Roll,” and was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 2017.
I’ve put a live version from 1991 first below, because it’s less well-known, faster, and even more visceral (the dancers I can’t explain). The classic video ends the post.