Nirvana song ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ was one of the definitive anthems of the 1990s. Following its release in 1991, the song encapsulated a generation of disillusioned youths who found comfort in the abrasive guitars and Kurt Cobain‘s shouts of “I feel stupid and contagious”.
The release of Nevermind, the album which featured the track, marked grunge’s entry into the mainstream, helping to popularise alternative rock as the dominant strain of the rock genre. Nirvana became one of the biggest bands in the world, with ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ acting as their signature hit.
Although the song is now widely recognisable, even to non-Nirvana fans, Dave Grohl told NME that he didn’t think the song would become so successful. “I remember writing ‘Teen Spirit’ in our rehearsal space, and I liked the riff that Kurt came up with because it’s percussive. Those muted, stabbing strums in between the chords really leant to the pattern of the drum riff.” He also explained how Pixies greatly inspired the track, stating, “We were just having fun, really.”
Cobain has discussed Pixies’ influence over the track before, once telling Rolling Stone: “I was trying to write the ultimate pop song. I was basically trying to rip off the Pixies. I have to admit it. When I heard the Pixies for the first time, I connected with that band so heavily that I should have been in that band—or at least a Pixies cover band. We used their sense of dynamics, being soft and quiet and then loud and hard.”
Nirvana’s previous album, Bleach – their debut – had not charted upon release, although it was well-received by critics. Thus, the band were not anticipating the unprecedented success that came with Nevermind. However, with the new addition of Grohl on drums and a collection of pop-infused rock songs that addressed themes of isolation and anti-authoritarianism, Nirvana captured the attention of listeners worldwide. Grohl continued: “Of course, no one had any psychic foresight to imagine that [‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’] would go on to do what it did. We just fuckin’ rocked it in a little rehearsal space that was like a barn,” claiming that the band would write “new song after new song every day”.
He added: “I think everyone was more focused on songs like ‘In Bloom’ or ‘Lithium’ or ‘Breed’; nobody really paid too much attention to ‘Teen Spirit’ while we were recording it. We just thought it was another cool song for the record.”
However, Grohl stated that he recognised the track’s potential once they were in the studio, “And not just lyrically or musically, but the groove of the song – it was really powerful,” he said. Still, no one could predict the amount of popularity that ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ would come to harness. Not only did the song shape the course of alternative rock, but the music video received significant airplay on MTV. Subsequently, the music video helped to attract a broader audience to the channel.
‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ might not be Nirvana’s best song, but it encapsulated their sound well, blending the Pixies-inspired harsh/soft dynamic with an anthemic singalong chorus. In retrospect, it’s hard to believe that the band didn’t think the song would become as big as it did.