The song that skyrocketed grunge band Nirvana into the spotlight, “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” was released 25 years ago today. Many Gen Xers can still recall where they lived and even exactly what they were doing the first time they heard the massive track, but not everyone knew how and where the song came about, and how the impact of such a mega-successful hit would leave its lead singer bewildered and uncomfortable.
Fact No. 1: Kurt Cobain Credits The Pixies for “Smells Like Teen Spirit”
It was the Pixies-style that influenced Cobain to create a pop-sounding song, mixed with a bit of soft and light rock, an overused riff, and a dose of impeccable timing. He admitted in a 1994 Rolling Stone interview that he probably “ripped off” The Pixies, but the end result was nothing short of amazing.
“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 I should have been in that band — or at least in a Pixies cover band. We used their sense of dynamics, being soft and quiet and then loud and hard.”
— Pitchfork (@pitchfork) September 10, 2016
Fact No. 2: Kurt Smells Like Teen Spirit
A year before the song was released, Cobain was hanging out with Kathleen Hanna of Bikini Hill, when she decided to scribble, “Kurt smells like teen spirit” on his bedroom wall, following a night of drinking and spray-painting underpasses and old buildings with graffiti around the Seattle area. One stop included a religious center where Cobain himself spray-painted “God Is Gay” on the side of the building after he thought the center was posing as an abortion clinic.
Hanna was inspired by the idea because Cobain was, at the time, dating Bikini Hill’s lead singer Tobi Vail, who wore Teen Spirit deodorant. Hanna explained her thinking at the time.
“We ended up in Kurt’s apartment and I smashed up a bunch of s**t. I took out a Sharpie marker and I wrote all over his bedroom wall — it was a rental so it was really kind of lame that I did that. I passed out with the marker in my hand, and woke up hung over.”
A then-popular deodorant aimed at teens helped inspire Nirvana's 'Smells Like Teen Spirit' pic.twitter.com/UNgAj8t1oY
— RetroNewsNow (@RetroNewsNow) September 10, 2016
Fact No. 3: “Smells Like Teen Spirit” Reached Certified Platinum
The song not only reached certified platinum while climbing to the No. 2 spot on Rolling Stone‘s 1991 “Best Singles of the Year” chart, but it also peaked at No. 6 on Billboard‘s top singles chart in 1991, a week after Nevermind hit No. 1 on Billboard‘s 1991 top albums chart.
Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit," the band's biggest hit, turns 25 https://t.co/5rFCDsQVji
— billboard (@billboard) September 10, 2016
Fact No. 4: Cobain Grew Uncomfortable With the Song’s Rapid Success
After the colossal success of “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” the song was labeled “the anthem of a generation” by many, neither of which sat well with Cobain, who was an introvert, and had no idea what to expect with such fame. In 1994, he told Rolling Stone the following.
“I still like playing ‘Teen Spirit,’ but it’s almost an embarrassment to play it. Everyone has focused on that song so much. The reason it gets a big reaction is people have seen it on MTV a million times. It’s been pounded into their brains. But I think there are so many other songs that I’ve written that are as good, if not better, than that song, like ‘Drain You.'”
Regardless, it’s become a timeless song that can elicit goosebumps for some of today’s pickier generation of kids, whether their parents are teaching them about Nirvana songs for the first time, or whether they stumbled upon the classic on their own. The YouTube video for “Smells Like Teen Spirit” currently boasts an impressive 430,434,718 views (and growing).
[Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images]