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In 1991, something funny happened on the radio. "Smells Like Teen Spirit" – a hard-rocking, distortion-filled, lyrically opaque song from a previously obscure Pacific Northwest "alternative" band called Nirvana – suddenly became the most popular song in the land. Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain, a gifted songwriter but a tortured soul who struggled at times with depression and substance abuse, suddenly found himself hailed as the "voice of his generation." The shocking rise of "Smells Like Teen Spirit" marked the beginning of a new decade in which "alternative" rock ruled the airwaves. For Cobain and Nirvana, though, it also marked the beginning of the end.
About the Song
Kurt Cobain (guitar, vocals), Krist Novoselic (bass), Dave Grohl (drums)
Explore the ways this song connects with the world and with other topics on Shmoop
Nirvana's story is, in a sense, a story of insiders and outsiders. The band was born in the 1980s in Aberdeen, Washington, an economically depressed logging town that missed out entirely on the prosperity of the Reagan Era. This was a place where good jobs were scarce and local kids turned to drugs and a heavy brand of rock music to get by. Nirvana's "alternative" stance was deeply rooted in that time and place. So what happens when a band from Aberdeen suddenly becomes the biggest musical act in the world, the darlings of megabucks pop-culture tastemakers in Manhattan and Hollywood? What happens when outsiders suddenly become hailed as the ultimate insiders, even as representatives of their entire generation? In Nirvana's case, the results weren't pretty.
On the Charts
"Smells Like Teen Spirit" peaked at #6 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart in 1992.
Nevermind, the album from which "Smells Like Teen Spirit" was the lead single, reached #1 on the Billboard albums chart in 1992… knocking Michael Jackson's Dangerous from the top spot.
Nevermind has sold more than 10 million copies, winning a rare "Diamond" (10x platinum) certification from the Recording Industry Association of America.
The video for "Smells Like Teen Spirit" was named video of the year at the 1992 MTV Video Music Awards.
In 2004, Rolling Stone magazine awarded "Smells Like Teen Spirit" the #9 spot on its list of the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time. The magazine also named Nevermind the #17 Greatest Album of All Time.
In 2006, the British magazine Q named "Smells Like Teen Spirit" the top song of the last 20 years.