© 2014 Shmoop University, Inc. All rights reserved.
Smells Like Teen Spirit

Smells Like Teen Spirit

by Nirvana

Lyrics

"Load up on guns and bring your friends"

Quick Thought

Kurt Cobain used a shotgun to commit suicide on April 5, 1994.

Deep Thought

This lyric, already a bit unsettling, became even more haunting after Cobain used a gun to end his own life. Ironically, Cobain spent most of his life deathly afraid of guns; despite growing up in a rural community in which hunting was a common pastime, Cobain refused even to pick up a gun until he was in his mid-twenties.

"She's over-bored and self-assured"

Quick Thought

"Over-bored"? Or is it "overboard"?

Deep Thought

Many have interpreted this cryptic lyric as a reference to Bikini Kill drummer Tobi Vail, Kurt Cobain's love interest throughout much of 1991, perhaps hinting at Cobain's feeling of intimidation in her presence. Or maybe someone just fell out of a boat.

"Here we are now, entertain us"

Quick Thought

Kurt Cobain said he used to shout out this line as a way of breaking the ice when entering parties.

Deep Thought

After Nirvana became the world's hottest band, many critics seized upon this line as Cobain's ironic commentary upon the heavy demands of stardom, a sardonic reference to the pressure that comes from thousands of people demanding that he entertain them all the time. But it seems unlikely that this was in fact the line's inspiration, since Nirvana was still virtually unknown outside the Pacific Northwest indie scene at the time it was written.

"A mulatto"

Quick Thought

"Mulatto" is an awkwardly old-fashioned term for a person of half-African and half-European racial heritage.

Deep Thought

The word "mulatto" dates back to the era of slavery, when it was common for white masters to force their female slaves to have sex with them, often producing biracial offspring. Slave societies often feared mulattoes—people who challenged, by their very existence, the idea that there existed some kind of uncrossable line dividing the races and reminded everyone of the hypocrisy of interracial sex in a society in which white supremacy was the official ideology. The term is now considered to be pejorative and offensive; Cobain's use of the word in a sexualized context seems designed to make the listener uncomfortable.

"I'm worse at what I do best / And for this gift I feel blessed"

Quick Thought

What the heck does that mean?

Deep Thought

Could be a profound statement about the paradoxes of modern life. Could be complete gibberish. What do you think?

"An albino"

Quick Thought

"An albino" is a person with a rare hereditary condition that causes a lack of color in the skin, hair, and eyes.

Deep Thought

Though modern scientists understand that albinism is simply an inherited trait resulting from a lack of the pigment melanin in the body, in many traditional cultures people with the condition were subject to rampant fear and ridicule—even treated as inhuman devils or witches. The term "albino," used as a noun, is thus vaguely pejorative; by using the term in a sexualized connotation, Cobain pushes against the boundaries of social taboo.

"And I forget just why I taste / Oh yeah, I guess it makes me smile"

Quick Thought

This is the only verse in the song that doesn't rhyme.

Deep Thought

It's also unclear what, if anything, this line refers to, beyond conveying a general sense of boredom and alienation. Maybe that's more than enough.

"I found it hard, it's hard to find / Oh well, whatever, never mind"

Quick Thought

This line, perhaps more than any other, has been seized upon as proof of the song's anthemic significance for the members of Generation X.

Deep Thought

Cobain must have liked the line, too, because he picked out "Nevermind" from this lyric as the title for Nirvana's first major-label album. But is the line really meant to capture an entire slacker-filled generation's sense of apathy and alienation? Or is it a more personal statement, capturing the frustration of trying—and failing—to find the right words to pour out your heart to the girl you love?

"My libido"

Quick Thought

"Libido" = sex drive.

Deep Thought

A concept popularized by psychologists Sigmund Freud and Karl Jung a century ago, the libido is a person's instinctive energy or force, a primal drive located in the unconscious part of the psyche. In popular usage, the term usually means simple sexual desire. Cobain's chorus of "mulatto"/"albino"/"mosquito"/"libido"—bringing together two taboo topics, one bloodsucking insect, and his sex drive—invokes a raw, uncomfortable, dangerous kind of sexuality.

"A denial, a denial"

Quick Thought

The song ends with Cobain—his voice ripped to shreds—screaming "a denial" over and over again as the guitars break up into fuzzy feedback.

Deep Thought

For those who hear "Smells Like Teen Spirit" as a classic boy-loses-girl record, "a denial" is the key to the entire song's meaning. It's Cobain's denial by the girl he loves—Tobi Vail, in this case—that generates the whole festival of self-loathing that fills up the rest of the lyrics.

People who Shmooped this also Shmooped...

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement