Kurt Cobain was often hailed as the voice of his generation, a modern-day poet capable of representing the hopes, fears, and angst—especially the angst—of young people coming of age in the uncertain times of the early 1990s.
Cobain himself rejected such talk, and often seemed tormented by the unrealistic expectations that came with his fans' desire for him to become the next Bob Dylan. It's hard not to think that the pressures of those expectations contributed to Cobain's descent into heroin addiction and, ultimately, to his suicide.
Fifteen years have now passed since Cobain chose to use a shotgun to end his troubled time on Earth. With the benefit of hindsight, we can see that Cobain was both right and wrong about his own status as a lyricist.
On the one hand, he was a strange kind of poet, his writings often full of lame clichés and usually bordering on the incoherent. On the other hand, the jumbled mess of his thoughts often did contain lucid snippets that really did speak to people.
"Smells Like Teen Spirit," Nirvana's most popular song, is a perfect example of Cobain's incoherent but evocative lyrical style.
What is the song even about? Sex? Love? Deodorant? Friendship? Anarchy? Teenage boredom? The pressures of fame? Maybe all of those things; maybe none. Cobain once explained the song as "basically just about friends…. It also has a kind of a teen revolutionary theme to it." But that's almost as much of a non sequitur as the song's lyrics themselves; the truth is that "Smells Like Teen Spirit" doesn't tell much of a story.
Instead, the lyrics are enigmatic; they can mean whatever you want them to mean (an effect magnified by Cobain's slurred singing, which meant that many listeners heard entirely different lyrics than the ones Cobain wrote).
But as vague as the lyrics' meanings may be, they do, clearly and powerfully, evoke a particular mood—a mood of unease and discomfort, desire and alienation.
There's the unsettling pairing of "guns" and "fun" in the song's first verse, and the chorus's repeated rhyming of "dangerous" and "contagious" (both juxtaposed awkwardly against the sneering demand, "here we are now, entertain us").
Even the chorus's seemingly nonsensical litany of "a mulatto, an albino, a mosquito, my libido"—a lyric Nirvana bassist Krist Novoselic described as "ridiculous" the first time he heard it—heightens the song's awkward atmospherics. "Mulatto" and "albino" are both words not usually uttered today in polite company, terms that have often, in our history, invoked racial and sexual taboos. A mosquito is, of course, a bloodsucking parasite. And what ties all these things together? Kurt Cobain's sex drive. What does it mean? We're not sure we know, and we're not sure we really want to know.