Study Guide

Smells Like Teen Spirit

Smells Like Teen Spirit Introduction

In a Nutshell

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

ArtistNirvana
Year1991
LabelDGC
Writer(s)Kurt Cobain, Dave Grohl, Krist Novoselic
Producer(s)Butch Vig
Musician(s)Kurt Cobain (guitar, vocals), Krist Novoselic (bass), Dave Grohl (drums)
Learn to playTablature
AlbumNevermind

Music Video

Influences on Nirvana

The Melvins
The Pixies
The Clash
Sex Pistols
Led Zeppelin
Black Sabbath
Kiss
Bad Brains
Mudhoney
Sonic Youth

Influenced by Nirvana

Just about all 1990s rock bands

Smells Like Teen Spirit Resources

Books

Kurt Cobain, Journals (2002)
The tortured soul that produced brilliant music was also a prodigious keeper of journals. This book reprints hundreds of pages selected from the twenty or more volumes of journals that Cobain left behind when he died in 1994. They may not provide clarity on his character, but they do provide an intimate window into his scattered thoughts.

Charles Cross, Heavier Than Heaven: A Biography of Kurt Cobain (2001)
This isn't a great book—it could have used an aggressive editor to tighten things up—but it is full of delicious (if arguably sensationalized) anecdotes that will interest hardcore fans.

Michael Azerrad, Come As You Are: The Story of Nirvana (1993)
Written before Kurt Cobain's death, Michael Azerrad's account of Nirvana's rise remains the strongest account of the band's history.

Albums

Nirvana, Bleach (1989)
Nirvana's first album was recorded for $606 and released on Seattle's indie Sub Pop Records two years before the band hit the big time. The sound here is rawer and edgier than Nevermind, but hints at the more famous music to come.

Nirvana, In Utero (1993)
Nirvana's final studio album took on a harder, more abrasive tone than Nevermind… perhaps reflecting Cobain's ongoing descent into depression.

Nirvana, MTV Unplugged in New York (1994)
The last Nirvana album released before Cobain's suicide, Unplugged captured the band in a mellow, acoustic mood.

Nirvana, Nevermind (1991)
Here it is, the album that turned Nirvana into superstars and changed the course of pop music in the 1990s. "Smells Like Teen Spirit" is the iconic lead track. The album has sold more than 10 million copies and sits on almost everyone's "greatest ever" lists.

Movies & TV

Singles (1992)
Seattle at the peak of the grunge movement provides the setting for this rather conventional Hollywood romantic comedy, starring Matt Dillon and directed by Cameron Crowe. It's not a great movie, but it remains interesting as a case study in how mainstream pop culture can embrace (and perhaps co-opt) an "alternative" music scene such as the one that thrived in Seattle in the late 1980s and early 1990s. It's also fun to see goofy acting cameos from the young members of Pearl Jam.

Hype! (1996)
This fascinating and entertaining documentary traces the rise and fall of Seattle's grunge music scene, which began as a funky do-it-yourself subculture and suddenly exploded into a national fad after Nirvana became America's hottest band in 1991. The film is full of priceless interviews and performances with Northwest musicians… including rare footage of the first time Nirvana ever played "Smells Like Teen Spirit" in public.

Websites

Nirvana on Rolling Stone
Archived interviews, articles, and reviews highlight this collection of Nirvana coverage from the world's leading rock and roll magazine.

"Kurt Cobain and a Dream About Pop"
Bill Wyman, longtime bassist for the Rolling Stones, marked the tenth anniversary of Nevermind's release by penning a fascinating meditation about Kurt Cobain for Salon.com. Well worth a read.

Internet Nirvana Fan Club
It's exactly what the name says it is—the place on the web to meet and mingle with Nirvana's fans.

Video & Audio

"Escalators… a testament to human laziness"
During an unguarded moment on tour, Kurt Cobain, Dave Grohl, and Krist Novoselic offer up their thoughts on a variety of, well, random topics. Hilarious.

"Smells Like Teen Spirit" Video
Nearly as important as the music itself in establishing "Smells Like Teen Spirit" as the theme song for Generation X was the video, which dominated airplay on MTV for most of 1992, thrilling viewers with its apocalyptic scene of a high-school pep rally gone crazy.