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Until September 1991, Kurt Cobain was just Kurt Cobain—a promising young musician and talented songwriter who had carved out a strong reputation for himself within Seattle's independent music scene, but remained mostly anonymous outside the Pacific Northwest.
By early 1992, though, he was not only world-famous; he had almost become a living cliché. He was no longer just Kurt Cobain; he had become, to borrow the title of one of his many biographies, "Kurt Cobain: Voice of a Generation." Variations on that theme abounded, and continue to define Cobain's legacy even today. Even here at Shmoop, we have called Cobain "a voice… who captured [his] generation's ideals and its anxieties, its hopes as well as its fears." The BBC called Cobain's entire age cohort "the Nirvana generation"; the UK Telegraph, less charitably, tagged him the "self-hating icon of the inarticulate generation." And Rolling Stone, taking a more neutral tack, called him simply "a spokesman for a generation."
Never mind, for a moment, that Cobain himself hated the idea and thought the notion that anybody could speak for an entire generation of young people was bogus. Forget, for a moment, too that the pressures of the role contributed heavily to his rapid descent into drug abuse and, eventually, suicide. "I'm a spokesman for myself," he protested. "It just so happens that there's a bunch of people that are concerned with what I have to say. I find that frightening at times because I'm just as confused as most people. I don't have the answers for anything. I don't want to be a f---ing spokesperson."
But, like it or not, Kurt Cobain was, by sometime in early 1992, the voice of Generation X.
The question is, why?
And the answer is, "Smells Like Teen Spirit."
The song burst like a thunderclap upon a rock music scene—and upon an American pop culture in general—that had grown tired and stale as the go-go 1980s passed into the recessionary early 1990s. Rock music had fallen into a rut dominated by so-called "hair bands", preening pop-metal acts whose sappy "power ballads" and overdone make-up sometimes bordered on self-mockery.
Times were changing. The financial boom that had characterized the Reagan Era crashed into a short but sharp recession in the early 1990s, and a new generation of teenagers and young adults—a generation soon to be tagged "Generation X"—came of age in an angst-inducing moment of great economic uncertainty. The warmed-over '80s stylings of music like Warrant's "Cherry Pie"—a much-maligned radio hit in 1990—didn't do much to thrill these young listeners. They wanted something new, something more authentic, something that rang truer to their own experience. (And their own experience usually didn't involve skin-tight leather pants, caked-on mascara, and gallons of hairspray.)
The band emerged from a vibrant Pacific Northwest music scene that valued, above all else, a do-it-yourself independence from the contrived excesses that defined the major-label hair bands. Cobain and his bandmate Kirst Novoselic emerged from the hardscrabble logging town of Aberdeen, Washington, where they learned their musical chops from the local sludge-metal outfit The Melvins, whose heavy, uncompromising sound can be almost unlistenable for the uninitiated. As Nirvana forged its own style, the band became one of the Northwest's most promising acts by developing a sound that was one part punk, one part metal, one part classic '70s rock—and zero parts Poison or Whitesnake.
The "Seattle scene"—as it came to be known after Nirvana helped turn it into a national fad, much to the dismay of many of its members—came together in the late 1980s, with the city's cheap cost of living and sheer geographical distance from the traditional capitals of American culture fostering a certain musical experimentation. The local music scene supported a staggering array of local bands that eventually went on to national and international fame—Nirvana, Soundgarden, Alice in Chains, Pearl Jam, Mudhoney, Screaming Trees, and many more. The bands each had their own style, but many favored a heavy rock sound that was both thicker (with heavier bass) and less polished than the stuff on the radio. And they almost all shared a fiercely independent outlook, valuing "authenticity" above all while scorning the idea of selling out to corporate major labels and their overproduced pop sensibilities.
Ironically, it was the Seattle scene's very authenticity that soon led major record labels to begin sniffing around the Pacific Northwest in search of the next big thing. And the next big thing, it turned out, was Nirvana.
Nirvana's first studio album, Bleach, had been recorded for exactly $606 and released by Seattle's famous indie label Sub Pop Records, selling a respectable 30,000 copies on its first pressing. The band's second album, Nevermind, released by the major label DGC (part of David Geffen's media empire), hit #1 on the charts—bumping Michael Jackson from the top spot—and eventually sold more than 10 million copies.
The album's first single, the song that made Nirvana into the biggest stars in rock and ended the reign of the '80s hair bands, was "Smells Like Teen Spirit." The song's raw energy, its driving bassline and crashing guitars, its tormented if incoherent lyrics… all combined, in the fall of 1991, to blow away everything else on the radio.
And the song's video, which soon became a nearly ubiquitous presence on MTV, only cemented Nirvana's suddenly dominant place in American music. It was the video, as much as the hard-to-decipher lyrics, which gave "Teen Spirit" its meaning for many listeners. In the video, "Smells Like Teen Spirit" becomes the anthem for adolescent revolution, as high school misfits and outcasts transform an ordinary school pep rally into a raging mosh pit of anarchy. In a matter of weeks, "Smells Like Teen Spirit" became the most requested video on MTV and Kurt Cobain became the voice of his generation.
But Nirvana's rapid rise didn't come without irony, or even tragedy. It was the band's "authenticity"—its rejection of overproduced mainstream styles and clichéd pop mores—that made Nirvana so popular in the first place. But how could that indie authenticity be maintained when Nirvana itself became the hottest band in America? How could music stay "alternative" when it was being played on MTV every 15 minutes? Did "Teen Spirit" smell like revolution or just the next fad?
The truth is that Nirvana's relationship with mainstream, major-label rock music was always a complex one. Cobain and his bandmates chose to sign with Geffen Records. They chose to turn the mixing of Nevermind over to superproducer Butch Vig in hopes of making the music pop better for radio airplay. They chose to film a video for "Teen Spirit" that cast themselves as the leaders of an iconic teenage uprising. They very much wanted the success—including the money and the fame—that Nevermind achieved.
But once they had it, they began to regret what had inevitably been lost. With superstardom came ridiculous expectations; a brilliantly talented but emotionally conflicted young man named Kurt Cobain was asked to carry the burden of representing millions of young people. It was too heavy a load, and it took barely two years for Cobain to move from the exhilaration of Nevermind's release to despondency and suicide. "I haven't felt the excitement," he wrote in his suicide note, "of listening to as well as creating music along with reading and writing for too many years now. I feel guilty beyond words about these things." He was only 27 years old. So the story of "Smells Like Teen Spirit" is really two stories.
One is the story of how one powerful song changed the direction of pop music, capturing the imagination of a generation of listeners while establishing "grunge" and its offshoots as the dominant rock music of the 1990s. In that story, "Smells Like Teen Spirit" is a triumph.
But the other is the story of how one powerful song changed the life of its creator… and not for the better. The song's very success undermined the fierce independent outlook that provided Kurt Cobain with his moral compass. In that story, "Smells Like Teen Spirit" is a tragedy.