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"Smells Like Teen Spirit" has staying power as one of the greatest rock songs of all time because it offers a powerful combination of raw punk/metal energy with an irresistible pop sensibility.
It's easy to hear the song as little more than a noisy collection of crashing guitars, thumping bass, and throat-ripping singing. But the song's architecture is as timeless and pop-friendly as any bubblegum radio hit. Beneath all the noise, "Smells Like Teen Spirit" is undeniably danceable.
The first thing you notice about "Smells Like Teen Spirit" is the first thing you hear: the song's wicked guitar riff. In the intro, Cobain strums the riff cleanly and quietly for just a few seconds before the bass and drums kick in, at which point Cobain fires up the volume and distortion on his guitar. The same riff underscores the song's pained choruses, giving "Teen Spirit" its manic energy.
In many ways, that riff is "Smells Like Teen Spirit." How ironic, then, that Cobain himself admitted that it was "a clichéd riff," one derivative of the guitar work in the fairly cheesy '70s arena-rock anthem "More Than A Feeling" by the band Boston, or even of the '50s garage-rock classic (and staple of modern-day high-school marching bands everywhere) "Louie Louie". (Listen carefully to both songs and you'll hear the resemblance... really!) On at least one occasion, Nirvana even poked fun at the riff's origins by beginning a live performance of "Teen Spirit" with a few seconds of off-key singing to the words of "More Than A Feeling." This isn't to say that "Smells Like Teen Spirit" was merely some kind of Boston or Kingsmen rip-off; rather, it just goes to show that quite similar arrangements of the same basic power chords can serve dramatically different purposes in different songs by different bands.
The second thing you'll notice about "Smells Like Teen Spirit" is its carefully constructed dynamic juxtaposing soft verses against loud choruses. After Nirvana, that soft-loud-soft architecture became a trademark of nearly all the radio-friendly "alternative" or "modern rock" hits of the 1990s. Before Nirvana, though, that soft-loud-soft dynamic was the trademark of The Pixies, an influential alternative band of the late 1980s and early 1990s. Cobain was a huge fan, and acknowledged that he had The Pixies in mind while writing "Smells Like Teen Spirit": "I was trying to write the ultimate pop song," Cobain once said. "I was basically trying to rip off The Pixies. I have to admit it. When I heard The Pixies for the first time, I connected with that band so heavily, I should have been in that band, or at least in a Pixies cover band. We used their sense of dynamics being soft and quiet, then loud and hard."
In "Teen Spirit," that Pixies dynamic plays out in a fairly formal song structure, in which quiet verses are followed by louder pre-choruses and, finally, by raging choruses. Cobain sings the song's verses in a measured voice, and with minimal guitar accompaniment, while Novoselic's bass and Grohl's drums move into the forefront. Things begin to ramp up in the pre-chorus, with Cobain's guitar kicking in while he sings "hello, hello, how low…" over and over again. And then all hell breaks loose in the chorus, with Cobain screaming the vocals over the fuzzy crash of his famous guitar riff.
The third thing you'll notice—or should notice—about "Smells Like Teen Spirit" is the bass. Krist Novoselic can sometimes seem like Nirvana's overlooked third wheel, overshadowed by the genius of bandmates Cobain and Dave Grohl (who went on to front the Foo Fighters post-Nirvana). But Novoselic's fat, driving bassline propels "Teen Spirit" steadily forward, anchoring the song through its radical movements from soft to loud to soft. Few hard rock hits made such good use of the bottom end of the sonic spectrum.
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.