Atwood Magazine is excited to announce Time Machine, a column in which we take a fresh look at older music. We believe that in order to appreciate the “music of today,” it’s important to have an understanding of what so many artists are inspired by, and what they listened to growing up. Having that knowledge not only makes it a lot more fulfilling when it comes to talking about music theory and deconstructing what these songs are really about, but it also lets music work its magic in connecting people across generations.
1991: The year that marks both the end of the Gulf War and the dissolving of the Soviet Union also holds the release of Nirvana’s acclaimed “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” off their album Nevermind (DGC Records). Although the single topped out at number six on the Billboard Hot 100, its popularity lasted through 1992 on chart-topping lists, and is considered a pivotal player in allowing alternative rock to enter the “mainstream” category. Beyond the 90s, it continues to receive both airtime and critical acclaim from music enthusiasts around the world as being one of the “greatest songs ever.” But there’s more to it reminding you of a deodorant brand, or the creepiest repetition of “hello” known to alternative music.
Listen & Watch: “Smells Like Teen Spirit” – Nirvana
“Smells Like Teen Spirit” is known as the “anthem for apathetic kids” of the Generation X group. Technically written by all three band members, (Kurt Cobain, Krist Novoselic, and Dave Grohl, lyrics by Cobain), it was not expected to be the hit that it was. At first, it only performed well in the regions of the United States where Nirvana already had a fan base, and it was supposed to lead up to “Come As You Are,” the intended track to do the work of the mainstream crossover. But, campus stations as well as modern rock formats picked “Teen Spirit” up and placed it on heavy rotation. By the end of 91 (about three months after the initial release of the song), the single was on heavy rotation at almost any rock station format you could think of: modern rock, heavy rock, album rock, punk rock, and college stations.
Yes, even though some of it is a little difficult to pick up on at first-listen, after diving a bit into the lyrics, there is substance. Not just a bunch of random musings from Cobain, contrary to popular belief. Starting off the first verse after a long introductory guitar riff, the lyrics drum of imagery of violence. “Load up on guns, bring your friends/It’s fun to lose and to pretend/She’s over board and self-assure/Oh no I know, a dirty word…” and straight to the first “hello/how low” repetition. First, the reference to the gun becomes suddenly eerie after his shotgun suicide in 1994 — but in ’91, it served as a symbol for the revolution in Nirvana’s target audience: teenage rebels filling their lives with drug abuse and alcohol consumption. “Bring your friends” is calling the kids out for succumbing to peer pressure and making the stereotype of the rebelling teens true.
In verse two:
I’m worse at what I do best
And for this gift, I feel blessed
Our little group has always been
And always will until the end
Assuming Cobain is talking about songwriting, he’s articulating that although he realizes that the more he practices something, the better he gets at it…but the more acquainted he gets with that talent of his, the less he enjoys it, and the more he realizes that he’ll continue to be out-written by others. He’s thankful he has the gift, and he’s but he’s depressed due to the fact that he feels as if he’ll never be truly noticed for what he’s best at. But in the second part of the verse — where he’s talking about a group of people and not just himself — it’s easy to assume he’s talking about this band, Nirvana. Perhaps when he was writing the song, this was coming from more of a personal place (“has always been” in his life, and “always will until the end” because they’ve gotten him through so much, it’s hard to think about tackling life without them). Now, given the history of the band and this song in particular, these lines have a bit more weight from the perspective of the world. “Smells Like Teen Spirit” served as the way for alternative rock to cross into the mainstream, and is a well-known song across much of population. Because of that, Nirvana has cemented their place in music history, especially in rock history, and now will have “always been” and “always will until the end” be relevant when discussing alternative rock. Or even just simply music from the 90s.
And I forget just why I taste
Oh yeah, I guess it makes me smile
I found it hard, it’s hard to find
Oh well, whatever, nevermind
In this verse, everything gets brought back into perspective and very personal for Cobain. “Taste” can be concluded to be referencing drugs, since when people inject drugs (such as heroin), they can taste it in their mouth. Cobain frequently stated that drugs (again, such as heroin) made him feel better — or, made him smile. The second part of this verse serves as both a reference to the album which houses the track, or also that happiness was hard for Cobain to find, and he only could find it through drug abuse.
And finally, there’s the chorus, which is chock-full of those “random” words that Cobain was questioned about; and continues to be up for discussion on the internet even today. But first, the easy part:
With the lights out, it’s less dangerous
Here we are now, entertain us
I feel stupid and contagious
Here we are now, entertain us
Talking about the lights first: Cobain felt that if you couldn’t see your problems, then it was easier to hide from them. Ultimately, this is a hop and a skip away from basically stating that the only release from the pressure he felt of life would be in ending it. This is cemented in irony, with the repeated use of “here we are now, entertain us,” as Nirvana wasn’t a hugely popular mainstream band before this track was released, but they were popular enough in their home genre to perform enough shows for Cobain to dislike the experience of performing for crowds. In the end, Cobain hated being a rock star. He didn’t want to be driven by audience expectations, but instead, his own personal goals.
The hot topic of “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” though, is four references at the end of the chorus: “A Mulatto, an Albino/A mosquito, my libido.” A Mulatto is defined as “a person who has one white parent and one black parent;” and an Albino is defined as “a person or animal with pale skin, light hair, pinkish eyes, and visual abnormalities resulting from a hereditary inability to produce pigment melanin.” Both of these words are seen as offensive in modern times, as they were in the ‘90s. But putting these two opposites together, Cobain created a juxtaposition for society through the lens of skin color. Next, a mosquito (representing the lack of concern for Cobain’s generation’s apathy/fear), and libido (desire for sex). Seeing these four words strung together, it can be viewed similarly to that of a standardized test’s analogy. Mulatto is to Albino as a mosquito is to Cobain’s libido. While some Mulattoes face pressure to “act black” or “act white” at different times, Cobain feels the same way about himself. That it seems to be way too big, or way too small, depending on the situation.
“Smells Like Teen Spirit” is a call for revolution — but not in the way you’d think for the teenagers of the ‘90s. Looking at it knowing the way that the end of Cobain’s life played out, it was clear that there was something wrong, and he needed help. While he did seek help in rehab, in the end, it wasn’t enough. This song touches on not only how teenagers jump easily on bandwagons (even if it’s as negative as finding release from life through heroin), but how messed-up society was/is towards people of different skin colors. In addition to all of that, Cobain clearly states that there was too much of a laissez-faire view on drug use. All of that, packed into three verses, the chorus, and a handful of complicated guitar work? That’s five minutes of heavy topics — no wonder the song served as a break-in with the mainstream and is still highly relevant to this day.
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