Meaning of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” by Nirvana

First off, the title of this song was actually derived from a popular American underarm deodorant named “Teen Spirit”. At the time this song was penned, the singer and co-writer of the track, Kurt Cobain, was dating a woman who used this particular brand. And one day a mutual friend commented (semi-jokingly) that Kurt indeed “smells like teen spirit”. However, Cobain, who at the time was unaware of what Teen Spirit actually was, misinterpreted the message as something tantamount to possessing a rebellious nature and wrote this song based on such. 

That is why for instance the scene of stand-ins actually destroying the set of the music video was allowed to be featured in the final edit. Another inspiration behind the theme and sound of the song was Kurt Cobain’s attempt to emulate the Pixies, an alternative rock band that he was fascinated with.

As for the lyrical content of “Smells Like Teen Spirit”, it has been interpreted as “anthem for apathetic kids” and “bored youth”.  The lyrics are diverse and in many cases symbolic, with listeners interpreting them as referring to subjects as diverse as gun violence, illicit drug use, Kobain’s then-girlfriend and mood swings.

Lyrics of "Smells Like Teen Spirit"

Facts about “Smells Like Teen Spirit”

  • “Smells Like Teen Spirit” was written by Dave Grohl, Kurt Cobain, and Krist Novoselic. It was released as a lead single of the band’s 2nd album – Nevermind in September 1991.
  • The title of this track was inspired by the phrase “Kurt Smells Like Teen Spirit”, which Kathleen Hanna (a lead vocalist of Bikini Kill at that time) wrote on Cobain’s bedroom wall.
  • The track was produced by Butch Vig together with the members of Nirvana.
  • Music video director Samuel Bayer directed the track’s official music video. The video was inspired by Cobain’s favorite movie of the late 70s – Over the Edge.
  • This song’s music video has won the band many awards, including awards for the Best Alternative Group and Best New Artist at the 1992 MTV Music Video Awards. The video was also judged by Guinness World Records as the Most Played Video on MTV Europe.
  • The first live performance of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” took place at the OK Hotel in Washington on 17th April 1991.
  • This track has inspired several parodies, of which comprise “Smells Like Nirvana” by “Weird Al” Yankovic in 1992 and Pansy Division’s “Smells Like Queer Spirit” in 1995.
  • This track has been used in several movies, these films include; Moulin Rouge! in 2001 and The Muppets in 2011.
  • The song’s title “Smells Like Teen Spirit” isn’t used in the lyrics.

Has “Smells Like Teen Spirit” been sampled by other artists?

Yes. This track has been sampled in many songs. Some of these songs include the following:

  • “We On” by Chris Brown (in 2017)
  • “Rat Poison” and “Serial Thrilla” both by The Prodigy (in 1995 and 1997 respectively)
  • “GHETTO.” by the Kids These Days (in 2012),
  • “Elixir” by Ghostemane (in 2016)
  • “Solipsyzm” by Quebonafide (in 2015).

In addition to being sampled in various songs, interpolations of this record can be found on numerous tracks. Examples include the following:

  • “Holy Grail” by JAY-Z (featuring Justin Timberlake) (in 2013)
  • “Hello” by Karmin (in 2012)
  • “Baby You’re a Haunted House” by Gerard Way (in 2018).

Which artists have covered “Smells Like Teen Spirit”?

Many!!! Some of the numerous artists who have covered this song include:

  • Richard Cheese (in 2012)
  • Tori Amos (in 1992)
  • Dutch Masters (in 2011)
  • Paul Anka (in 2005)
  •  J*Davey (in 2011)
  • Rockabye Baby! (in 2006)
  • David Garrett (in 2010)

Did “Smells Like Teen Spirit” win a Grammy Award?

It was nominated for Best Rock Song and Best Hard Rock Performance with Vocal at the 1993 Grammy Awards. However, it lost both nominations. It lost the Best Rock Song award to Eric Clapton’s “Layla“. It also lost the Best Hard Rock Performance award to “Give It Away” by Red Hot Chili Peppers.

How did “Smells Like Teen Spirit” perform on the global charts?

This song peaked at number 1 in several places, including Spain, France, New Zealand, and Belgium. On the UK Singles Chart, it reached number 7. It performed better on the US Billboard Hot 100 by reaching the number 6 spot. Owing to this, the track has been certified platinum in the United States, UK, and Denmark. It also received gold certification in Germany, Sweden, Australia, and New Zealand.

Accolades

In 1991, this track’s huge success propelled it to the top of the “Pazz & Jop” list of The Village Voice newspaper. It was also selected as the 9th song on Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Songs of All Time list. As if that wasn’t enough, in 2000, VH1 placed it at number 41 on its list of 100 Greatest Rock Songs.

In 2001, The Recording Industry Association of America rated this track at number 80 on their list of Songs of the Century.

Kerrang! placed the track at number 1 on their 100 Greatest Singles of All Time list.

In 2011, Time magazine listed this track on its ALL-TIME 100 Songs list. The next year, NME voted this song as number two on their list of 100 Best Tracks Of The 90s.

In 2014, “Smells Like Teen Spirit” was ranked number 1 on NME’s list of 500 Greatest Songs of All Time.

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