For this “Things That Bring Back Memories” post, I am going to pick something pertaining to the topic of “Music“. There are so many songs that I can remember from years ago, and since music is a huge part of our family, the memories come streaming back when you hear a certain song.
Do you ever have that tune that comes on the radio, and you can just automatically remember where you were, who you were with and what you were doing? It amazes me, how as I get older, I can’t remember things from last week – but have that certain song come on the radio on a “Flashback” day, and “BOOM”, I am back in the place I was when I heard it. Don’t know if it’s the side effects of my brain surgery, which they said might affect certain memory, but I’m so glad that I can remember some things of the “good old days.”
So to get on with this “Things That Brings Back Memories” blog post for this week, I’m going to pick “Smells Like Teen Spirit” by Nirvana, which was released in 1991. If you don’t know about the song that I’m talking about, here it is:
More Info on the “Smells Like Teen Spirit” Song:
“Smells Like Teen Spirit” is a song by the American rock band Nirvana. It is the opening track and lead single from the band’s second album, Nevermind (1991), released on DGC Records. Written by Kurt Cobain, Krist Novoselic, and Dave Grohl and produced by Butch Vig, the song uses a verse-chorus form where the main four-chord riff is used during the intro and chorus to create an alternating loud and quiet dynamic. The sound of the song (as Cobain admitted) is modeled after the sound of the Pixies.
The unexpected success of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” in late 1991 propelled Nevermind to the top of the charts at the start of 1992, an event often marked as the point where alternative rock entered the mainstream. “Smells Like Teen Spirit” was Nirvana’s biggest hit, reaching number six on the Billboard Hot 100 and placing high on music industry charts all around the world in 1991 and 1992.
“Smells Like Teen Spirit” received many critical plaudits, including topping the Village Voice Pazz & Jop critics’ poll and winning two MTV Video Music Awards for its music video, which was in heavy rotation on music television. The song was dubbed an “anthem for apathetic kids” of Generation X, but the band grew uncomfortable with the success and attention it received as a result. In the years since Cobain’s death, listeners and critics have continued to praise “Smells Like Teen Spirit” as one of the greatest songs of all time.
In a January 1994 Rolling Stone interview, Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain revealed that “Smells Like Teen Spirit” was an attempt to write a song in the style of the Pixies, a band he greatly admired. He explained:
I was trying to write the ultimate pop song. 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 that I should have been in that band—or at least a Pixies cover band. We used their sense of dynamics, being soft and quiet and then loud and hard.
Cobain did not begin to write “Smells Like Teen Spirit” until a few weeks before recording started on Nirvana’s second album, Nevermind, in 1991. When he first presented the song to his bandmates, it comprised just the main riff and the chorus vocal melody, which bassist Krist Novoselic dismissed at the time as “ridiculous.” In response, Cobain made the band play the riff for “an hour and a half.” In a 2001 interview, Novoselic recalled that after playing the riff repeatedly, he thought, “‘Wait a minute. Why don’t we just kind of slow this down a bit?’ So I started playing the verse part. And Dave [started] playing a drum beat.” As a result, it is the only song on Nevermind to credit all three band members as authors.
Cobain came up with the song’s title when his friend Kathleen Hanna, at the time the lead singer of the riot grrrl band Bikini Kill, spray painted “Kurt Smells Like Teen Spirit” on his wall. Since they had been discussing anarchism, punk rock, and similar topics, Cobain interpreted the slogan as having a revolutionary meaning. What Hanna actually meant, however, was that Cobain smelled like the deodorant Teen Spirit, which his then-girlfriend Tobi Vail wore. Cobain later claimed he was unaware that it was a brand of deodorant until months after the single was released.
“Smells Like Teen Spirit” was, along with “Come as You Are”, one of a few new songs that had been written since Nirvana’s first recording sessions with producer Butch Vig in 1990. Prior to the start of the Nevermind recording sessions, the band sent Vig a rough cassette demo of song rehearsals that included “Teen Spirit”. While the sound of the tape was wildly distorted due to the band playing at a loud volume, Vig could pick out some of the melody and felt the song had promise. Nirvana recorded “Smells Like Teen Spirit” at Sound City recording studio in Van Nuys, California with Vig in May 1991. Vig suggested some arrangement changes to the song, including moving a guitar ad lib into the chorus, and trimming down the chorus length. The band recorded the basic track for the song in three takes, and decided to keep the second one. Vig incorporated some sonic corrections into the basic live band performance because Cobain had timing difficulties when switching between his guitar effects pedals. Vig was only able to get three vocal takes from Cobain; the producer commented, “I was lucky to ever get Kurt to do four takes.”
In the years following Cobain’s 1994 death and the band’s breakup, “Smells Like Teen Spirit” has continued to garner critical acclaim, and is now often listed as one of the greatest songs of all time. It was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s list of “The Songs That Shaped Rock and Roll” in 1997. In 2000, VH1 rated the song at number forty-one on its “100 Greatest Rock Songs” list, while MTV and Rolling Stone ranked it third on their joint list of the “100 Greatest Pop Songs”. The Recording Industry Association of America placed “Smells Like Teen Spirit” at number eighty on their 2001 “Songs of the Century” list. In 2002, NME awarded the song the number two spot on its list of “100 Greatest Singles of All Time”, with Kerrang! ranking it at number one on its own list of the “100 Greatest Singles of All Time”. VH1 placed “Smells Like Teen Spirit” at number one on its list of “100 Greatest Songs of the Past 25 Years” in 2003, while that same year, the song came third in a Q poll of the “1001 Best Songs Ever”. In 2004, Rolling Stone ranked “Smells Like Teen Spirit” ninth on its list of “The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time”, and described its impact as “a shock wave of big-amp purity,” noting that “[it] wiped the lingering jive of the Eighties off the pop map overnight.” The song was placed at number six in NME ’s “Global Best Song Ever Poll” in 2005. In the 2006 VH1 UK poll The Nation’s Favorite Lyric, the line “I feel stupid and contagious/Here we are now, entertain us” was ranked as the third-favorite song lyric among over 13,000 voters. VH1 placed “Smells Like Teen Spirit” at number one on its list of the “100 Greatest Songs Of The ’90’s” in 2007, while Rolling Stone ranked it number ten on its list of “The 100 Greatest Guitar Songs of All Time”. In 2009, the song was voted number one for the third time in a row on the Triple J Hottest 100 of All Time in Australia (it was first place previously in 1991 and 1998). That same year, VH1 ranked the song seventh on its list of the “100 Greatest Hard Rock Songs”. Despite previously proposing in its 2006 entry for Nevermind on “The All-TIME 100 Albums” that “‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’, may be the album’s worst song,” Time magazine later included it on its list of “The All-TIME 100 Songs” in 2011. That same year, “Smells Like Teen Spirit” kept its number nine ranking on Rolling Stone ’s updated list of “The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time”. NME placed the song at number two on its list of the “100 Best Tracks Of The ’90’s” in 2012, and at number one on its list of “The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time” in 2014.
Nirvana was an American rock band that was formed by singer and guitarist Kurt Cobain and bassist Krist Novoselic in Aberdeen, Washington, in 1987. Nirvana went through a succession of drummers, the longest-lasting being Dave Grohl, who joined the band in 1990. Despite releasing only three full-length studio albums in their seven-year career, Nirvana has come to be regarded as one of the most influential and important rock bands of the modern era.
In the late 1980s Nirvana established itself as part of the Seattle grunge scene, releasing its first album Bleach for the independent record label Sub Pop in 1989. The band eventually came to develop a sound that relied on dynamic contrasts, often between quiet verses and loud, heavy choruses. After signing to major label DGC Records, Nirvana found unexpected success with “Smells Like Teen Spirit”, the first single from the band’s second album Nevermind (1991). Nirvana’s sudden success widely popularized alternative rock as a whole, and the band’s frontman Cobain found himself referred to in the media as the “spokesman of a generation”, with Nirvana being considered the “flagship band” of Generation X. In response, Nirvana’s third studio album, In Utero (1993), featured an abrasive, less-mainstream sound and challenged the group’s audience. The album did not match the sales figures of Nevermind, but was still a commercial success and critically acclaimed.
Nirvana’s brief run ended following the death of Kurt Cobain in 1994, but various posthumous releases have been issued since, overseen by Novoselic, Grohl, and Cobain’s widow Courtney Love. Since its debut, the band has sold over 25 million records in the United States alone, and over 75 million records worldwide, making them one of the best-selling bands of all time. Nirvana was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2014, in its first year of eligibility.
Stephen Thomas Erlewine wrote that prior to Nirvana, “alternative music was consigned to specialty sections of record stores, and major labels considered it to be, at the very most, a tax write-off”. Following the release of Nevermind, “nothing was ever quite the same, for better and for worse”. The success of Nevermind not only popularized grunge, but also established “the cultural and commercial viability of alternative rock in general”. While other alternative bands had hits before, Nirvana “broke down the doors forever”, according to Erlewine. Erlewine further stated that Nirvana’s breakthrough “didn’t eliminate the underground”, but rather “just gave it more exposure”. In 1992, Jon Pareles of The New York Times reported that Nirvana’s breakthrough had made others in the alternative scene impatient for achieving similar success, noting, “Suddenly, all bets are off. No one has the inside track on which of dozens, perhaps hundreds, of ornery, obstreperous, unkempt bands might next appeal to the mall-walking millions”. Record company executives offered large advances and record deals to bands, and previous strategies of building audiences for alternative rock groups had been replaced by the opportunity to achieve mainstream popularity quickly.
Erlewine stated that Nirvana’s breakthrough “popularized so-called ‘Generation X’ and ‘slacker’ culture”. Immediately following Cobain’s death, numerous headlines referred to Nirvana’s frontman as “the voice of a generation”, although he had rejected such labeling during his lifetime. Reflecting on Cobain’s death over ten years later, MSNBC’s Eric Olsen wrote, “In the intervening decade, Cobain, a small, frail but handsome man in life, has become an abstract Generation X icon, viewed by many as the ‘last real rock star’, a messiah and martyr whose every utterance has been plundered and parsed”.
Some Other Interesting Facts:
- Cobain didn’t know it when he wrote the song, but Teen Spirit is a brand of deodorant marketed to young girls. Kurt thought Hanna was complimenting him on his rebellious spirit, as someone who could inspire youth. Sales of Teen Spirit deodorant shot up when this became a hit, even though it is never mentioned in the lyrics.
- This was the first “Alternative” song to become a huge hit, and in many ways it redefined the term, as “alternative” implies lack of popularity and the song was embraced by the mainstream. In an effort to save the label for acts like Porno For Pyros and Catherine Wheel, some industry folk referred to the genre as “Modern Rock,” which became a common radio format. “Alternative” became more of a catchall for music played by white people that didn’t fit the pop or country formats, and Nirvana quickly became a “Classic Alternative” band.
- The shoot took more like 12 hours, with the extras ordered to sit in the bleachers and look bored while the song played over and over. Said Bayer: “Nobody wanted to be there for more than a half hour, and I needed them for 12 hours. By the 11th hour when the band had had it with me and the kids were so angry with me, they said, ‘Can we destroy the set?'” Bayer let the kids come down and form a mosh pit, and with all that pent-up energy they proceeded to smash up the set. This impromptu and genuine destruction provided a nice finale for the clip.
- In a sign of the cultural apocalypse, the February 20, 1992 issue of Rolling Stone magazine featured the cast of the TV show Beverly Hills 90210 with the tag line “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” turning Kurt Cobain’s diatribe against the culture of conformity into a convenient headline for a story about a TV series about rich kids.
- When Kurt Cobain returned home from recording “Nevermind,” his boxes were on the curb and he found out that he’d been evicted. Despite the forthcoming album release, Cobain spent many weeks living in his 1963 Plymouth Valiant.
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