The Making of Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit"

Kurt Cobain performing with Nirvana in Amsterdam in 1991.
Kurt Cobain performing with Nirvana in Amsterdam in 1991.
Niels van Iperen/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Deemed the most "iconic song of all time," scientifically-speaking, by researchers at the University of London, Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit" made its live debut on April 17, 1991, at Seattle's OK Hotel. Less than five months later, on September 10, it was released as a single.

Kurt Cobain, the band's frontman, wasn't usually very talkative during gigs; he mostly left the witty banter between songs to bassist Krist Novoselic and drummer Dave Grohl. On that night, however, Cobain couldn't help himself. The band was currently mulling over major label offers, and was ultimately two weeks away from signing with DGC, a Geffen record imprint. A shot at fame was imminent. "Hello. We're major label corporate rock sellouts," the man who would soon be a rock star told the boisterous crowd.

Holed up

Six months earlier, Cobain was holed up in the woods of Olympia, Washington. Cobain and Kathleen Hanna, singer/songwriter of the influential feminist riot-grrl punk band Bikini Kill, shared a bottle of Canadian Club whiskey and a goal on that October 1990 night: to deface a new teen pregnancy center, which Hanna described as "a right-wing con where they got teenage girls to go in there and then told them they were gonna go to hell if they had abortions." After doing some recon, Cobain was the lookout while Hanna made her way to the building and graffitied "Fake Abortion Clinic, Everyone." When it was Cobain's turn, he spray-painted "God is Gay" in six-foot red letters.

The two spent the rest of the evening celebrating their victory and ended up at Cobain's place, where Hanna "smashed up a bunch of sh*t" then took out a Sharpie and wrote "Kurt Smells Like Teen Spirit" on Cobain's bedroom wall before passing out. Cobain loved the line so much that he decided to make it the title of one of his next songs.

"I took that as a compliment," Cobain later told Michael Azerrad in the authorized band biography Come As You Are. "I thought that was a reaction to the conversation we were having but it really meant that I smelled like the deodorant. I didn't know that the deodorant spray existed until months after the single came out. I've never worn any cologne or underarm deodorant." Bikini Kill drummer Tobi Vail knew what Teen Spirit was, because she wore it. Vail was Cobain's girlfriend at the time.

Long before Cobain actually got Hanna's joke, he and Vail had broken up. The relationship ended in early 1991, while Cobain's band was writing new material that would not only appear on Nevermind but also on In Utero, Nirvana's third (and final) studio album, which wasn't released until September 1993.

Grohl, a newcomer to the band, lived with Cobain in Olympia when he first relocated to Washington. The two drove up to Novoselic's neck of the woods in Tacoma and practiced every night. At least half of what would become Nevermind—including "In Bloom," "Breed," "Lithium," "Polly", "Stay Away" (then "Pay to Play"), and "Something in the Way"—were already performed at an industry showcase gig in late November 1990. The other songs, including "Smells Teen Spirit," took shape during those practice sessions.

Grohl described the band's converted barn practice space as "weird," with its brown shag carpeting, stage lights, and a massive PA that no one knew how to use. It was there that Cobain first played the "Smells Like Teen Spirit" riff for Novoselic and Grohl. In early 1994, Cobain told Rolling Stone that when Cobain first played the now-legendary guitar part, "Krist looked at me and said, 'That is so ridiculous.' I made the band play it for an hour and a half."

According to Novoselic, he helped make it into more of an actual song. "We were just playing the chorus, 'When the light's out, and it's dangerous, here we are now,' over and over again," Novoselic recalled. "I said, '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."

The Pixies Problem

There was just one problem: the song sounded a lot like something the Pixies—a band Cobain adored—might produce. “I really remember thinking, ‘That is such a Pixies rip,’” Grohl said in 2011 in a BBC documentary about the making of Nevermind. “It was almost thrown away at one point because it just seemed too much like the Pixies.”

Getty Images

"I was trying to write the ultimate pop song," Cobain admitted. "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 and then loud and hard."

Essentially since the band's founding, they had listened to a "steady diet" of the Pixies—as well as Mudhoney, Tad, Coffin Break, and The Sugarcubes—on their long road trips. Nirvana's debut album, 1989's Bleach, didn't use the soft-quiet verses/loud-hard chorus dynamic, but the 1990 single "Sliver" did.

While on a European tour to promote "Sliver," Cobain met with Ken Goes, the Pixies's manager, under the pretense of Goes possibly managing Nirvana. Instead, Cobain spent most of the meeting asking questions about the Pixies. Goes described Cobain as more than a fan of the Pixies; he was a "student." When Charles Thompson, a.k.a. Black Francis of the Pixies, suddenly walked into the hotel, Cobain turned down Goes's offer to introduce him and ended the meeting entirely; apparently, Cobain didn't feel worthy of meeting such indie rock royalty.

Months after "Smells Like Teen Spirit" had been recorded, Cobain still seemed worried it sounded too much like a Pixies rip-off. As Nirvana soundman Craig Montgomery drove with the group down to Los Angeles to shoot the music video for "Smells Like Teen Spirit", Cobain played him the song and asked, "Do you think it sounds too much like the Pixies?”

A Trail of Inspiration

Cobain also, likely unintentionally, took inspiration for the main riff from Boston's "More Than a Feeling." "I take it as a major compliment," Boston songwriter Tom Scholz said, "even if it was completely accidental." Nirvana made light of the similarity during their 1992 Reading Festival appearance. Cobain also wrote in his journal, probably half-jokingly, that "Smells Like Teen Spirit" and Blue Oyster Cult's "Godzilla" were also kind of similar.

But the song was too good to throw away. So it was on the set list on Wednesday, April 17, 1991, for Nirvana's headlining gig at the OK Hotel. It was a fundraising benefit event for Fitz of Depression singer Mike Dees, who was trying to avoid imprisonment due to massive traffic fines. At least, that's how the legend goes. Dees himself claimed it wasn't a benefit gig, but said that Cobain allocated $250 of Nirvana's earnings from the show to pay for a tour van for Fitz of Depression and to help Dees pay off some traffic tickets. The rest of Nirvana's earnings went to gas money for the band to drive down to Los Angeles to begin recording Nevermind.

The Seattle music scene was divided that night: Alice in Chains was nearby, at a warehouse on a pier masquerading as a music club, performing for Cameron Crowe's movie Singles (1992). Still, it was a packed house at OK Hotel—and the crowd was about to witness music history.

Watch the performance above and you'll notice that the song's memorable lyrics, especially with the verses, appear nowhere near finished. "Here we are now, entertain us" was already established—Cobain claimed it was something he used to say as an icebreaker when he showed up to a party.

A Gen-X anthem is born

As far as the other lyrics go, Cobain took his time, and at one point showed them to Novoselic and asked what he thought. "I checked them out and said, 'I think they're pretty cool,'" Novoselic recalled. "But then he seemed disappointed that I wasn't just raving about them. But the thing was that I just didn't get them the first time I read them. And then I started listening to it in the song format, and then I had an idea of what he was talking about. He was talking about kids, commercials, Generation X, the youth bandwagon, and how he's really disappointed in it, and how he doesn't want anything to do with it."

Novoselic wasn't alone in his interpretation of "Smells Like Teen Spirit." The song has been described as "an anthem for Generation X" so often that it may as well be an alternate title, but ultimately it's a song about Cobain and a moment in time.

For his 2001 Cobain biography Heavier Than Heaven, Charles R. Cross was given unprecedented access to Cobain's private journals. In the book, he writes:

"Though Kurt never specifically addressed it, his most famous song, 'Smells Like Teen Spirit,' could not have been about anyone else, with the lyrics 'she's over-bored and self-assured.' 'Teen Spirit' was a song influenced by many things—his anger at his parents, his boredom, his eternal cynicism—yet several individual lines resonate with Tobi [Vail]'s presence. He wrote the song soon after their split, and the first draft included a line edited from the final version: "Who will be the king and queen of the outcast teens?" The answer, at one point in his imagination, had been Kurt Cobain and Tobi Vail."

Cobain did not ask who the king and queen of the outcast teens were, nor did he sing about a woman who was over-bored or self-assured, to the OK Hotel audience that night, which consisted of approximately 500 fans, as well as the two bands that opened for Nirvana. One of those bands was Dees' Fitz of Depression, of course. The other was a band with a Teen Spirit-wearing drummer. Had her ex-boyfriend's lyrics about heartbreak been less oblique, her deodorant might have been given more of a test.

This story has been updated for 2020.

10 Reusable Gifts for Your Eco-Friendliest Friend

Disposable tea bags can't compete with this pla-tea-pus and his friends.
Disposable tea bags can't compete with this pla-tea-pus and his friends.
DecorChic/Amazon

This article contains affiliate links to products selected by our editors. Mental Floss may receive a commission for purchases made through these links.

By this point, your eco-friendly pal probably has a reusable water bottle that accompanies them everywhere and some sturdy grocery totes that keep their plastic-bag count below par. Here are 10 other sustainable gift ideas that’ll help them in their conservation efforts.

1. Reusable Produce Bags; $13

No more staticky plastic bags.Naturally Sensible/Amazon

The complimentary plastic produce bags in grocery stores aren’t great, but neither is having all your spherical fruits and vegetables roll pell-mell down the checkout conveyor belt. Enter the perfect alternative: mesh bags that are nylon, lightweight, and even machine-washable.

Buy it: Amazon

2. Animal Tea Infusers; $16

Nothing like afternoon tea with your tiny animal friends.DecorChic/Amazon

Saying goodbye to disposable tea bags calls for a quality tea diffuser, and there’s really no reason why it shouldn’t be shaped like an adorable animal. This “ParTEA Pack” includes a hippo, platypus, otter, cat, and owl, which can all hang over the edge of a glass or mug. (In other words, you won’t have to fish them out with your fingers or dirty a spoon when your loose leaf is done steeping.)

Buy it: Amazon

3. Rocketbook Smart Notebook; $25

Typing your notes on a tablet or laptop might save trees, but it doesn’t quite capture the feeling of writing on paper with a regular pen. The Rocketbook, on the other hand, does. After you’re finished filling a page with sketches, musings, or whatever else, you scan it into the Rocketbook app with your smartphone, wipe it clean with the microfiber cloth, and start again. This one also comes with a compatible pen, but any PILOT FriXion pens will do.

Buy it: Amazon

4. Food Huggers; $13

"I'm a hugger!"Food Huggers/Amazon

It’s hard to compete with the convenience of plastic wrap or tin foil when it comes to covering the exposed end of a piece of produce or an open tin can—and keeping those leftovers in food storage containers can take up valuable space in the fridge. This set of five silicone Food Huggers stretch to fit over a wide range of circular goods, from a lidless jar to half a lemon.

Buy it: Amazon

5. Swiffer Mop Pads; $15

For floors that'll shine like the top of the Chrysler Building.Turbo Microfiber/Amazon

Swiffers may be much less unwieldy than regular mops, but the disposable pads present a problem to anyone who likes to keep their trash output to a minimum. These machine-washable pads fasten to the bottom of any Swiffer WetJet, and the thick microfiber will trap dirt and dust instead of pushing it into corners. Each pad lasts for at least 100 uses, so you’d be saving your eco-friendly friend quite a bit of money, too.

Buy it: Amazon

6. SodaStream for Sparkling Water; $69

A fondness for fizzy over flat water doesn’t have to mean buying it bottled. Not only does the SodaStream let you make seltzer at home, but it’s also small enough that it won’t take up too much precious counter space. SodaStream also sells flavor drops to give your home-brewed beverage even more flair—this pack from Amazon ($25) includes mango, orange, raspberry, lemon, and lime.

Buy it: Amazon

7. Washable Lint Roller; $13

Roller dirty.iLifeTech/Amazon

There’s a good chance that anyone with a pet (or just an intense dislike for lint) has lint-rolled their way through countless sticky sheets. iLifeTech’s reusable roller boasts “the power of glue,” which doesn’t wear off even after you’ve washed it. Each one also comes with a 3-inch travel-sized version, so you can stay fuzz-free on the go.

Buy it: Amazon

8. Countertop Compost Bin; $23

Like a tiny Tin Man for your table.Epica/Amazon

Even if you keep a compost pile in your own backyard, it doesn’t make sense to dash outside every time you need to dump a food scrap. A countertop compost bin can come in handy, especially if it kills odors and blends in with your decor. This 1.3-gallon pail does both. It’s made of stainless steel—which matches just about everything—and contains an activated-charcoal filter that prevents rancid peels and juices from stinking up your kitchen.

Buy it: Amazon

9. Fabric-Softening Dryer Balls; $17

Also great for learning how to juggle without breaking anything.Smart Sheep

Nobody likes starchy, scratchy clothes, but some people might like blowing through bottles of fabric softener and boxes of dryer sheets even less. Smart Sheep is here to offer a solution: wool dryer balls. Not only do they last for more than 1000 loads, they also dry your laundry faster. And since they don’t contain any chemicals, fragrances, or synthetic materials, they’re a doubly great option for people with allergies and/or sensitive skin.

Buy it: Amazon

10. Rechargeable Batteries; $40

Say goodbye to loose batteries in your junk drawer.eneloop/Amazon

While plenty of devices are rechargeable themselves, others still require batteries to buzz, whir, and change the TV channel—so it’s good to have some rechargeable batteries on hand. In addition to AA batteries, AAA batteries, and a charger, this case from Panasonic comes with tiny canisters that function as C and D batteries when you slip the smaller batteries into them.

Buy it: Amazon

Sign Up Today: Get exclusive deals, product news, reviews, and more with the Mental Floss Smart Shopping newsletter!

Do You Hear What I Hear? Radio Stations Have Already Started Playing Christmas Music

Santa Claus is, of course, excited about this.
Santa Claus is, of course, excited about this.
Cottonbro, Pexels

November is always a tumultuous time for people who have strong feelings about when to begin listening to Christmas music. Any day after Thanksgiving is usually fair game, but many a Christmas enthusiast has blasted Mariah Carey’s “All I Want For Christmas Is You” on November 1 (or even earlier). When radio stations start broadcasting holiday tunes all day long, however, it’s a pretty solid indication the listening season has officially commenced. This year, that’s happening a little earlier than usual.

According to Variety, more than 80 radio stations across the United States have already switched to playing Christmas songs only. Many made the flip this week, but some actually did it as far back as late September. The decision to start the celebrations early happened mainly for two reasons. First, radio programmers thought people could use a morale boost amid the coronavirus pandemic.

“Because of what 2020 has been like we went earlier than most years,” John Peake, program director for Los Angeles station KOST, told Variety. “We did a pretty exhaustive survey with listeners asking, ‘Is it OK to go early, do you want Christmas or holiday music early this year?’ And it was a resounding ‘Yes.’” It’s not the first time radio hosts have turned to Christmas music to help listeners weather the long months of mask-wearing and social distancing—similar initiatives happened over the summer.

The other reason for an early kickoff is also related to the pandemic. With so many of us working from home (and going fewer places in general), program ratings have plummeted. Commuters are no longer listening to the radio during their morning and evening drives, and offices are no longer playing pleasant background music all day long. According to Peake, KOST doubles its listenership during the holiday-only broadcast each year, so he likes to begin as early as (most of) the audience deems acceptable. That’s usually before Thanksgiving, which not everyone appreciates.

“We get that, ‘Let’s wait 'til after Thanksgiving!’” KOST host Ellen K told Variety. “But I have to tell you, I didn’t hear from any of them this morning. It was all, ‘Let’s go.’”

[h/t Variety]