I have a love/hate relationship with Nirvana and specifically “Smells Like Teen Spirit”. Sometimes I think it’s one of the best songs ever recorded, other times I think it’s one of the most over-rated songs. Usually, I tend to lean towards the latter. I like the song, but it is not better than Ray Charles’ “What’d I Say” as Rolling Stone declared in its 500 Greatest Songs of All Time a few years back.
Still, there is something about “Smells Like Teen Spirit” that attracts me to the song and not out-right hate it, the same way I do say, something like Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody”. I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that nostalgia wasn’t a huge part of it. Despite my own grumblings about its place in rock culture, I have quite a history with the song.
I first heard the song in the fall of 1991. My older brother had just returned home from college for winter break and was playing the song in his room. Its fast and aggressive and sound was totally new to me. Like most people, it was the song’s catchy hook that caught my attention. I couldn’t understand a fucking word that Kurt Cobain said except “hello, hello, hello”, but afterwards I was humming the song for days. Ozzy Osbourne once described the song’s sound as “The Beatles on fucking steroids”. I might not have understood that concept upon my first listen, but even at the age of 10, its catchiness got me too.
For whatever reason, my brother didn’t copy a cassette of Nevermind for me. Did I ask him? Or did he forget? Maybe he thought I was too young to listen it. I honestly have no memory of any conversation about it. But I couldn’t get the song or the hook out of my head. It stuck with me, and I wanted more. I wasn’t really allowed to listen to the radio, so waiting hours to hear one song wasn’t an option. A few weeks later, I asked my other brother (who was in high school at the time) if he had a copy. He was too busy listening to the real Beatles and Bob Dylan to care about current musical trends. He quickly dismissed me with a reply about how “Nirvana sucked” and how “anyone could play guitar like Kurt Cobain.”
For the time being, “Smells Like Teen Spirit” remained elusive – it became a kind of Rosebud of my pre-teen life. It was the song that got away, whose sound and melody haunted me.
Every once in a while, the song would creep back to my life in various ways. I would hear it a friends house, or on the school-bus during field-trips. Every time I heard it, I desperately tried to drawn out the surrounding sounds so I could hear every note. I didn’t know what guitar distortion was, but that riff got me every time.
A few years later at a friend’s birthday party, I had my first “full” listen to the song. I borrowed my friend’s discman and put on “Nevermind”. I must have listened to “Smells Like Teen Spirit” about 6 times in a row, totally ignoring everything else that was going on around me. It sounded just as glorious as I remembered. Every drum-beat by Dave Grohl was like an explosion in my adolescent mind. And this time, I could actually understand some of the lyrics. My friends must have thought I was crazy for listening to a song for what seemed an eternity, but I didn’t care.
Throughout middle school and high-school, I never grew tired of the song’s allure. But by the time I got to college, I became bored with Nirvana and “Teen Spirit” as well. Actually, come to think of it, the very thought of them made me sick. I was starting to listen to the Pixies and the Velvet Underground, and in comparison, Nirvana’s “punk” vibe seemed polished and too refined. At the height of this phase, I wrote a poem for my poetry class entitled “An Ode to Kurt”. It wasn’t really an ode at all, but rather a big “fuck you” in poetic form. Throughout the poem, I essentially called Cobain a poser and questioned his anti-establishment ethics. If he hated success so much, why did he create music that so catchy that was destined to get stuck in the heads of millions?
Currently, I view “Teen Spirit” like this: 1.) it’s not as good as everyone makes it out to be 2.) it’s better than I gave it credit for in my college years and a pretty good song after all, and 3.) It’s not better than “What’d I Say”.