10. Nirvana - Smells Like Teen Spirit

Kurt Cobain never wanted anyone to like Nirvana because they were popular*.  In fact, he never really wanted the fame that later assaulted him, albeit by his own hand to a certain degree.  If you play in a band, you may just become popular.  And if you do, it's your own fault.  Nobody forced you to make music and play concerts to which thousands flocked.  But unlike so many bands who ache for the attention and do whatever is necessary to attain it, Nirvana didn't bend to the mainstream.  The mainstream bent to Nirvana.  Except for me.

When "Smells Like Teen Spirit" first came out, I thought it was okay.  Didn't love it, didn't hate it.  And I absolutely wasn't going to tell everyone I loved it (and loved it before everyone else, like a music snob would) just because it was popular.  I think that would've thrilled the band, because they didn't want people to like their music because everyone else did.  If I wasn't thrilled by the song, that was just fine with them.  They weren't thrilled by me either, I suspect.

But then something happened.  A few years later, after the grunge wave had crested and then crashed to a certain degree, I found a good deal on Nevermind at the record store and bought it, ostensibly so that I could have it in my catalog, rounding my library out with stuff that other people might want to listen to.  I put it on in the car on the way back home and "Smells Like Teen Spirit" opened the album with that awesome guitar riff.  This time, though, "Teen Spirit" seemed new and fresh to me.  It wasn't on the radio a thousand times a day and my senses weren't battered over the head with it.  And then it occurred to me - this is one great pop song.  I'm a big pop song fan, but had always dismissed "Teen Spirit" as an alternative anthem that just wasn't totally my cup of tea.  I realized that I needed to put aside my preconceived notions about this song and face that fact that I really liked this song.

 Kurt said about writing "Teen Spirit" that he was emulating one of his favorite bands. "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."  I'll do him one better.  He ended up channeling the best pop song band of all time, The Beatles, and wrote that ultimate pop song that I think both John and Paul (as well as The Pixies) would appreciate.  The great thing about it is that it doesn't sound like a pop song for the first few listens.  It's too loud, really choppy, and he mumbles so much that you can't understand most of the lyrics.  But all that just masks that behind all of the volume and angry consternation, there's a hall-of-fame pop song hiding.

The melody is simple and catchy (even though you can't understand Kurt's words), while the guitar riff is pure ear candy.  While Krist Novacelic's bass line is full-bodied and kicked way up, when you break it down, it does what the bass line does in any great pop song, mimic the guitar lead, giving it that extra sonic thump, while also complimenting it at the same time (Van Halen's Michael Anthony is a master at this).  Drummer Dave Grohl plays his drum line like a punk drummer, but adds a pop sensibility to the beat, keeping good time yet also imparting a freneticism that doesn't really fit in a pop song.

That's why it was so hard to see "Teen Spirit" as a pop song.  Nirvana and producer Butch Vig took every pop notion and turned it on its head, much in the way The Ramones took simple, catchy pop songs and infused them with punk spirit.  As the old idiom goes, you can't hide greatness forever.  If it's great, it's great. 
That's why Shakespeare' still used as inspiration for countless stories centuries later and why The Beatles will still inspire countless musicians centuries from now.  You might scoff at my comparing Kurt Cobain and Nirvana to Shakespeare (which I'm not really doing), but all I'm really saying is that greatness inspires greatness.

Lyrically, since Kurt decided to enunciate the way a two year-old does after a nap, it's hard to gather what the hell he's singing about.  He does, however, deliver some great lines in the chorus:

I feel stupid and contagious
Here we are now entertain us

I love the "entertain us" line.  It sums up the self-centered entitlement of so many of the people in my generation who expected the world to come to them.  We'd become a generation of viewers and consumers, wanting everyone around us to be the source of entertainment.  We'd play video games about playing outside instead of actually going outside.  It's like the latter days of the Roman empire, where the courts were filled with the elite sitting, watching and eating - being entertained.

The second verse has some great lines, but I never knew them until I googled the lyrics:

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

Unfortunately the popularity and pressure of being a worldwide phenomenon led to the end - Kurt's suicide+ in 1994, so it's hard to tell if Nirvana could've become an iconic band with a hall of fame career.  But judging by the success and acclaim of Grohl's Foo Fighters, Nirvana wasn't just Kurt's band with a couple of other guys.  What they left behind, though, will continue to inspire others to greatness, as they follow the lead of a guy who never wanted to be a leader.

* On their first cover on Rolling Stone, the world's largest music magazine, Kurt scrawled a message on his shirt in black sharpie, "Corporate magazines still suck."  And to their credit, Rolling Stone still ran the cover.

+ Of course, some people don't think he jumped.  Check out The Death of Kurt Cobain to see the other theories, including the one about Kurt being killed by a vindictive about-to-be-dumped Courtney Love.

Two videos for this one:  the original Nirvana video as well as Weird Al's version, poking fun at the fact that you can't understand what the hell Kurt's saying.  In case you thought Kurt didn't take it well, you'd be wrong.  Cobain said he was "flattered" by the parody: "I loved, it, it was really amusing."

Okay... One more. This is a very funny video someone put together with the misheard lyrics to the song.

(Fun Fact #412:  The title of the song came from a friend of Kurt's who spray painted the phrase "Kurt smells like teen spirit" on the wall of his apartment.  Kurt liked the phrase, thinking that she was talking about his revolutionary nature.  She wasn't.  Teen Spirit was a deodorant targeted to young females, and Kurt's ex-girlfriend used it.  So when she said that he smelled like Teen Spirit, she was saying that he still smelled of his ex-girlfriend.)

(Fun Fact #113:  Kurt Cobain was left handed, just like Paul McCartney, Paul Simon, Paul Williams and even Paul Prudhomme.  So are Richard Simmons, Buzz Aldrin, Jay Leno, David Letterman, Matt Groening and my Dad. That's not necessarily the fun fact.  While that may be interesting , the fun fact is that of our last eight presidents, five have been lefties (Ford, Reagan, Bush 1, Clinton and now Obama).  Since the general percentage of the population is 10% left-handed, the fact that 63% of our last eight presidents is/was left handed is indeed a fun fact!)

(Interesting Fact #543:  Originally, I was going to go a different direction with this post, but I changed my mind.  I was going to talk much more about popularity in music and how a song/band/genre can become popular.  I wondered if grunge was really as popular as we remember.  As far as albums go, absolutely.  Nevermind reached #1 on January 11, 1992.  Ten, by Pearl Jam, reached #2 in late '92.  Soundgarden's Superunknown debuted at #1 in 1994.  "Razorblade Suitcase" by Bush hit #1 at the end of 1996, and there are lots more to choose from.  But when you look at singles from those bands, it's a different story.  Based on the year-end Billboard charts that list singles by popularity for the entire year (not just peak position), "Smells Like Teen Spirit" was #32 for '92.  Going through the top 100 singles of each year following here are the stats for the appearance of grunge bands on the Hot 100 (year-end totals).  1992: One (unless you also want to count #72 - Ugly Kid Joe's "Everything About You").  1993: Zero.  1994:  Zero.  1995:  Maybe one, depending on your definition of grunge - #85 - Better Than Ezra's "Good."  1996:  The only one that could be considered is "1979" by The Smashing Pumpkins.  While they may be a grunge-ish band, "1979" is most definitely NOT a grunge song.  So there you have it.  Discuss....) 
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