The true meaning of Nirvana’s Smells Like Teen Spirit

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This story is part of the book:
Mama Mia Let Me Go!
A journey through the most intriguing lyrics and stories in rock music

Buy it on Amazon

Smells Like Teen Spirit: the manifesto in which Kurt Cobain, Nirvana’s lead singer, expresses his anger at a world dominated by greedy businessmen, but also at the inability of his generation to work towards a viable alternative. It is a reaction to the seemingly impossible task of starting a revolution within youth.

Cobain himself explained: “I’m disgusted by my own and my generation’s apathy. I’m disgusted at what we allow to go on, by how spineless, lethargic and guilty we are.” This inspired him to paint the picture within Teen Spirit, expressed in his own way, through art. Both the lyrics and the video embody his confusion; metaphors, imagery, and symbolism all merge together into his message, for the listener and watcher alike to decrypt. More blatantly, the cheerleaders in the video, dressed in black with the anarchist symbol printed on the uniform, are there at the explicit request of Cobain.

Nirvana - Smells Like Teen Spirit (Official Music Video)

The song became the anthem for Generation X’s apathetic youth. In a world obsessed with success, choosing defeat was a revolutionary act. People like Kurt, born in the late sixties, had not lived through a World War or fought in Vietnam. The Cold War, cultural repression, divorce, loneliness, unemployment and alienation: that was their Vietnam. Their rebellion was not characterised by epic impulses or idealistic proclamations. It was the ungraceful and spontaneous howl of anger, the moan of anguish. In response to the ethics of profit, to 80s fake optimism, they reacted with sarcasm and apathy. This was their stand: siding with the losers, flaunting indifference in front of catastrophe, and sympathising with failure.

The story narrated through the lyrics begins in the chaos of two twenty-years old’s bedroom. An autobiographical event? Maybe… In an interview with Seattle Times, Cobain said, “We were having a great time talking about revolutionary things, and we ended up destroying my bedroom, the mirrors, the bed, everything that we found. We started to smudge the walls with spray and Kathleen wrote “Kurt smells Like Teen Spirit”. I took it as a compliment.” The phrase comes from a perfume for teenagers that was very popular at the time, and Kathleen wanted to ridicule Kurt, insinuating that he was not a man yet. Kurt, who was either unaware of ignored the existence of the perfume, instead took the comment as a form of appreciation, as if he had not yet ben subjugated by adulthood, and he still embodied the adolescent spirit. When interviewed in other contexts, Cobain turned out to be intolerant to the idea of deepening the meaning of the song: “Basically it’s a song about friends, about peers. We still feel like teenagers because we don’t want to follow adults. We go around, we try to have fun. The heart of the song is about making a mockery of the idea of putting a revolution in place. But it is still a good idea.” Cobain would eventually plunder his personal diaries to feed the lyrics. The result is a rabid outburst, a fist to the sky, so intense that anyone who listens to it, even without knowing what “Teen Spirit” means, has the clear sensation that the song wants to say something, something really intense.

Load up on guns, bring your friends
It’s fun to lose and to pretend
She’s over bored, self assured
Oh No, I know a dirty word

The call to arms in the first verse alludes to the revolutionary urgency of a hypothetical youth movement. The opening (“Load up on guns, bring your friends”), is lyrically powerful and evocative. Michael Azerrad, Nirvana’s official biographer, claims that the bored, self-confident girl in the lyrics is Tobi Vail, who was at the time involved in a complicated relationship with Cobain. Vail, Bikini Kill’s drummer, was one of the protagonists of the “Riot Girl” scene, a rock reissue of American feminism in the mid-seventies. It was a new protest, this time through music, and one that was firmly against the patriarchal structure of society, the chauvinism and the machismo, but was still not complete enough to elaborate a consistent political criticism. The frustrated ambitions of the movement were taken as a paradigm of generation X’s inability to rise (“It’s fun to lose and to pretend”), a failure that Cobain even recognises within himself. The revolution pursued during the 80s and 90s was, in fact, a platonic revolution, an inert movement, a paralysis of intent, a cerebral subversion castrated by the scepticism that had pervaded an entire generation of youth. It is almost a joke, he observes, before returning to what American sociologists defined as slackness. In such a situation, it’s actually fun “to lose and to pretend.”

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

This adolescent inadequacy (“I’m worse at what I do best”) is a constant of post-war American literature. Cobain is the last of that tribe of outsiders, those disaffected young people, literary rebels struggling with their flow of consciousness. From here onwards, the song reveals its rabid and helpless nature by ending each verse with a message of surrender: “Nevermind”“I feel stupid” (depression), “a denial”.

And I forget just why I taste
Oh Yes, I guess it makes me smile
I found it hard, it was hard to find
Oh well, whatever, nevermind
Hello, hello, hello, how low?

Cobain’s diaries contain a sentence that Cobain does not use in the final version of the song; a sentence that confirms how self-destructive tendencies can reach extreme consequences: “The finest day I’ve ever had was when tomorrow never came”.

The refrain moves the action on to the stage and highlights one of Cobain’s great obsessions – the relationship with the audience and the management of a celebrity that was growing exponentially. This was ultimately a theme that would return tragically in other lyrics afterwards, and in his farewell letter to the world.

With the lights out it’s less dangerous
Here we are now, entertain us
I feel stupid and contagious
Here we are now, entertain us
A mulatto
An albino
A mosquito
My Libido
A denial

In three verses, Cobain moves the narrative perspective from the stage to the audience and then to the stage again. The darkness of the room (“With the lights out”) is a mask that temporarily hides (“it’s less dangerous”) the conscious, contagious stupidity of the entertainer (“I feel stupid and contagious”), while the audience calls for entertainment (“Here we are now, entertain us”). It is the psychological drama of grunge’s “Fool”, Cobain, the artist who is conscious of the separation between man and artistic mask; a constraint in which he lives as a prisoner (it is no coincidence that a variation on the diaries says “segregate us” instead of “entertain us”).

When Kurt wrote his last letter, he was 27. Twenty-seven years old; a beloved wife, a daughter, and yet he addressed his last letter to Boddah, the imaginary friend (the only one able to stay with him through even the most difficult moments) who had filled his solitary childhood, living as an only child with divorced parents. In his farewell message, he revealed that he was no longer able to experience any emotion or to love humans, so much that he felt “bloody sad”. It happens to overly sensitive spirits that they reach such high feelings of love that they finally become unsustainable. Kurt tried to free himself from all the suffering, from all the fear and from the paranoia, immersing himself completely in the music that he saw as his personal “Nirvana” (the term comes from Sanskrit and means “cessation of breath or freedom from desire”). It is a state in which a man can free himself from suffering and problems. But it is a paradise that will turn, however, into hell. From his farewell letter, the second-last sentence is often mentioned, where Cobain quotes a verse of the Neil Young song, ‘My My, hey hey (out of the Blue)’“It’s better to burn out than to fade away”. The last words are particularly beautiful: peace, love, Empathy – the last one was underlined and in upper case.

The rifle shot with which he decided to end his torments did not only take away only the voice, so mangled and heart-breaking, of the albums which were so unforgettable and immortalised in the history of rock. For before he saw no other solution than death, Kurt Cobain was so much more. A cheerful and spontaneous child, irresistible in his enthusiasm, soon weakened by the unfulfillable desire of a united and happy family. He was a complicated teenager, always out of place, harassed by school mates, determined in his plans to escape from a province populated by “idiots, cavemen and lumberjacks”. He was also a curious boy, hungry for experience. Through his eyes, the liberating discovery of music was able to make a flame shine, but it was a flame that could never have extinguished slowly. Burning quickly was the only option. But while it did, it was wonderful and unrepeatable.

In the video below, Tori Amos interprets Smells Like Teen Spirit in a way that shows that we don’t need drums, electric guitars or tattoos to “be” rock. Rock is inside. Rock is something you have to say.

Tori Amos - Smells Like Teen Spirit

This story is part of the book:
Mama Mia Let Me Go!
A journey through the most intriguing lyrics and stories in rock music

Buy it on Amazon

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