Smells Like Teen Spirit: the manifesto where Kurt Cobain, Nirvana’s leader, expresses his anger towards a world dominated by greedy businessmen, but also towards the inability of his generation to build a viable alternative. It is a reaction to the impossibility to put in place a young revolution.
Cobain eplained: “I felt the duty to describe what I was feeling about what surrounded me and my generation”. Of course, convinced that the best art does not reveal but hides, he did it in his own way, embodying his confusion in the lyrics and also in the video. Metaphors, images, symbolism… a real hermetic message to be decrypted. The cheerleaders in the video, dressed in black with the anarchist symbol printed on the uniform, are an explicit request of the band’s leader.
The song was baptized “The anthem of the apathetic boys”, by the notorious generation X. In a world obsessed by success, choosing defeat was a revolutionary act. The boys like Kurt, born in the late sixties, had not lived the experience of a World War, they had not fought in Vietnam. The Cold War, the cultural repression, divorce, loneliness, unemployment and alienation: that was their Vietnam. Their rebellion could not have, therefore, neither epic impulses nor 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: antidotes to remain human; to stand, fiercely, on the side of the losers, flaunting indifference in front if this catastrophe, and sympathizing with failure.
The story narrated in the lyrics begins in the chaos of two twenty-years old’s bedroom. An autobiographical event? Maybe… In an interview with Seattle Times, Cobain says: “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 very popular at that time, the “Teen Spirit”, and Kathleen wanted to ridicule Kurt, insinuating that he was not a man yet, but only a kid. Kurt, who ignored the existence of the perfume, read it as an appreciation, as if he were not yet subjugated by the patterns of adults, still smelling adolescent spirit. Interviewed in other contexts, Cobain turned out to be intolerant in 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 who would want 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 the same a good idea.” Cobain would eventually plunder his personal diaries to feed the lyrucs. It comes out a rabid outburst, a fist to the sky, so intense that anyone who listens to it, even not knowing what “Teen Spirit” means, has the clear sensation that the song wants to say something, something damn 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 of duty on the first verse alludes to the revolutionary urgency of a hypothetical youth movement. The opening (“Load up on guns, bring your friends”), lyrically powerful and evocative. Michael Azerrad, Nirvana’s official biographer, claims that the bored and self-confident girl in the lyrics is Tobi Vail, at the time involved in a complicated relationship with Cobain. Tobi Vail, Bikini Kill’s drummer, was one of the leading animators of the “Riot Girl” scene, a rock reissue of American feminism in the mid-seventies, a new protest, this time in music, against the patriarchal structure of society, the chauvinism and the machism, but 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 congenital inability to rise (“It’s fun to lose and to pretend”), a failure that Cobain recognizes in some way even as his own, looking at it with self-irony. The one pursued by the generation between 80s and 90s was, in fact, a platonic revolution, a still movement, a paralysis of intent, a cerebral subversion castrated by the skepticism that had pervaded an entire youth. Almost a joke, before returning to what the American sociologists defined slackness (the indolence of a generation). 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
The adolescent inadequacy (“I’m worse at what I do best”) is a constant of the second postwar American literature. Cobain is only the last of that tribe of outsiders, disaligned young people, literary rebels struggling with their flow of consciousness. From here onwards, the song reveals its rabid and helpless nature by ending each group of verses with a surrender attitude: “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 have a sentence that Cobain will 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 the stage and highlights one of Cobain’s great obsessions, the relationship with the audience, the management of a celebrity that was growing exponentially, a theme that will 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
In three verses Cobain moves the narrative perspective from the stage to the audience and then again to the stage. 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 conscious of the separation between the man and the artistic mask, which he lives as a constraint (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, a beloved wife, a daughter, and yet he addressed last letter to Boddah, the imaginary friend (the only one able to stay with him even in the most difficult moments) that had filled his solitary childhood of a son of divorced parents. In his farewell message, he revealed that he was no longer able to experience any emotion and to love humans, so much that he felt “bloody sad”. It happens to exaggeratedly sensitive spirits that they reach so high vibrations of love that they finally get unsustainable. Kurt tried to free himself from all the suffering, from all the fears, 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”), A state in which a man can free himself from suffering and problems. A paradise that will turn, however, into hell. From his farewell letter, second-last sentence is often mentioned, where Cobain quotes a verse of Neil Young song My My, hey hey (out of the Blue): “It’s better to burn out than to fade away”. Last words are beautiful: peace, love, Empathy – last one was underlined and uppercase.
The rifle shot with which he decided to end his torments did not take away only the voice, mangled and heartbreaking, of albums which were unforgettable and immortal in the history of rock; because 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 inesaudibile desire of a united and happy family; a complicated teenager, always out of place, harassed by school mates, determined in his plans to escape from a province populated only by “idiots, cavemen and lumberjacks”; a curious boy, hungry for experience. In whose eyes the liberating discovery of music has been able to make a flame shine, a flame that could never have extinguished slowly. Burning fast was the only option. Ann the instant it burned, was wonderful and unrepeatable to the world.
In this video, Tori Amos interprets Smells Like Teen Spirit in a way that shows how we don’t need drums, electric guitars or tattoos to be rock. Rock is inside. Rock is if you have something to say.
Dario Giardi loves music, photography and writing. He is the author of “Trip among the notes. The Secrets of Musical Theory and Harmony”. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter.