The Story Behind Smells Like Teen Spirit

3 minute read

If you were around back in the late 80s or early 90s, you probably remember a popular line of deodorant named Teen Spirit; that is, unless your name was Kurt Cobain. As poetic as the name sounds, Smells Like Teen Spirit is a reference to Mennen's woman underarm product.

Kurt Smells Like Teen Spirit

In August of 1990, Kurt Cobain and Kathleen Hanna (of Bikini Kill) were hanging out on a hill near a teen pregnancy center in Olympia. The clinic, instead of providing abortions to expecting teenagers, was actually an pro-life center that encouraged girls to keep their babies, claiming they'd end up in hell otherwise.

Kathleen explains:

Since Kurt and I were angry young feminists in the nineties, we decided that we were going to do a little public service that night. We drank our Canadian Club, and he watched out while I went across the street and wrote "Fake Abortion Clinic Everyone". I was kinda the pragmatic one and he was more creative so he went over and in 6 foot tall red letters wrote "God Is King."

Later that night, drunk out of their minds, the two returned to Kurt's motel, and while Kurt was sleeping, Kathleen grabbed a Sharpie marker and wrote "Kurt Smells Like Teen Spirit" all over the wall. This was a reference to Tobi Vail (drummer of Bikini Kill) who Kurt dated and used to wear Teen Spirit deodorant. Kathleen was implying that Tobi had marked Kurt with her scent.

The Iconic Riff

Several months later, just a few weeks prior to the recording of Nevermind, Kurt began playing a guitar riff that Nirvana bassist Krist Novoselic thought sounded extremely silly. Kurt punished Krist by making the band play the riff over and over for an hour and a half. After likely experiencing some Stockholm Syndrome, Krist started to like the riff and suggested that they play it at a reduced speed. The altered riff become the iconic intro to Smells Like Teen Spirit. Dave Grohl jumped in with the drum beat to finalize the musical portion of the track.

The Inspiration Behind Smells Like Teen Spirit

While he was a self-proclaimed anti-media whore, during a Rolling Stone interview in '94, Kurt confessed:

I was trying to write the ultimate pop song. Basically, I was trying to rip off The Pixies.

The song does indeed borrow from The Pixies' Tame in that it features slow calming portions followed by louder heavier parts. The trio recorded a rough demo tape that was barely audible due to being recorded at a high volume, and sent it to Butch Vig. Despite the audio quality, Butch saw potential in the song and brought the band in to re-record it.

The Meaning of Smells Like Teen Spirit

After years of fans and critics trying to decipher the meaning of the song, and despite what Charles Cross implied in the somewhat fictional biography Heavier Than Heaven, Teen Spirit's lyrics are indeed nonsensical. Kurt tried to give an explanation in several interviews in the nineties but, in pure Cobain fashion, he altered and exaggerated the story each time. Smells Like Teen Spirit is a song about teenage freedom and revolution and is as non-conforming as the lyrics themselves.

Smells Like Teen Covers

Due its success and importance in 90s pop culture, Teen Spirit remains the most covered Nirvana songs. Have a look at one of our early articles to see a bunch of good, bad, and hilariously bad Smells Like Teen Spirit Covers.