The spirit of the age: Kurt's immortal anthem for doomed youth
Twenty years after Nirvana's 'Smells Like Teen Spirit', Damian Corless ponders the legacy of grunge
Published 23/04/2011 | 05:00
It was a new song called 'Smells Like Teen Spirit'. His Nirvana bandmates didn't rate it much. When their leader first strummed it to them days earlier, bassist Krist Novoselic mocked it as "ridiculous".
Kurt Cobain hadn't even finished writing the words, but they unveiled it anyway in a grubby Seattle dive called the OK Hotel and set off a youthquake that rocked the world.
Released as a single a few months later, 'Smells Like Teen Spirit' was gleefully seized upon as the anthem for a generation, making Kurt Cobain its reluctant spokesman.
A perfect storm of incoherent rage, it swept the globe like wildfire, hitting No 1 in umpteen countries.
In doing so it blazed the way for its parent album, Nevermind, to become the best thing since sliced pizza for millions of pimply, directionless, bored youngsters.
Nirvana's drummer Dave Grohl recently remarked: "Do I think it's the greatest single of all time? Of course not. I don't even think it's the greatest Nirvana single. Gimmie a break. 'Smells Like Teen Spirit' was a great moment in time."
For multitudes now saddled with mortgages and middleage spread, 'Teen Spirit' really did freeze-frame the time of their lives.
Like Elvis Presley's 'Heartbreak Hotel' or The Sex Pistols' 'Anarchy In The UK', it seemed to come straight out of nowhere to signal a clean break with the past and herald a thrilling new beginning.
Mainstream rock music by 1991 had been sleepwalking for a decade. The 1980s Aids epidemic which shuffled from Band Aid to Live Aid to Hear'n'Aid (spandex and big hair against want) had created a pantheon of bloated, ageing, self-anointed saviours more consumed with righting a wrong than writing a song.
For millions of kids, rebelling against the shiny, happy corporate people endorsed by Charles and Di involved wigging out at raves with not an air guitar or a real one in sight.
For others it meant getting back to the half-forgotten punk basics of do-it-yourself and flip the begrudgers.
Nirvana were one of many footsoldiers in the latter camp, trashing about in the margins and generally happy to kick up a din resembling underground kings Hüsker Dü and Sonic Youth. Cobain admitted that 'Teen Spirit' was his attempt to copy the newest and coolest kids on the rundown block, the Pixies.
It was the Pixies' bad luck that their kingpin, Black Francis, was too short, fat and ugly to be true teen idol material.
It was Nirvana's good luck that their golden-haired boy looked every inch the part. Forget the music -- in the battle of the pop pin-ups it was Elvis vs Bill Haley. No contest.
One critic hit the nail on the head when he drew a parallel between the seemingly magical arrival of Nirvana and that of Bob Dylan years earlier.
He observed: "Old folksters will tell you that what Dylan said in 'Blowin' In The Wind' wasn't revolutionary for those in the know in 1963.
"He just managed to capture the right words and feelings floating around Greenwich Village and present it in a package the whole world could buy.
"'Teen Spirit' was one of those moments too, when a song was pulled from the air of a scene and became greater than the sum of its parts."
With the double whammy of 'Teen Spirit' and Nevermind the underground sprouted on to the High Street. Whether this was necessarily a good thing largely depended on how old you were in 1991.
Frayed jeans, shapeless plaid shirts and chip-pan hair became the uniform of choice and nobody needed to learn anyone's name any more because everyone was simply called "Dude".
But while the flowering of grunge gave everyone else a licence to act the misery guts, Kurt Cobain was proving to be the real deal.
'Teen Spirit' was the authentic howl of disaffected youth, but no sooner was that genie out of its bottle than it was recaptured and repackaged for mass consumption.
The feeding frenzy was triggered in part by the satanic mass of a video which scared the living daylights out of MTV execs until they discovered there was money to be made.
The station's programmer, Amy Finnerty, later wryly noted how the video had "changed the entire look of MTV" by delivering "a whole new generation to sell to".
As much as he hated the idea of being held up as the spokesman for a generation, the notion of being packaged as the salesman to a generation was also a cause of dismay. But he was cursed with good looks, great songs and the backing of a major profit-driven record label.
In truth, the beancounters behind Nirvana were no more in control than Cobain. They didn't promote 'Teen Spirit' as a potential hit. As one manager put it, they were as surprised as anyone when the kids "rushed out like lemmings to buy it".
Twenty years on Kurt Cobain is long dead, the tragic suicide victim of his own crushing success. But his 'Teen Spirit' has lived on to become part of what we are.
It's been listed alongside Bing's 'White Christmas' in the great American songbook. A contestant recently gave it an easy-listening twist on American Idol. And yet the original remains as electrifying as anything in the annals of rock music.
All thing considered, it's time for Kurt Cobain to stop turning in his grave and cut himself a bit of slack.