What Smells Like Teen Spirit? How Was The Greatest And Most Influential Song In Rock History Misinterpreted

“Smells Like Teen Spirit” is a song by the American rock band Nirvana, released in 1991 as the lead single from their second studio album, “Nevermind.”

Smells Like Teen Spirit has since become iconic and is often cited as one of the greatest and most influential songs in the history of rock music. 

The unexpected success of the song propelled Nevermind to the top of several album charts at the start of 1992, an event often marked as the point when grunge entered the mainstream. It was Nirvana’s biggest hit, charting high on music industry charts around the world in 1991 and 1992; and was number one on the charts in Belgium, France, New Zealand and Spain. It was met with wide critical acclaim and described as an “anthem for apathetic kids” of Generation X. Although Nirvana grew uncomfortable with the mainstream and commercial attention the song brought to them, listeners and critics continue to praise “Smells Like Teen Spirit” as one of the greatest songs of all time.

In 2021, Rolling Stone ranked “Smells Like Teen Spirit” fifth on its list of The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time.

So What is Teen Spirit?

“Teen Spirit” was actually a deodorant aimed at girls and was launched in the US in 1991 by the Mennen Company that’s slogan was “The harder you play, the harder it works.”

The song’s title was inspired by a phrase that Kurt Cobain, the band’s lead singer and songwriter, saw on the wall of his friend Kathleen Hanna’s apartment. Hanna, who was the lead singer of the Riot grrrl Punk band Bikini Kill, had spray-painted “Kurt Smells Like Teen Spirit” on the wall, referring to a deodorant brand called Teen Spirit that Cobain’s then-girlfriend, Tobi Vail, used. Cobain misinterpreted the phrase and later wrote the song based on that idea. 

“Smells Like Teen Spirit” was one of several songs written following Nirvana’s first recording sessions with producer Butch Vig in 1990. Singer and guitarist Kurt Cobain began writing it a few weeks before recording their second album, Nevermind, in 1991. He said it was an attempt to write a song in the style of the Pixies, a band he admired:

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.

When Cobain presented the song to his bandmates, it comprised just the main guitar riff and the chorus vocal melody. Cobain said the riff was “clichéd”, similar to a riff by Boston or the Richard Berry song “Louie Louie”. Bassist Krist Novoselic dismissed it as “ridiculous”; in response, Cobain made the band play it for an hour and a half. Eventually, Novoselic began playing it more slowly, inspiring drummer Dave Grohl to create the drum beat, which drew from disco artists like The Gap Band. As a result, it is the only song on Nevermind to credit all three band members as writers.

Smells Like Teen Spirit derives from a phrase written on Cobain’s wall by his friend Kathleen Hanna, singer of the riot grrrl band Bikini Kill: “Kurt smells like Teen Spirit.” Hanna meant that Cobain smelled like the deodorant Teen Spirit, which she and Tobi Vail, his then-girlfriend, had discovered during a trip to the grocery store.

Kurt Cobain said he was unaware of the deodorant until months after the single was released and had interpreted it as a revolutionary slogan, as they had been discussing anarchism and punk rock.