9. Nirvana, 'Smells Like Teen Spirit'
Writer: Kurt Cobain
Producer: Butch Vig
Released: Sept. '91, DGC
20 weeks; No. 6
Producer Butch Vig first heard "Smells Like Teen Spirit" in early 1991, on a boombox cassette recorded by bassist Krist Novoselic, drummer Dave Grohl and singer-guitarist-songwriter Kurt Cobain in a barn in Tacoma, Washington. The fidelity was abysmal. Vig — about to work with Nirvana on their major-label debut, Nevermind — could not tell that the song would soon make underground Seattle rock the new mainstream and catapult Cobain, a troubled young man with strict indie-culture ethics, into megacelebrity. "I could sort of hear the 'Hello, hello' part and the chords," Vig said years later. "But it was so indecipherable that I had no idea what to expect."
Nor did anyone else. A shock wave of big-amp purity, "Teen Spirit" wiped the lingering jive of the Eighties off the pop map overnight. "The song was a call to consciousness," Novoselic said in 2000 — Cobain's avenging grenade against the corporate invasion of youth culture, spiked with the demanding venom of the sneering chorus: "Here we are now/Entertain us." The phrase was something Cobain used to say at parties — "to break the ice," he said. "That could have been him watching TV," said Novoselic, "aghast at popular culture."
"Teen Spirit," named after a brand of deodorant for girls, was Cobain's attempt to "write the ultimate pop song," he said, using the soft-loud dynamic of his favorite band, the Pixies. The insidious hooks also showed his admiration for John Lennon. Cobain "had that dichotomy of punk rage and alienation," Vig said, "but also this vulnerable pop sensibility. In 'Teen Spirit,' a lot of that vulnerability is in the tone of his voice."
Sadly, by the time of Nirvana's last U.S. tour, in late '93, Cobain was tortured by the obligation to play "Teen Spirit" every night. "There are many other songs that I have written that are as good, if not better," he claimed. He finally stopped playing "Teen Spirit" for good — taking his own life on April 5th, 1994.
Appears on: Nevermind (DGC)