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The 13 Most Unlikely Covers of ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’

Miley Cyrus, Bruno Mars, Justin Timberlake and more have put their own spins on the Nirvana classic

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A video of Miley Cyrus performing Nirvana’s breakthrough hit, “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” in Ecuador this past weekend has been spreading around the Internet in the past couple of days – and inevitably, this performance has been widely criticized and declared blasphemous by rock fans who have no love for the teen pop icon. But Cyrus is hardly the first pop singer to take on the grunge classic. As it turns out, “Teen Spirit” isn’t just one of the most frequently covered rock songs of the past 20 years. It’s practically  become a cornerstone of mainstream pop.

Here are the 12 most unlikely covers of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” – and as it turns out, Miley’s is hardly the most objectionable.

By Matthew Perpetua


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Miley Cyrus

Miley introduces her rendition of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” by telling her fans that it’s a song that inspired her to become a performer. This isn’t hard to imagine once it gets going. Sure, she might not be perfectly suited to this type of high-intensity rocking, and she seems a bit physically awkward at times, but she looks like she’s having a ball up there. Also, it should be noted that she actually has a family connection to Kurt Cobain: Her father, country singer Billy Ray Cyrus, was actually friends with the late Nirvana frontman.

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Bruno Mars

Bruno Mars has been featuring this mash-up of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and Michael Jackson‘s “Billie Jean” at most of his recent concerts, including this one at the Hard Rock Hotel in Las Vegas last year. As if playing two of the most instantly recognizable and crowd-pleasing hits in the world wasn’t enough, Mars tosses in a bit of the White Stripes’ “Seven Nation Army” at the end for good measure.

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Taio Cruz

Much like Bruno Mars, Cruz is a shameless crowd-pleaser – after a rowdy round of "Smells Like Teen Spirit," he leads the audience into a bit of Justin Timberlake's smash hit "SexyBack." This camera phone footage was shot at London's Shepherd's Bush Empire in November 2008, back before Cruz broke big internationally with "Dynamite."

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American Idol's Casey Abrams wasn't the first guy to perform "Smells Like Teen Spirit" on a televised singing competition. In this performance from the Rock Star: Supernova contest from 2006 – a show in which a bunch of singers were trying out for a short-lived supergroup including Metallica's Jason Newstead, Mötley Crüe's Tommy Lee and Guns N' Roses' Gilby Clarke – some Icelandic guy called Magni sang the song, and inadvertantly made it sound more like the band Live.

Of Montreal with MGMT

Of Montreal teamed up with members of MGMT for this very well executed cover of “Teen Spirit” during the encore of a show in New York City in October of 2008. If you watch the audience’s response, you get a sense of why so many different acts put the song in their show – the song has a primal power that causes people to totally flip out. The crowd at this gig at Manhattan’s cavernous Roseland Ballroom respond to the song as if they are actually watching a resurrected Kurt Cobain.

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R&B queen Kelis’ version of “Teen Spirit” from a concert at London’s Shepherd’s Bush Empire circa 2000 is surprisingly brutal, with her honeyed vocals giving way to full-bodied shouts. This yet more evidence of the song’s undeniable power — her fans may have come out to dance, but here they come much closer to moshing.

Tori Amos

Tori Amos‘ version of “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” which appears as the B-side of her 1992 single “Crucify,” is one of the earliest known covers of the song. Cobain was a fan – he once described her pretty solo piano cover  as “a great breakfast cereal version.” This performance of the song was filmed at the Montreux Jazz Festival in Switzerland in 1992.

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Paul Anka

Paul Anka turned "Smells Like Teen Spirit" into a swing jazz tune on his 2005 album Rock Swings, which he was promoting in this appearance on the Late Show with David Letterman. Anka takes out some of the most questionable lyrics and sings the "here we are now, entertain us!" line with zero irony, thus making this the most ironic possible version of the song.

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Justin Timberlake

Justin Timberlake performed a bit of the Nirvana hit at a number of shows back in 2006. Unfortunately, only crappy camera phone footage from his show at the House of Blues in Los Angeles in August of 2006 is available online. Still, you can get a sense in this clip of the former N'Sync singer's glee in playing the song's iconic riff.

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The Muppets

Though a Muppets cover of “Teen Spirit” could be amusing if played straight – Animal and Dave Grohl are basically the same guy, right? – it’s even funnier that this version of the song recorded for the new Muppets movie starring Jason Segel and Amy Adams recasts the punk anthem as a barbershop quartet number.