Not only is “Smells Like Teen Spirit” the most popular Nirvana song, it’s also one of the most iconic songs of the entire 90s. It made Nirvana a household name upon release in September 1991, however reluctant they may have been, and it has stood the test of time.
As the opening track and lead single to Nirvana’s breakout second album, Nevermind, “Smells Like Teen Spirit” introduced many people to the sound that became known as grunge. This sound dominated the airwaves for the better part of the next decade.
In this article, we’re doing a deep dive into “Smells Like Teen Spirit”, to uncover not only the meaning of the lyrics, but also the backstory of how the song was written and created. Over three decades later, it’s not just a staple of ’90s nostalgia but a persistent part of our musical landscape.
“Smells Like Teen Spirit” Origins
The story goes that Kurt Cobain wrote “Smells Like Teen Spirit” after Nirvana had already started recording the material that would become Nevermind with producer Butch Vig, in the Spring of 1990.
In a 1994 interview with Rolling Stone, Cobain revealed that stylistically, his initial lyrics for “Smells Like Teen Spirit” were inspired by the Pixies:
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.Kurt Cobain on the writing of “Smells Like Teen Spirit”.
When Cobain first presented the song to his bandmates, Krist Novoselic and Dave Grohl, he only had the chorus, vocal melody, and main guitar riff. They collaborated to complete it, thus making “Smells Like Teen Spirit” the only song on Nevermind that gives writing credits to all three band members.
As for the title, it is more random than you might think. Rather than being an overt attempt at coming up with a striking phrase, “Smells Like Teen Spirit” was actually inspired by the deodorant brand, Teen Spirit.
Apparently, the phrase “Kurt smells like Teen Spirit” had been written on Cobain’s wall by his friend Kathleen Hanna, frontwoman of the band Bikini Kill.
At the time of writing the song, however, Cobain was not aware of the deodorant brand. Hanna had discovered it in the grocery store while shopping with Cobain’s then-girlfriend Tobi Vail.
She had written the phrase on the wall as a way of teasing Kurt, to say that he smells like a woman’s deodorant brand.
Nirvana thought this would make a pretty cool song title, as it brought to mind revolution, anarchism, and punk rock, things that the band had been discussing among themselves.
Whether it’s women’s deodorant or revolutionary ideas, we’re still smelling it today.
“Smells Like Teen Spirit” Lyrics Meaning
The lyrics to “Smells Like Teen Spirit” are notorious for a number of reasons.
First of all, when Nevermind was released, the liner notes did not include an official version of the lyrics. Couple that with Kurt Cobain’s gnarled, gritty vocals and you’ve got the recipe for one of the most frequently misheard songs of all time.
Then, when you do actually see the lyrics, you find that there isn’t much clarity to them.
According to Berkenstadt and Cross’s bio Nirvana: Nevermind, during an interview conducted on the album’s release day, Cobain said of the song’s meaning: “We still feel as if we’re teenagers because we don’t follow the guidelines of what’s expected of us to be adults … It also has kind of a teen revolutionary theme.”
Although Cobain’s quote doesn’t reveal the actual meaning of the lyrics, we can use that information to come up with our own conclusions.
Let’s dive in, starting with the first verse:
Load up on guns, bring your friendsFirst verse to “Smells Like Teen Spirit” by Nirvana.
It’s fun to lose and to pretend
She’s over-bored and self-assured
Oh no, I know a dirty word
The revolutionary spirit is put forth right from the start, inviting listeners to get some guns and their friends. While not overtly encouraging revolution, the next line presents the idea as fun, to lose your grip on reality and pretend.
Then he diverts his focus to a woman, who is perhaps dangerously bored and sure of herself. His mind then goes to a dirty place.
The pre-chorus begins builds tension, but doesn’t actually say anything:
Hello, hello, hello, how lowPre-chorus to “Smells Like Teen Spirit” by Nirvana.
Hello, hello, hello, how low
Hello, hello, hello, how low
Hello, hello, hello
It’s simply wordplay, with Cobain making Hello and how low sound the same with his voice. The overall effect is disorienting.
Then, the famous chorus:
With the lights out, it’s less dangerousChorus to “Smells Like Teen Spirit” by Nirvana.
Here we are now, entertain us
I feel stupid and contagious
Here we are now, entertain us
A mulatto, an albino
A mosquito, my libido
One might see the chorus as a lens into the experience of an awkward concertgoer. When the venue dims the lights, the audience feels safer, rather than the uncomfortable shuffling around that sometimes occurs between acts.
“Here we are now, entertain us” could be seen as the band’s interpretation of the audience in front of them.
The whole lot of them are feeling stupid, and that stupidity might be rubbing off on others. This connects with the lyrics from the opening verse, about loading up on guns and bringing your friends. They’ll all go be stupid and pretend to cause chaos together. Or perhaps they’ll actually cause chaos, and pretend it’s under a righteous cause.
Looking out into the crowd, the band sees a diverse audience. A mulatto, meaning someone who is half white and half black, and an albino, meaning someone who is exceptionally white.
Then, a mosquito bites him and sucks out his libido, or his sex drive. Depending on how he was feeling at the time, that mosquito could be in for a hell of a night.
Next up, the second verse highlights some things to be thankful for:
I’m worse at what I do bestSecond verse to “Smells Like Teen Spirit” by Nirvana.
And for this gift, I feel blessed
Our little group has always been
And always will until the end
In some twisted way, Cobain is grateful that he continues to degrade in performance at the things that he once excelled at. Perhaps he’s thankful for even having a talent to deteriorate in.
Then, finally, a lyric that makes sense at face value: Cobain’s friends have always been there, and they’re not going anywhere. This could be seen as a naive mindset, as many teenagers feel that their friends will last forever when in reality they are just a few short years away from drifting apart.
Cranking up the energy again, we have another hit of the chorus followed by a guitar solo that puts a definition on what grunge sounds like. Then, the third and final verse:
And I forget just why I tasteThird verse to “Smells Like Teen Spirit” by Nirvana.
Oh yeah, I guess it makes me smile
I found it hard, it’s hard to find
Oh well, whatever, never mind
We picture someone who is drunk or high, having a thought that they find funny, such as “why do I taste?”, and having a chuckle among themselves.
Continuing with the idea that this person is not sober, we find them misspeaking about things they find hard. Or is it hard to find? Perhaps it’s just speech itself that is hard right now, okay?
Nevermind, they say, and the chorus hits again.
The final lyrics come in the outro, where the phrase “A denial” is repeated over and over again. A denial of what? We shall never know.
Watch the music video for “Smells Like Teen Spirit” by Nirvana below.
Nirvana – “Smells Like Teen Spirit” (Music Video)