It’s over 20 years ago now that Nirvana’s video for “Smells like Teen Spirit” debuted on MTV’s 120 Minutes and, for better or worse, inaugurated the grunge era. The video arrived as a shock and a thrill to a generation too young to remember punk and sick of the steady stream of cheesy corporate dance music and hair metal that characterized the late-80s. For everyone outside the small Seattle scene that nurtured them and the tape-trading kids in the know, the band seemed to arrive out of nowhere as a total angst-ridden package, and the MTV video, by first-time director Samuel Bayer, seemed bracingly anarchic and raw at the time.
But a look at the first live performance of “Teen Spirit” (above) makes it seem pretty tame by comparison. The video’s a little grainy and low-res, which suits the song just fine. Live, “Teen Spirit’s” disturbing undertones are more pronounced, its quiet-loud dynamics more forceful, and the energy of the crowd is real, not the thrashing around of a bunch of teenage extras. Not a cheerleader in sight, but I think this would have grabbed me more than the pep rally-riot-themed MTV video did when it debuted a few months later. Despite their anti-corporate stance, Nirvana was a casualty of their own success, eaten up by the machinery they despised. Their best moments are still the unscripted and unpredictable. For contrast, zip back to 1991 and watch the MTV video below. Also don’t miss Nirvana’s Home Videos: An Intimate Look at the Band’s Life Away From the Spotlight (1988).
Josh Jones is a writer and scholar currently completing a dissertation on landscape, literature, and labor. This video makes him feel old.