The First Live Performance of Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” (1991)

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.

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Comments (5)
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  • hefty j says:

    Kurt KaBang? = Over Rat­ed X 1/2

  • doug says:

    real­ly cool post — but it also is iron­ic … the same cor­po­rate music machine that cor­rupt­ed this art­form, is doing the same to the nat­ur­al free infor­ma­tion on the inter­net and the won­der­ful reminders of his­to­ry. When you click on the youtube video at the bot­tom, the MTV video has been removed by EMI.
    What do we ever have to thank EMI for except some strange pro­tec­tion­ist busi­ness mod­el.
    I think that flaw makes your point as well.

  • Jacob Grignon says:

    You know the orig­i­nal lyrics are dif­fer­ent to the final lyrics, kin­da fun­ny eh?

  • SmellsLikePolly says:

    I don’t know… If that live video had been the released ver­sion, I’m sure I’d have still been lis­ten­ing to Guns n Ros­es. The apathy/angst does not some through. It’s more like punk-death-met­al than what defined grunge.

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