How Nirvana’s Iconic “Smells Like Teen Spirit” Came to Be: An Animated Video Narrated by T‑Bone Burnett Tells the True Story

Cred­it­ed with ignit­ing the 90s grunge craze and putting Pacif­ic North­west punk and indie scenes on the map, Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spir­it” has eclipsed hun­dreds of rock hits as “the most icon­ic song of all time”—at least accord­ing to the ana­lyt­ics of com­put­er sci­en­tists from the Uni­ver­si­ty of Lon­don.

What­ev­er that des­ig­na­tion means, it’s with­out a doubt the most icon­ic Nir­vana song of all time, a tune whose influ­ence may be impos­si­ble to mea­sure. Kurt Cobain might have grown weary of it, but fans nev­er stopped clam­or­ing for the hit (his mom loved it, too). An anthem for a gen­er­a­tion dis­af­fect­ed with cor­po­rate mar­ket­ing and major label pan­der­ing, “Smells Like Teen Spir­it” is also—like the decade it came to define—a nest­ing doll of irony.

Cobain played this up to a degree—the irony of an indie band announc­ing the sec­ond com­ing of charged DIY punk rock with a song that net­ted them a major label deal and put him on the path to super­star­dom. When Nir­vana debuted their soon-to-be icon­ic hit live at Seattle’s OK Hotel on April 17th, 1991, the usu­al­ly tac­i­turn front­man intro­duced him­self by say­ing, “Hel­lo. We’re major label cor­po­rate rock sell­outs.”

Giv­en his sar­don­ic sense of humor, fans have gen­er­al­ly assumed some kind of anti-cap­i­tal­ist in-joke in the title of the song, with its ref­er­ence to a pop­u­lar brand of deodor­ant. But in a more dra­mat­ic irony, Cobain had no idea when he wrote and record­ed it that “Teen Spir­it was a prod­uct, aimed at teenage girls.” The song’s title, as you’ll learn in the short, ani­mat­ed back­sto­ry in the video above, orig­i­nat­ed with Biki­ni Kill singer Kath­leen Han­na, who scrawled it on Cobain’s wall with a Sharpie after the two shared a night of heavy drink­ing and polit­i­cal­ly right­eous van­dal­ism.

Nar­rat­ed by T‑Bone Bur­nett and ani­mat­ed by Drew Christie, the award-win­ning short “Drawn & Record­ed: Teen Spir­it” con­dens­es the song’s sto­ry (which you can read about in more depth here) into two and a half min­utes of pop cul­ture his­to­ry and com­men­tary. Upon wak­ing up and see­ing Hanna’s mes­sage on the wall, Cobain was imme­di­ate­ly flat­tered: “Kurt thought it meant he was a rad­i­cal, a rev­o­lu­tion­ary, a fem­i­nist, a punk, an anti-author­i­tar­i­an, anti-cap­i­tal­ist, anar­chist cru­sad­er.” He got right to work on the song’s cho­rus.

But Han­na main­ly meant to say he lit­er­al­ly smelled like Teen Spir­it, which hap­pened to be the brand of deodor­ant his then-girlfriend—Bikini Kill drum­mer Tobi Vail—used. “I didn’t know that the deodor­ant spray exist­ed until six months after the sin­gle came out,” he told Michael Azer­rad in the biog­ra­phy Come as You Are. He didn’t intend to write an adver­tise­ment, of course. But in yet anoth­er grim twist, “after the song came out,” Bur­nett monot­o­nes, “sales of Teen Spir­it went through the roof.”

The les­son, maybe? “Cap­i­tal­ism is very resilient”? Cobain under­stood this all too well though he may have inad­ver­tent­ly become the last thing he ever want­ed, a prod­uct pitch­man. But his cre­ative mis­read­ing of Han­na’s joke also made music his­to­ry.

Above, you can watch Han­na tell the ori­gin sto­ry her­self. The scene was record­ed at Joes Pub in NYC, back in Decem­ber 2010.

via Laugh­ing Squid

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Nir­vana Refus­es to Fake It on Top of the Pops, Gives a Big “Mid­dle Fin­ger” to the Tra­di­tion of Bands Mim­ing on TV (1991)

Nir­vana Plays an Angry Set & Refus­es to Play ‘Smells Like Teen Spir­it’ After the Crowd Hurls Sex­ist Insults at the Open­ing Act (Buenos Aires, 1992)

Watch Nir­vana Per­form “Smells Like Teen Spir­it,” Just Days After the Release of Nev­er­mind (1991)

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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