Nirvana Refuses to Mime Along to “Smells Like Teen Spirit” on Top of the Pops (1991)

This month marks the 30th anniver­sary of Nirvana’s Nev­er­mind, first released on Sep­tem­ber 24, 1991, “the day,” writes Michael Ted­der at Stere­ogum, “that col­lege radio-nur­tured types and arty hard rock offi­cial­ly became rebrand­ed as Alter­na­tive Rock, and, accord­ing to leg­end, every­thing changed for­ev­er.” You might believe that leg­end even if you remem­ber the real­i­ty. Yes, “Smells Like Teen Spir­it” was just as huge as every­body says — and, yes, you like­ly recall where you were when you first saw the video or heard the song explode with Pix­ies-inspired qui­et-loud feroc­i­ty from the radio. But the change was already on the way.

Nir­vana emerged in a pop music land­scape slow­ly becom­ing sat­u­rat­ed with alter­na­tive music. You might also remem­ber where you were the first time you saw the video for Depeche Mode’s “Enjoy the Silence,” for exam­ple, or R.E.M.’s “Los­ing My Reli­gion,” or Sinéad O’Connor’s “Noth­ing Com­pares 2 U” — or when you first expe­ri­enced the dynamic/melodic assault of the afore­men­tioned Pix­ies, vir­tu­al alt-rock elders by the time they released Trompe Le Monde, their fourth stu­dio album, in the same Sep­tem­ber week that Nev­er­mind appeared. (You may remem­ber where you were the first time you heard the word “Lol­la­palooza,” first orga­nized in 1991.)

The fate­ful week in Sep­tem­ber also saw the release of 90s-defin­ing albums like Pri­mal Scream’s Screa­madel­i­ca, Red Hot Chili Pep­pers’ Blood Sug­ar Sex Magik, and A Tribe Called Quest’s Low End The­o­ry. In the year that Nev­er­mind sup­pos­ed­ly sin­gle-hand­ed­ly invent­ed “grunge,” Soundgar­den released Bad­mo­torfin­ger and Pearl Jam released Ten. It’s fair to say Nir­vana were one of just many bands rein­vent­ing them­selves and the cul­ture. Even the hair met­al bands and teen pop idols Nir­vana put out of busi­ness were already try­ing to make more seri­ous, “authen­tic” music before Nev­er­mind turned every executive’s head.

Kurt Cobain was already well aware — and wary — of the dan­gers of hero wor­ship and blind alle­giance to style over sub­stance. It was an atti­tude he came by nat­u­ral­ly giv­en that, in 1991, his friends in Olympia, Wash­ing­ton found­ed an indie record label called Kill Rock Stars. He’d writ­ten an anthem, “In Bloom,” about it before any­one heard the open­ing pow­er chords of “Smells Like Teen Spir­it.” As he pur­sued, with rig­or­ous ambi­tion, the pow­er of rock star­dom, he reject­ed its trap­pings and pre­ten­sions, as when the band appeared on Top of the Pops and took the piss out of the show, rather than mime along duti­ful­ly, as Mark Beau­mont writes at NME:

Pre­tend­ing to strum his gui­tar like a robot and mak­ing no attempt to go any­where near an actu­al chord – pre­sum­ably a state­ment about being asked to per­form like a mechan­i­cal pup­pet – Kurt launch­es into his vocal in deep, the­atri­cal bari­tone, an homage to Mor­ris­sey that comes across more like Jim Mor­ri­son on mogadon. Mean­while Krist Novosel­ic flails his bass around his head like he’s wrestling a live wolf and Dave Grohl’s ‘drum­ming’ is more like an inter­pre­tive dance to rep­re­sent ‘goofy imp’. Oh, and heav­en knows what the TOTP cen­sors thought of Kurt chang­ing the open­ing lyrics to “load up on drugs, kill your friends” before try­ing to eat the micro­phone. 

In light of the groundswell of alter­na­tive bands emerg­ing — or still plug­ging away — at the time of Nev­er­mind’s release, the myth of Nir­vana as the sin­gle-hand­ed inven­tors of 90s alt-rock is more than a lit­tle overblown. This is espe­cial­ly so in a decade that saw elec­tron­ic dance music and hip hop cross over into rock and vice-ver­sa, a trend Nir­vana had noth­ing to do with. They were a thun­der­ing­ly great band, and Kurt Cobain was a rare and gift­ed song­writer, but the heart of Nirvana’s pop­u­lar appeal was extra-musi­cal. The band — mean­ing, prin­ci­pal­ly, Cobain — most hon­est­ly embod­ied the spir­it of the time: painful­ly ambiva­lent and at war with its aspi­ra­tions. “Kurt — I would call him a wind­mill,” says bassist Krist Novosel­ic. “He want­ed to be a rock star — and he hat­ed it.”

Relat­ed Con­tent: 

The Record­ing Secrets of Nirvana’s Nev­er­mind Revealed by Pro­duc­er Butch Vig

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

The Ukulele Orches­tra of Great Britain’s Head­bang­ing Cov­er of Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spir­it”

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

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  • Ayun Halliday says:

    I was just at event where Smells Like Teen Spir­it’s music video direc­tor, Sam Bay­er, was talk­ing about how unco­op­er­a­tive Kurt was, delib­er­at­ing mouthing the wrong words and play­ing the wrong chords when asked to lip synch dur­ing the shoot. Bay­er was a first time direc­tor and final­ly went to the band’s man­ag­er in des­per­a­tion, pledg­ing that he would deliv­er the best video of all time if the man­ag­er would get the band to do as request­ed once or twice. I guess they did!

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