With the Lights Out It’s Less Dangerous

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Above: Dave Grohl, Kurt Cobain and Krist Novoselic of Nirvana.

With the lights out, it’s less dangerous
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
Yay!

When Nirvana released the song “Smells Like Teen Spirit” in 1991, it helped make them into rock gods. Ironic, isn’t it, since the song was Kurt Cobain’s dig at mainstream culture. According to Nirvana bassist Krist Novoselic, “Kurt really despised the mainstream. That’s what ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ was all about: the mass mentality of conformity.” But the song, which Rolling Stone magazine ranked ninth in its list of the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time, was too catchy, sexy, moody, hard to understand, hard-edged, frayed and nearly perfect to escape the clutches of the mainstream. Its hard-to-decipher lyrics were skewered by Weird Al Yankovic in his parody, “Smells Like Nirvana,” which featured lines like:

What is this song all about?
Can’t figure any lyrics out
How do the words to it go?
I wish you’d tell me, I don’t know

In a 1994 MTV interview, Kurt Cobain said of the parody, “Oh, I laughed my butt off. I thought it was one of the funniest things I ever saw. He has some good people working for him. . . . They really know how to reproduce things to the T. He had the exact same setup. It’s the same video with him in it. It’s great.”

For an entertaining roundup of horrible cover versions of “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” you must check out April Winchell’s awesome multimedia site full of free audio clips that will keep you listening and chuckling in amused horror for hours, long after you’ve exhausted the “Teen Spirit” covers in polka, disco, Paul Anka and Gregorian chant versions. Winchell (daughter of the late ventriloquist Paul Winchell, who was also the voice of Tigger for Disney for many years) has a radio show in Los Angeles and has put together a very funny Web site complete with the best collection of odd aural pleasures I’ve found online: corporate training tapes, celebrities like Leonard Nimoy and Farrah Fawcett singing (they really shouldn’t), Dolly Parton singing “Stairway to Heaven,” Abba song covers in Hindi, Johnny Cash singing “I Walk the Line” in German,  a whole section devoted to terrifying Christian recordings—you name it.

The original “Smells Like Teen Spirit” is a perfect blending of droning, captivating, chant-like repetition; buzzing power chords; barely understandable but still compelling lyrics and ragged-voiced angst. It encapsulates suffering, cynicism, dry humor and teen alienation. It felt fresh 15 years ago, and it still sounds fresh and raw today, despite being named the Most Played Video on MTV Europe in the 2000 Guinness Book of World Records. Even though it’s one second over five minutes long, it doesn’t feel drawn out; its pacing, its bridges, even its repetition make it somehow stronger rather than monotonous. The layering of instruments makes for a great, pulsing wash of sound, but within the layers are subtleties, long-held and echoing guitar notes, a threatening bass line, and Cobain’s growling voice matching the bending notes and jagged timbre of the instruments around him, so his voice becomes an instrument to match them. The melding of his own voice and the growling guitar when he says “Yay!” is spookily satisfying, and gave me the same little shiver after the hundredth listen that it gave me the first time.

While the music on Nirvana’s second album, “Nevermind,” from which “Smells Like Teen Spirit” comes, is classified as grunge, it’s really just a polished, pure and more accessible form of punk, slowed down enough to be grabbed and ridden on, but it channels the anarchic spirit of British punks like the Sex Pistols, whose seminal album “Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols” probably inspired Cobain to name the Nirvana album “Nevermind” in their honor. (Some say it’s also a tribute to the Replacements song “Nevermind.”) Unlike American punk bands like the wonderful Ramones, whose screamingly fast-paced songs about sniffing glue and teenage lobotomy patients, punk rockers and beating on brats with baseball bats were essentially all in good, mindless fun, the Sex Pistols really were about anarchy, giving the finger to the establishment, protesting the moral bankruptcy of middle- and upper-class British twits, the monarchy and the conservative political leaders of the 1970s and 1980s. They were the real deal, and Cobain admired that twisted, angry, anarchic vibe.

That punk vibe was bent, reformed and polished into some of Nirvana’s best work, and their songs were musically inventive and attractively melodic enough to grab people who would never give straight punk a second thought while being honest enough to appeal to pure punks as well. “Smells Like Teen Spirit” was essentially a crossover hit, and its success rather embarrassed Cobain, since it made him and Nirvana superstars beyond imagining and, it seems, beyond Cobain’s ability to handle the attention, the adulation, and being co-opted by the mainstream until he became a media darling largely against his will. His drug problems and ultimate suicide of course only fueled his legend and turned him into a mythic figure of alienated youth and artistic purity tarnished by too much interaction with the filthy mainstream, the same mainstream which his widow Courtney Love alternately woos and trashes.

So where does the title come from? Kurt Cobain dated Tobi Vail of the group Bikini Kill, she used Teen Spirit, a deodorant marketed to teen girls. Bikini Kill member Kathleen Hanna painted “Kurt Smells Like Teen Spirit” on his wall to imply that he was marked with his girlfriend’s scent, but Cobain didn’t realize the reference and thought he was being complimented on his spirit of youthful rebellion. Again, how ironic: his anti-mainstream screed also served as inadvertent advertising for a Colgate-Palmolive product aimed at the teen masses.

[Revised from an article originally published in Laura Grey’s Little Hopping Bird blog.]

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