How a deodorant made Nirvana's Smells Like Teen Spirit the biggest song of the 90s

10 September 2023, 13:00

Kurt Cobain recording with Nirvana in November 1991
Kurt Cobain recording with Nirvana in November 1991. Picture: Michel Linssen/Redferns/Getty Images
Radio X

By Radio X

Kurt Cobain's lyrics to the classic 1991 song were inspired by two women and fellow musicians, but what does the song actually mean and why did it become so big?

Smells Like Teen Spirit is THE Nirvana song. It’s the ultimate grunge anthem and the filler of a million indie club dancefloor, but what is it actually about?

Released as a single on 10 September 1991, the track was the trailer for the band's seminal Nevermind album, released later that month. Smells Like Teen Spirit became a huge anthem and propelled the up and coming Seattle trio into the stratosphere.

Nirvana - Smells Like Teen Spirit (Official Music Video)


The song became the calling card for Generation X - a nihilistic, revolutionary call-to-arms that was… actually... nothing of the sort. Cobain later said the lyrics were “making fun at the thought of having a revolution” and by and large the words mean very little.

“The entire song is made up of contradictory ideas,” said Kurt - for example the chorus is full of nice words that rhymed: “A mulatto, an albino, a mosquito, my libido.”

Even the line “Here we are now, entertain us” was a catchphrase of Kurt’s - he recalled: "That came from something I used to say every time I used to walk into a party to break the ice.”

But what about the title? Was “teen spirit” about the youthful grunge generation, or was it something completely different?

Teen Spirit Pit Stick (90's)

“Teen Spirit” was actually a deodorant aimed at girls, which was launched in the US in 1991 by the Mennen Company. Above is an early ad for the deodorant that claimed: “The harder you play, the harder it works.”

So how did this innocuous '90s antiperspirant become attached to the song that went on to become one of the most iconic rock anthems of all time?

1992 Teen Spirit deodorant commercial

Kathleen Hanna was the lead singer of feminist punk band Bikini Kill from Washington State and was a close friend of Kurt Cobain. She recalled that one day in the early 90s, she and Kurt were pranking a “fake abortion clinic” by spray-painting slogans on the walls such as "GOD IS GAY,” which Cobain apparently wrote in arge letters.

This activity coincided with a day’s worth of drinking, which didn’t end well for Hanna. She told the story at a live show for Our Hit Parade in 2010: “We got a little more drunk and apparently I insulted just about everybody in my entire town, I threw up on someone’s legs… It was one of those nights that later on, whenever anybody mentioned it, you don’t wanna think about it."

OUR HIT PARADE - Kathleen Hanna - Smells Like Teen Spirit - Rebel Girl - 12-15-2010

“I ended up at Kurt’s apartment and I smashed up a bunch of shit. I took out a Sharpie marker and I wrote a bunch of shit all over his bedroom wall," she went on.

“Then I passed out with the marker in my hand. I woke up and I had one of those hangovers where you think that if you walked in the next room, there could be a dead body in there."

Singer Kathleen Hanna of the punk group Bikini Kill onstage in 1993
Singer Kathleen Hanna of the punk group Bikini Kill onstage in 1993. Picture: Lindsay Brice/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

“So I wasn’t that happy when six months later, Kurt called me up and said ‘Hey, do you remember that night? There was this thing that you wrote on my wall and it was actually kind of cool. I want to use it as a lyric in one of my songs’.

“I was like, as long as I can get out of this conversation, I’m totally cool. You can use whatever you want. I was like, How the fuck can he use ‘Kurt smells like teen spirit’ as a lyric?”

Kurt’s then-girlfriend Tobi Vail (who played drums in Bikini Kill) wore Teen Spirit and this piece of drunken graffiti sparked off the musician’s imagination as he worked on new songs for the band. Cobain had no idea that it was a deodorant.

Tobi Vail of Bikini Kill performs onstage at O2 Academy Brixton on June 10, 2019
Tobi Vail of Bikini Kill performs onstage at O2 Academy Brixton on June 10, 2019. Picture: Ollie Millington/Redferns/Getty Images

The Nirvana frontman rocker told Rolling Stone’s David Fricke in 1994: “I was trying to write the ultimate pop song. I was basically trying to rip off the Pixies. I have to admit it. When I heard the Pixies for the first time, I connected with that band so heavily I should have been in that band — or at least in a Pixies cover band. We used their sense of dynamics, being soft and quiet and then loud and hard.”

Kurt Cobain of Nirvana
Kurt Cobain of Nirvana. Picture: Kevin Mazur/WireImage/Getty Images

Cobain freely admitted that he thought the opening riff to Smells Like Teen Spirit was “clichéd” and Krist Novoselic and Dave Grohl weren’t keen: “It was so close to a Boston riff or ‘Louie, Louie’. When I came up with the guitar part, Krist looked at me and said, ‘That is so ridiculous’. I made the band play it for an hour and a half.”

Smells Like Teen Spirit took the Pixies’ “loud-quiet-loud” blueprint that was heard on songs like Tame and made it into a million seller.

Pixies - Tame (live upgrade)

But Kurt would grow weary of the formula. Speaking to Fricke just three months before his death, he complained: “It is a dynamic style. But I’m only using two of the dynamics. There are a lot more I could be using. Krist, Dave and I have been working on this formula — this thing of going from quiet to loud — for so long that it’s literally becoming boring for us.

“It’s like ‘OK, I have this riff. I’ll play it quiet, without a distortion box, while I’m singing the verse. And now let’s turn on the distortion box and hit the drums harder’.”

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