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

10 September 2021, 13:20 | Updated: 10 September 2021, 14:34

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

Kurt Cobain's lyrics to the classic 1991 tune were inspired by two women that he knew. But what does the song mean and why did it become so big?

Smells Like Teen Spirit is THE Nirvana song. It’s the ultimate grunge anthem, the filler of a million indie club dancefloors.

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

The song became the calling card for Generation X - a nihilistic, revolutionary call-to-arms that was… nothing of the sort. Cobain later said that the lyric was “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” was actually a deodorant aimed at girls and was launched in the US in 1991 by the Mennen Company. Here’s an early ad for the deodorant that claimed: “The harder you play, the harder it works.”

How did this innocent cosmetic become attached to the song that a computer claimed was the “Most Iconic Song Of All Time”?

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

Hanna went on: “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.

“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 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 Hanna’s band Bikini Kill) used 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

Kurt 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 “cliched” and that 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.

But Kurt would grow weary of the formula. Speaking to Fricke just three months before his death, Cobain 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’.”