In this week’s NME (dated 8th Feb), the magazine released their list of the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time. At the top was Nirvana’s revered 1991 single Smells Like Teen Spirit. Of course, as is preconditioned with lists of this type, the titleholder of the Greatest Song honour has been and will continue to be up for debate. I’m sure plenty of people don’t even agree that Smells Like Teen Spirit is Nirvana’s best song. Though, it has become the band’s definitive single, defining a generation along with it. Al Horner writes;
‘‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ defined a generation and made an icon out of one Seattle slacker, Kurt Cobain… Its release in September 1991 sparked a cultural revolution. After all the ugly optimism of Ronald Reagan’s 1980s America and its “greed is good” mantra.’ (NME 8/2/14)
For me, though, Smells Like Teen Spirit and it’s respective album – the much revered Nevermind – provide a very different listening experience. Having grown up post-Generation X, my peers and I had no direct relation to Reagan’s America (or the general state of apathy that supposedly defined the generation’s youth), while also having the unique experience of observing Cobain’s inescapable cult of personality after his death. So, why, more than two decades later, are we still pining over a record that was the soundtrack to the lives of another generation?
For a start, Nevermind opened the mainstream doors for alternative rock in the US, while influencing many modern UK bands like Biffy Clyro and the Arctic Monkeys. The album’s influence has never really gone away, and it’s time-tested effects, in my opinion, are due to the well crafted songwriting skills and musicianship of both Cobain and his band. Without losing the aggressive attitude of the album’s predecessor, Bleach, Nevermind is a well-rounded collection of powerful pop songs. All kicked off with the song that inspired this article and many more, Smells Like Teen Spirit.
The track begins with the raw, four chord riff that we all know too well, but it really kicks in as Dave Grohl’s explosive drum fill opens up the floor to a mosh inducing rock-out. Then, we get our first swift change in dynamics as the verse begins about 25 seconds into the song. This technique is oft credited to the band’s Pixies influences but this transition is so smooth, the band seeming so comfortable switching from heavy, in-your-face riffage to the mellow verse section that one could believe the auteurship to be solely Nirvana’s . Krist Novoselic’s bass, here, is vital in keeping the steady pace of the introduction. While he follows the same pattern as the opening guitar part, he adds a tranquil mood to the verse by keeping his playing simple and relaxed. This is, of course, only a precursor to the bridge which begins to build anticipation for the chorus and a return to that unforgettable guitar riff.
Throughout the verse, Cobain’s haunting vocals are at the forefront, starting with the melancholic lyric ‘load up on guns and bring your friends/it’s fun to lose and to pretend.’ His guitar playing is very minimal as he repeats only two notes throughout the verse and bridge, first letting them ring out softly before picking them out on each beat – just as the ‘hello, hello, hello, how low,’ refrain lets us know we are heading somewhere more exciting.
And with a drum roll, we are back to the intro riff. This time the sound has even more of an impact as Cobain shouts over the top ‘with the lights out, it’s less dangerous/ here we are now, entertain us.’ This addition gives a fresh new punch to the song which, no doubt, adds to it’s long-lasting appeal. And, as the chorus crashes to a halt, we are immediately swerved into the melodic second verse. And repeat.
Next time round, though, the third verse section is delayed for an easily memorable guitar solo that mimics the verse’s vocal melody. It is unforgiving, in-your-face and drenched in chorus. The solo very much sums up the heart of the song for me, as it slices casually through the 40 or so seconds it commands, without trying too hard to make it’s point. To me, it is a very satisfying listen as it comes to an end, with it’s echoes drifting into the anticipation of the song’s final attack.
Afterwards, we are brought through the familiar verse once more, with some eerie feedback hanging around in the background. Cobain’s vocal melody dances along nonchalantly as he sings ‘I found it hard, it’s hard to find/ oh well, whatever, never mind,’ before heading towards the song’s bridge and closing chorus. Cobain’s repeated screams over the riff linger until his voice dies out, as the accompanying instruments make their emphatic cutoff at about 4:47.
And then there’s the rest of the album.
I hope this article makes my point by showing that, while Nirvana’s surge in popularity during the early 90’s is often lauded as the beginning (or end) of a generation, and Cobain’s public persona as a tragic hero is glorified by most media outlets, it is simply the music of Nirvana that makes such an impact (for me at least.) The ability to pack so much punch within the boundaries of the mainstream pop charts, perhaps by outreaching them, supersedes Cobain’s position as a cultural icon and asserts him as one of popular music’s great songwriters.