Why Kurt Cobain Hated Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit”

Kurt Cobain‘s intention with “Smells Like Teen Spirit” was to write a massive pop hit while ripping off a band he admired. “I was trying to write the ultimate pop song,” Cobain told David Fricke in 1994 of Nirvana’s 1991 hit. Cobain wrote the song with Krist Novoselic and Dave Grohl, while the band was still convening in Tacoma, Washington practicing, writing, and waiting to get signed to DGC Records.

“I was basically trying to rip off the Pixies,” added Cobain. “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.”

Cobain’s admiration for the Pixies was profound. He even named the Pixies’ 1988 debut Surfer Rosa his second favorite album, after Iggy and the Stooges’ Raw Power. While “Smells Like Teen Spirit” captured a Pixie-ish ebb and flow, Cobain’s former objective of creating the “ultimate pop song” was infinitely accomplished when the song reached No. 6 on the Billboard Hot 100, along with hitting No. 1 internationally and topping the Alternative Airplay chart.

Released on Nirvana‘s second album Nevermind in 1991, “Smells Like Teen Spirit” did more than catapult Nirvana into the mainstream. As simple as it may have been, it transcended however music was supposed to sound. It arrived at the right time and space—and spoke to a disenchanted youth. It transfigured the ’90s music scene—perhaps one of the last, greatest scenes—and it changed everything.

“Teen Spirit” was such a clichéd riff,” said Cobain. “It was so close to a Boston riff or ‘Louie, Louie’ [The Kingsmen’s 1963 hit]. 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.”

The line Here we are now, entertain us was pulled from something Cobain would say to break the ice at a party. “A lot of times, when you’re standing around with people in a room, it’s really boring and uncomfortable,” shared Cobain. “So it was ‘Well, here we are, entertain us. You invited us here.’”

Despite its success “Smells Like Teen Spirit” ultimately became a song Cobain detested. After its explosion, Cobain would often refuse to play “Smells Like Teen Spirit” live or intentionally butcher it on stage. “Once it got into the mainstream, it was over,” said Cobain. “I’m just tired of being embarrassed by it. I’m beyond that.”

He added, “Everyone has focused on that song so much. The reason it gets a big reaction is people have seen it on MTV a million times. It’s been pounded into their brains. But I think there are so many other songs that I’ve written that are as good, if not better than that song, like ‘Drain You.’ That’s definitely as good as ‘Teen Spirit.’ I love the lyrics, and I never get tired of playing it. Maybe if it was as big as ‘Teen Spirit,’ I wouldn’t like it as much.”

Regardless of Cobain’s feelings for “Smells Like Teen Spirit” later on, there was a time after its release when the band’s “grunge anthem” created something special in the air, which he called a “summer of love.”

“Actually, we did have our own thing for a while,” said Cobain. “For a few years in Seattle, it was the summer of love, and it was so great, to be able to just jump out on top of the crowd with my guitar and be held up and pushed to the back of the room, and then brought back with no harm done to me. It was a celebration of something that no one could put their finger on.”

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