Nirvana – Smells Like Teen Spirit (Lyrics Review and Meaning)
Attempting to write the “ultimate pop song” as Kurt Cobain himself says, music such as “Smells Like Teen Spirit” are born into this world, never to fade away. Considered as one of the greatest hits of all time, “Smells Like Teen Spirit” was the crown gem of Nirvana’s second album ‘Nevermind’ released in 1991. After 25 years of existence the popularity of this song has barely gone down.
Watch the music video for “Smells Like Teen Spirit”
Kurt Cobain committed suicide in 1994 and Nirvana broke apart. A great vocalist was lost to the world due to drugs. RIP Kurt Cobain!
“Smells Like Teen Spirit” Lyrics Review and Song Meaning
The single starts off with a guitar piece joined by drums (by Dave Grohl) and escalates into a full blown alternative rock music piece.
The first thing to keep in mind when getting into “Smells Like Teen Spirit” is that, the song was truly devoted to teen spirit. As Kurt Cobain himself has said, he was just trying to compose the ultimate pop song and try to beat Pixies along the way. Hell of a goal and hell of an accomplishment. But later into the song you will realize, the ultimate pop song was just the tip of the ice berg.
Load up on guns
Bring your friends
It’s fun to lose and to pretend
The beginning lines of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” calls for a rising by the lyricist. Bring your friends too, to make this movement more powerful. The third line says how distant the misogynist community is from the real world. It’s fun to be in a world of our own secluded from the real life. These lines may have come from the depths of Kurt Cobain’s conscious considering how his life began to fall apart soon after Nirvana shot to popularity. The reference of guns makes an eerie touch to the whole theory.
She’s overboard, self assured
Oh no I know, a dirty word
Many of the critics claim that these lines from “Smells Like Teen Spirit” (and ‘Nevermind’ album for that matter) is based on the relationship Kurt Cobain had with Tobi Vail-another musician. Kurt Cobain was so madly in love with her and they couldn’t make it work. However, his relationship with Tobi Vail inspired the title of the song “Smells Like Teen Spirit”. This is how: “..a member of Vail’s other band Bikini Kill, Hanna spray-painted “Kurt Smells Like Teen Spirit” on Cobain’s apartment wall. Teen Spirit was the name of a deodorant Vail wore. Cobain, unaware of the deodorant’s existence, interpreted the slogan as having a revolutionary meaning, and it inspired the title of the song..”
The lyric lines above could refer to the relationship they had. Tobi Vail was often regarded as a strong, independent woman who believed it was sexist to play the typical girlfriend role. A dirty word, as a outcry or as something sensual? Let me know in the comments below.
Then we run into the pre-chorus of “Smells Like Teen Spirit”;
Hello, hello, hello, how low
Hello, hello, hello, how low
Hello, hello, hello, how low
Hello, hello, hello
As simple as these lyrics may appear, there is a far fetched meaning behind the lines. Kurt Cobain play with internal rhymes (rhymes within a sentence) to bring about a whole new aura to the song.
“Hello” is possibly the happiest, most welcoming, nurturing and friendly word there is. Kurt Cobain takes this to the extreme limit. Repeat ‘hello’ for several times and you will realize how hollow the word is. There is no meaning behind the word unless there is context. Three hellos followed by a ‘how low’ is the ultimate climax of these lyrics. It goes from 150% to 0% on the ‘friendly and comforting’ scale from the start to the end of these lines. Kurt Cobain does this deliberately to set the tone to the track-depression?
The chorus of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” unravels;
With the lights out, it’s less dangerous
Again, these lines can be interpreted in many ways. But in an overall sense, Kurt Cobain is trying to give us the idea that you should be afraid of what you can see as opposed to what you cannot see in the darkness. Because pure evil lurks in broad daylight and we often tend to ignore them because they might have friendlier shapes and faces.
With regards to Kurt Cobain’s famed life, these lines could mean that when you are in the spotlight of fame, everything gets targeted at you. Celebrities are lost of their freedom when they reach the stars. But when the lights go off, it’s a much more safer and a comforting world around you. These are the roots of his depression that later worsened to a suicidal level. In his suicide note Kurt says;
“I can’t stand the thought of Frances (his daughter) becoming the miserable, self-destructive, death rocker that I’ve become.”
Here we are now, entertain us
I feel stupid and contagious
These lines again express how sad Kurt was with his music career. Music to him felt like a command ‘entertain us!’ and it felt more of a job than something for enjoyment. Then he blends himself among the crowds by saying he feels stupid and contagious-that’s how Cobain has seen the society and we cannot think of a better way to explain the society.
Looking back at what the humans have accomplished in the last decade, we can decisively conclude that humans are the most stupid of all living creatures and the worst part is this stupidity is contagious-it’s like a disease spreading from mother to child to grandchild. The system molds the people the way it wants. You’re considered a rebel or an outcast if you stand against the tide.
Here we are now, entertain us
Kurt uses repetition to show how meaningless this famed life of him is. His screams ‘entertain us’ as if these words bother him the most.
A mulatto, an Albino
‘Mulatto’ is a person of mixed ancestry-as in a person with a white and black ancestry. They are often tanned or dark in complexion. The exact opposite (in terms of skin colour) would be an albino-a person Melanin deficiency. Kurt tries to say that there are a variety of people in the world and in historic times often left out by the ‘whites’, just as he feels with his life.
A mosquito, my libido, yeah
The use of the word ‘mosquito’ could be a nonsensical play on words to deliver the ideology behind the song-nonsensical-ness of life.
‘Libido’ is a person’s sex drive.
Verse 2 kicks in;
I’m worse at what I do best
And for this gift, I feel blessed
Kurt Cobain was an amazing vocalist and a guitarist. There’s a guitar solo about midway in “Smells Like Teen Spirit” to prove his guitar prowess, and the whole song to prove his vocal strength. But he says the more he gets better at what he does, the more he feels unaccomplished. He looks around him and finds better comparisons to what he does best. This is a state of low self esteem. Cobain says he is worse at what he does and he feels blessed for this ‘gift’. He uses irony to the extreme levels in these lyric lines. He is clearly depressed of the music business they are in.
Our little group has always been
And always will until the end
Cobain could be plainly referring to Nirvana when he says ‘our little group’, but there are deeper interpretations as him referring to musicians as their group. Nirvana was obviously a huge part of Kurt’s life and he wanted it till the end. On the other hand, musicians have been and will be there, creating magic out of words and changing the world one lyric at a time. Which interpretation to accept is up to you.
Pre-chorus and the chorus repeats and brings you to that famed guitar solo piece by Kurt Cobain. On that note, here are the guitar chords for “Smells Like Teen Spirit”.
Verse 3 of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” enters into play and it’s furthest from anything relating to a teen spirit.
And I forget just why I taste
Oh yeah, I guess it makes me smile
Kurt Cobain was a known drug addict. His depression with the music career may have pushed him towards drugs, but he was neck deep in drugs. These lines may be a clear representation of this.
Taking drugs was Cobain’s escape from reality. It’s amazing how “Smells Like Teen Spirit” transformed from ‘it’s fun to lose and pretend’ in the first verse to welcoming drugs in the third verse. He tastes drugs to forget what the reality is-the reality being the fame and fortune taking a toll on his life and his fear of his daughter following the same path as him.
It takes drugs powerful as heroine to make him smile. This is a very critical condition. And “Smells Like Teen Spirit” feels more like an outcry for help, which got lost in the creativity of the lyricism.
I found it hard, it was hard to find
Oh well, whatever, nevermind
These lines scream of Kurt’s miserable situation. He worked hard for what he has achieved-it was all he wanted. It had been a hard life for him. But when he rose to the top only he realized that life was empty up on cloud number nine. It was more difficult of a realization to him than the difficult path he had been following.
He wants to tell us all about it. But instead, he decides to keep it a secret saying ‘nevermind’. I think he believes that us, the stupid and contagious people, are too stupid and contagious to understand what he was trying to say. So he gave up. These lines itself may be a slap across our rosy cheeks. There’s this man-Kurt Cobain- performing his hit single “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and it’s filled with agony and depression and then there are millions of people singing along at the top of their lungs never listening to what the words said. Cobain may have foreseen this when he wrote these lyrics. Genius!
Pre-chorus and chorus of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” occur once more before the song comes to the ever so powerful outro. Kurt Cobain didn’t leave any part of the song untouched;
A denial, A denial, A denial, A denial, A denial
A denial, A denial, A denial, A denial
In a simpler sense, this is what’s wrong with the society back then and now. Everybody’s in denial of what’s really going on-the things that actually matter. There are so many broken things in society that the list would go on and on. But what do we do? We deny their existence-it’s a much easier way of addressing the problem. This repulses the singer. He saw these problems and he also saw that no one is batting an eye. So he said ‘nevermind’ and kept it all packed in him which in-time turned in to a suicide bomb. Come to think of it, we didn’t lose Kurt Cobain to drugs, we lost him thanks to us.
So comes an end to the lyrics breakdown of one of the greatest songs of all time. Rolling Stones magazine rated “Smells Like Teen Spirit” at 9 of Top 500 Songs of All Time. That’s huge.
That is my interpretation of the song, and there may be a hundred other ways you see these lyrics as. We would like to hear them and we would love to let you change our mind. So leave a comment below on your take on “Smells Like Teen Spirit” by Nirvana.
PS: I almost forgot the covers.
Here are some amazing covers of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” done throughout the ages by fans.
“Smells Like Teen Spirit” in death metal style…
“Smells Like Teen Spirit” acoustic cover…
An amazing drum cover to end it all…