Remembering Nirvana’s ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit,’ Anthem For A Generation That Didn’t Want One
PHOTO: Kurt Cobain in the studio with Nirvana in late 1991. CREDIT: Michel Linssen/Redferns/Getty Images
This story is part of American Anthem, a yearlong series on songs that rouse, unite, celebrate and call to action. Find more at NPR.org/Anthem.
BY JOEL ROSE
There’s a grainy video of the first time Nirvana played “Smells Like Teen Spirit” live, at a small club in Seattle in April 1991. Nirvana was largely unknown outside of punk and indie rock circles in the Pacific Northwest. The band hadn’t even recorded the song yet, which meant that nearly everybody in the room was hearing it for the very first time.
Still, the reaction was intense.
“They started playing the new song and people erupted,” says Jennie Boddy. She was a friend of the band and a publicist for Sub Pop Records, the indie label that put out Nirvana’s first record, Bleach. “We were being slimed on by shirtless guys, just moshing,” Boddy says. ‘My friend Susan started hyperventilating, she thought it was so good: ‘I cant, gasp, believe what they just played!’ It was just instantaneous; it was crazy.”
Within months, “Smells Like Teen Spirit” would make Nirvana famous around the world. The song forged an instant connection with Generation X — the generation sandwiched between baby boomers and millennials — which was deeply skeptical about the music and culture of its parents.