August 16, 2021

Kurt Cobain was dissatisfied, dissatisfaction being his default state. It was 17 August 1991 and Nirvana were in a studio in Van Nuys, Los Angeles, shooting the video for their new single “Smells Like Teen Spirit”. The singer’s notion of a high-school pep rally exploding into arson and anarchy was not going to plan. He thought the gymnasium set was too clean, the cheerleaders too buff and glossy, and the director too uptight. He was only happy at the end of the day when the hot, hungry extras — recruited at a Nirvana show two days earlier — were allowed to run wild and wreck the set. His own performance was fuelled by Jim Beam and irritation.

Oh well, whatever, never mind. The video did the job. Nirvana’s record label DGC chose “Smells Like Teen Spirit” as an introduction to their Nevermind album, believing that the more straightforwardly catchy “Lithium” and “In Bloom” had bigger hit potential, but they miscalculated. When the band were on tour that autumn, they would return to their hotel rooms after a show, turn on MTV and invariably find their own faces staring back at them. Radio stations that deemed it too harsh for daytime airplay were bombarded by requests and ended up rotating it so heavily that it was six months before DGC could release a follow-up single. Nirvana’s talking-point performances on Top of the Pops (passive-aggressive) and The Word (aggressive-aggressive) helped make the song a UK sensation, too.

For all Nevermind’s front-to-back brilliance, it wouldn’t have been a multi-platinum, industry-changing phenomenon if not for that one song. Soon, it was being covered by Tori Amos, parodied by Weird Al Yankovic and sampled by rappers and dance producers. Cobain said two years later that “it’s almost an embarrassment to play it… Everyone has focussed on that song so much.”

Smart observers intuited that “Smells Like Teen Spirit” was more than just a popular song. Robert Hilburn in the Los Angeles Times called Nevermind “the awakening voice of a new generation”. Cobain himself suggest in the album’s press release: “Maybe what we need is a new generation gap.” Douglas Coupland’s novel Generation X preceded Nevermind by six months but the most popular term at the time was “baby busters”: bust follows boom. A year later, The Atlantic dedicated 11,000 words to selling the doomed concept of “Thirteeners,” i.e. the thirteenth generation of Americans since 1776. The writers dismissed this generation’s music as “a rock-and-roll endgame of harsh sounds, goin’-nowhere melodies, and clumsy poetry”.

Whatever they were called, “Smells Like Teen Spirit” spoke to them loud and clear, specifically the countercultural wing that could be seen in films like Slacker and Singles. “These three individuals represent their generation,” said Jonathan Poneman from Nirvana’s first label Sub Pop. “This band not only delivers the goods, they manage to capture the time.” In the video’s surly, murky rebuke to the mega-budget gloss of early 90s MTV, the fans aren’t just an audience; they’re a tribe. Dressed much the same as the three performers, they eliminate the gap, physically and metaphorically, with the climactic stage invasion. Kim Thayil of Nirvana’s Seattle contemporaries Soundgarden identified the video’s implicit message: “There you guys are, here we are, and we’re you.”

But what was the song actually saying to them? Cobain liked explaining his lyrics even less than he enjoyed writing them. He would scrawl multiple drafts in notebooks and piece them together at the last minute. “A lot of the time I write a song and when someone asks me about it I’ll make up an explanation on the spot because… I have no idea what I’m talking about half the time,” he told the NME. In the case of “Smells Like Teen Spirit”, only a few lines of chorus from the demo and live debut in April 1991 remained in the studio version a few weeks later.

Another abandoned line never made it out of his notebook: “Who will be the king and queen of the outcast teens?” Cobain might have been thinking of himself and his girlfriend between May and November 1990. Tobi Vail was a fiercely bright 21-year-old whose feminist zines and band, Bikini Kill, were at the helm of the Riot Grrrl movement. She’s most likely the woman who’s “over-bored and self-assured” in Teen Spirit’s first verse. They both lived in Olympia, Washington, a college town which epitomised the first wave of political correctness, for good and ill.

Later, Cobain’s wife Courtney Love railed against its groupthink in Hole’s song Olympia: “We look the same, we talk the same, we even fuck the same.” One night, Cobain, Vail and her future Bikini Kill bandmate Kathleen Hanna got drunk and defaced an anti-abortion centre. When they got home, Hanna wrote on the wall: “KURT SMELLS LIKE TEEN SPIRIT.” Not realising that it was a teasing joke (Teen Spirit was Vail’s favourite deodorant brand), Cobain asked Hanna if he could use it in a song.

Cobain said of the song that he was “disgusted” by his generation, and himself, “for being spineless and not always standing up against racism, sexism and all those other isms the counterculture has been whining about for years.” Vail made a feminist out of Cobain but he couldn’t sign up to all of the Olympia orthodoxies, especially the proscription against major labels. In one interview in October 1991, he made “Smells Like Teen Spirit” sound like a blunt rallying cry: “The generation’s apathy is getting out of hand. I’m pleading to the kids, Wake up!” But in another, he claimed he was “also making fun of being anally politically correct.”

The lyric itself is too cryptic to confirm or deny either meaning. It’s unclear who is singing, who he’s addressing and how sincere he is. And there’s no call to arms equivalent to the one on Nevermind’s “Territorial Pissings”: “Gotta find a way, a better way!” But it’s the tortured ambivalence that makes it so dynamic. In the final 90 seconds, Cobain goes from a passive demotic shrug (I guess, oh well, whatever) to a vomiting howl (“A denial!”). The singer re-edited the video himself to make it end on a shot of his screaming face. The song ricochets between resignation and rebellion, pride and self-loathing, conviction and doubt. “Every other line is either a disclaimer or a contradiction,” Cobain told Siren magazine.

“That ambiguity or confusion, that’s the whole thing,” producer Butch Vig told Rolling Stone. “What the kids are attracted to in the music is that he’s not necessarily a spokesman for a generation… he doesn’t necessarily know what he wants but he’s pissed… I don’t know exactly what ‘Teen Spirit’ means, but you know it means something and it’s intense as hell.”

Who were the people who saw themselves in that song and video? At the time, Cobain’s generation numbered 88.5 million Americans. When Time profiled that cohort in July 1990, the magazine didn’t even have a name for it but the characteristics were already established. Scarred by divorce, haunted by AIDS and lack of opportunities, alienated by leaders and movements, and burdened by a knapsack of seemingly insoluble inherited problems, they were cynical, disaffected, unfocussed and agonisingly self-aware. Time’s poll found that 53% were anxious about the future. “I envision ourselves as a lurking generation, waiting in the shadows, quietly figuring out our plan,” said one 19-year-old interviewee. “Maybe that’s why nobody notices us.”

Generational stereotypes and the people who promote them should be taken with a pinch of salt — not everybody born between 1965 and 1980 was working a McJob and listening to grunge — but you can see why “Smells Like Teen Spirit” struck a chord. Other Gen X anthems like Radiohead’s “Creep” (“I’m a creep, I’m a weirdo”) and Beck’s “Loser” (“I’m a loser baby, so why don’t you kill me?”) tipped the balance towards self-disgust, while Rage Against the Machine’s “Killing in the Name” (“Fuck you, I won’t do what you tell me”) had the angry energy but not the self-doubt. Only Nirvana had the whole messy package.

A song that hits one generation’s bullseye does not necessarily live to delight another. “Smells Like Teen Spirit”, however, has long been one of the most streamed songs of the 1990s, passing the one-billion mark on YouTube in 2019 and Spotify this summer. A dramatic orchestral cover version by Malia J opens the new Marvel movie Black Widow. There are visceral reasons for the song’s longevity — the riff, the beat, the voice — but clearly the message, such as it is, is not padlocked to a single era.

So what makes a song a generational anthem? There is no clear definition but it must involve some combination of enormous popularity and a sense that the singer is speaking for their audience and peers, not just themselves. They tend to emerge when the oldest members of the cohort are in their teens or twenties. Broadly speaking, there are two modes. One is defiantly empowering, like the Who’s “My Generation” (1965), Aretha Franklin’s “Respect” (1967), the New Radicals’” You Get What You Give” (1998) or Kendrick Lamar’s “Alright” (2015). Problems are identified alongside the promise that they can be overcome with communal self-belief.

The other mode is acutely ambiguous, even when the power of the music occludes that ambiguity. Pulp’s “Common People” (1995), MGMT’s “Time to Pretend” (2007) and Lorde’s “Royals” (2013) are about restricted options and conflicting desires. Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind” (1963), Buffalo Springfield’s “For What It’s Worth” (1966), Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On” (1971) and the 1975’s “Love It If We Made It” (2018) pose questions without answers.

The continuity is striking. From boomers to Generation Z, there is always a sense, as in “Smells Like Teen Spirit”, that the generation knows it has been dealt a bad hand but doesn’t yet know how to play it. In this year’s “Brutal”, Olivia Rodrigo, the teenage pop star du jour, snaps: “And I’m so sick of 17 / Where’s my fucking teenage dream? / If someone tells me one more time / ‘Enjoy your youth,’ I’m gonna cry.” Here we are now, entertain us.

Generational discourse is driven by caricatures of difference — Gen X don’t care, millennials care too much, boomers used to care but got rich and smug, and so on — but these songs suggest that the mentality of youth is rather more consistent. The keen awareness of inherited problems yet no confidence in finding solutions. The contradictory impulses. The pinballing between anger and ennui. The anxiety and confusion of trying to establish an identity. Something must be done with this rotten, disappointing world but what? In 1991, “Smells Like Teen Spirit” made those feelings synonymous with Generation X. Thirty years later, it is clear that they are evergreen.