This is the 35th post in a weekly, yearlong series. Read about it here and see the list of previous songs here. A new post about a different song will be posted each Monday throughout 2016. You can listen to the songs in a Spotify playlist.
On a summer night in 1990, Kurt Cobain and Kathleen Hanna drunkenly vandalized a teen pregnancy center, spray painting “fake abortion clinic” and “God is king.” The two got more intoxicated as the night wore on, and ultimately ended up at Cobain’s apartment, where he passed out and she drew on his wall with markers.
About six months later, just a few weeks before Nirvana was about to begin recording its second album, Cobain bandmates played a guitar riff for bassist Krist Novoselic and drummer Dave Grohl. Novoselic hated it, so Cobain made them play it for an hour and a half. Novoselic decided to slow the tempo, and Grohl came in with a drumbeat. Cobain wrote a bunch of nonsensical lyrics and the band recorded a demo to send to producer Butch Vig, who later helped them re-record the track for the album.
For the song’s title, Cobain revisited his drunken night with Hanna months earlier. He thought that one the notes she scrawled on his wall – “Kurt smells like Teen Spirit” – was revolutionary and fit well with the youthful energy of the song. It wasn’t until later that he learned that the Teen Spirit that Hanna had meant was a deodorant worn by Cobain’s then-girlfriend.
But it didn’t matter, because as a symbol of youth angst – “teen spirit,” if you will – the song resonated, more than the band ever anticipated. Charting in more than a dozen countries, “Smells Like Teen Spirit” peaked at Number 6 on the Billboard Hot 100.
It became Nirvana’s signature song, much to the surprise – and dismay – of the band. That’s not to say the band had had no aspirations for the song. In an interview with Rolling Stone, Cobain said,
“I was trying to write the ultimate pop song. I was basically trying to rip off the Pixies. I have to admit it. When I heard the Pixies for the first time, I connected with that band so heavily that I should have been in that band—or at least a Pixies cover band. We used their sense of dynamics, being soft and quiet and then loud and hard.”
That dynamic gave the song some edge, but it made it hard to hear some of the lyrics. That Cobain alternated between mumbling and screamed didn’t help either. Which, ultimately didn’t matter. As Terry at Upvenue wrote, each interview Cobain gave indicated that the lyrics didn’t have any deep meaning, because at its heart, “‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ is a song about teenage freedom and revolution and is as non-conforming as the lyrics themselves.”
I mumbled along to this song as a teenager, not really caring what words I was supposed to be mumbling. I’ve sometimes made up my own lyrics: “I’m a Cheeto! In a speedo! Han shot Greedo! Kiss me, Guido.” Those words didn’t detract from the spirit of the song at all.
That said, the lyrics are able to mean something in the hands of certain singers. What stands out about many of the cover songs — besides being able to clearly hear the lyrics for the first time — is how some of the artists could turn nonsensical strings of lyrics into something meaningful, and even poignant.
One such cover is the acoustic piano version Tori Amos included on her 1992 EP “Crucify.” It stripped the drums and guitar and snarl and noise such that all that was left was tender vulnerability. Cobain seemed to like the cover, though he called it “a great breakfast cereal version.”
That same year, Weird Al Yankovic released a parody called “Smells Like Nirvana.” Instead of singing about food — which Cobain assumed he would do — Yankovic deftly milked the original song’s lack of intelligibility:
Now I’m mumblin’ and I’m screamin’
And I don’t know what I’m singin’
Crank the volume, ears are bleedin’
I still don’t know what I’m singin’
We’re so loud and incoherent
Boy, this oughta bug your parents
As a 10-year-old, I probably didn’t find this nearly as funny as I do now that I’m 35.
Queercore punk band Pansy Division recorded its own parody, called “Smells Like Queer Spirit.” Because my mother might be reading this — Hi, Mom! — I will not share any of the lyrics, other than “Play Fugazi, play Repeater/River Phoenix wearing speedos.” (Note to Mom: Fugazi is a band John and Brian used to listen to, and River Phoenix was an actor.)
The modern abundance of a capella groups – or glut, if we are honest – means we can hear a vocals-only version of any track we can imagine. Just think of any recent Hot 100 track and there’s probably at least one college glee club that’s recorded a version of it. But British a capella act The Flying Pickets predated all that. Its 1994 rendition of “Smells Like Spirit” managed to be enjoyable without being (overly) cheesy. Perhaps “feel-good” is an inappropriate word to use when discussing any Nirvana songs, but this version comes close. It’s hard to be angsty when you hear the song’s iconic riff sung as, “Ding dingit, g’day, g’day!”
The Flying Pickets was not the only group to record an a capella version in 1994. The Benzedrine Monks of Santo Domonica was a side project of comedy group Big Daddy, spoofing the then-popular Gregorian chants popularized by the Benedictine Monks of Santo Domingo. Of these two a capella versions (which both sound rather similar), The Flying Pickets’ version holds up a millimeter better if for no other reason than it doesn’t depend on a dated reference to a once-popular Gregorian chanting group.
That same year, English electronic artist Abigail released a Hi-NRG version. As borderline silly as an a capella “Smells Like Teen Spirit” might have seemed, a danceable version of the song seems downright goofy. It succeeds in recasting the song, alright, but in a way that sacrifices the original spirit.
Another electronic version came about four years after Abigail’s, but this version, by Nonex, succeeded for all the reasons that Abigail’s failed. Where Abigail’s version felt too buoyant and happy, Nonex’s trip-hop version had a bit of darkness to it while not going as fully melancholy as Amos’ version. It was the Goldilocks in that it hit just the right tone.
Performing on Moogs and other analog synthesizers, electronica duo The Moog Cookbook recorded trippy, spaced-out version of the song for its self-titled debut album. The arrangement was the same as the original, except played on a Moog, giving it a warbled, psychedelic sound.
One of the weirder covers of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” came from The Melvins and Leif Garrett. That The Melvins would cover the song shouldn’t be a surprise, as the band has often been mentioned as a favorite of Cobain’s. But that the band would team with former teen heartthrob Leif Garrett seems like a little less obvious of a choice, but then again, we’ve reviewed less likely covers. The backing track sounded so similar to the original that it sounded like Garrett was just doing karaoke. Very weird karaoke.
For the 2000 compilation “Smells Like Bleach: A Punk Tribute to Nirvana,” punk band Blanks 77 contributed a fast, guitar-laden, attitude-heavy version in which the vocals were barely audible (and even less intelligible). Of course, as we’ve established, “Smells Like Teen Spirit” is a song that’s more about the spirit than the lyrics, and this messy version nailed it pretty well.
Singer Beki Bondage, best known as the frontwoman of the punk band Vice Squad, covered “Smells Like Teen Spirit” for the 2000 release, “Cold Turkey.” Like The Melvins’ version, it featured a backing track that was (too) faithful to the original. It was her vocals – a snarl that was equal parts Joan Jett and Courtney Love – that gave the cover some character.
Australian radio comedian Andrew Denton often challenged his musical guests to perform songs which didn’t necessarily match the style for which they were known. Some of these performances were released on a series of CDs. The second volume of “Andrew Denton’s Musical Challenge” featured Willie Nelson performing a short version of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” as a haunting acoustic ballad.
Paul Anka released a swing version in 2005. On the surface, the premise is amusing enough: “A swing version? Of Nirvana? Wasn’t Anka in his 60s then?” But beyond the novelty of that premise, the cover holds up. Even though this is enjoyable because it’s a reworking of an ubiquitous song known worldwide, it would work even as a Paul Anka original. His voice was as crisp as ever, and the backing horns arrangement was so good, it could have worked as an instrumental track.
Patti Smith’s 2007 covers album “Twelve,” which contained her somber “Everybody Wants To Rule The World,” included a softer “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” She enunciated every word that Cobain had slurred, screamed, or mumbled, singing each phrase as if it had a deep, poetic meaning. And when sung by Smith, it’s hard not to think of these words as deeply moving. Smith added a whole new section of poetry not present in the original, because of course she did. It wouldn’t be a true Patti Smith cover if she didn’t add new characters and poetry.
It’s hard to hear Richard Cheese’s swing/lounge version of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” without at least tangentially thinking of Paul Anka’s, because Anka’s version cracked the joke first. Furthermore, Cheese’s whole comedy cover band act is tongue-in-cheek parody predicated on swing/lounge versions done in the style of crooners like Anka. But that said, Cheese’s version doesn’t feel like a worn also-ran to Anka’s, as Cheese played down the horns and played up the percussion.
Instrumental band Los Straitjackets’ “Smells Like Teen Spirit” showed the band’s garage band, surf rock, and rockabilly influences. It’s easy to imagine this version played at the bar in “Pee-wee’s Big Adventure” where Pee-wee dances to “Tequila” for all those bikers.
It seemed fitting that the 2011 compilation “SPIN Presents Newermind: A Tribute Album” would feature The Meat Puppets performing “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” After all, that band’s Cris Kirkwood and Curt Kirkwood appeared on Nirvana’s “MTV Unplugged In New York” while The Meat Puppets and Nirvana toured together. But those layers of connections that make it fitting also make it uncomfortable, because it feels like we are eavesdropping on a personal tribute which we have no right to hear. But this scaled-back version is beautiful, perhaps because we know it is a more personal tribute than most versions that appear on Nirvana compilations.
In the 2011 movie, “The Muppets,” a barbershop quartet comprising Beaker, Link Hogthrob, Rowlf the Dog, and Sam Eagle performed a slightly modified version (read: a little more lyrically family-friendly). The four sang the song while tending to a tied-up Jack Black, who lamented that they were ruining the song.
A more extended version of the song, sans Black’s musings, appeared on the film’s soundtrack.
The Robert Glasper Experiment’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” from 2012’s “Black Radio” is a rewarding but slow burn demonstrating the talents of jazz pianist Glasper and his collaborators. Spanning more than seven minutes, the track draws you in with its fusion of neo-soul, jazz, funk, and hip-hop. And yet once it draws you in, the cold, autotuned vocals keep you at a certain distance. In that sense, it mimics the feeling of Cobain’s original.
Noise rock band Young Widows has appeared on three Nirvana compilations in the last three years. The band’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” released on 2015’s “Whatever Nevermind,” sounded like it was recorded in a garage while the lead singer sang into a bucket. And it fit perfectly with the arrangement the band gave the song. Only the lyrics bore any resemblance to the Nirvana version. It was a noteworthy reinterpretation that managed to draw something new out of the song. That’s no small feat, considering the source material is one of the most ubiquitous songs of the last quarter century.
American indie band Freedom Fry released a half French, half English cover of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” in early 2016. Marie Seyrat sang so beautifully that it didn’t matter that I couldn’t understand what she was saying. If you click on the link, I promise that her change of phrasing — “Here we are now, now, n-now, entertain us” — will be stuck in your head all day. Trust me.
All these years later, the definitive cover is still probably Tori Amos’ version. It was a beautiful version, but part of what makes it hard to listen to is that evokes way more pathos than the original “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” Amos’ voice conveys such a sensitivity that it’s no longer the song named after deodorant that had a silly video in a high school gym. She stripped that away, leaving the song as naked and exposed as Cobain must have felt. It’s beautiful, but depressingly unlistenable.
But it’s not even the most heartbreaking rendition. Not by a long shot.
That distinction goes to Kathleen Hanna herself. In a performance onstage in 2010, she explained the story of the 1990 night that ultimately inspired the title of “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” In between spoken parts, she broke into song, only to go back into telling her story. It felt incredibly intimate, given that she got to know a version of Cobain that the world sadly never got to appreciate until it was too late.
It seems weird that this song should inspire such emotion in me. After all, it was a collection of nonsense lyrics and named after a deodorant. But in hindsight, it seems hard to not view Nirvana’s music through the lens of Cobain’s death and the depression leading up to it. “Smells Like Teen Spirit” was the one song that felt the least touched by that, in part because of its silliness. But watching Hanna punctured my ability to separate the song from Cobain’s death. When she belts off the chorus and stares off blankly, it’s hard not to imagine what’s running through her head. It puts a lump in my throat watching it.