Origins Smells Like Teen Spirit
Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain said that “Smells Like Teen Spirit” was an attempt to write a song in the style of the Pixies, a band he greatly admired:
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.
Cobain came up with the song’s title when his friend Kathleen Hanna, at the time the lead singer of the riot grrrl band Bikini Kill, wrote “Kurt Smells Like Teen Spirit” on his wall. Hanna meant that Cobain smelled like the deodorant Teen Spirit, which his then-girlfriend Tobi Vail wore. Cobain said he was unaware of the deodorant until months after the single was released, and had interpreted it as a revolutionary slogan, as they had been discussing anarchism and punk rock.
“Smells Like Teen Spirit” was, along with “Come as You Are”, one of several songs written following Nirvana’s first recording sessions with producer Butch Vig in 1990. Cobain began writing it a few weeks before recording Nirvana’s second album, Nevermind, in 1991. When he presented the song to his bandmates, it comprised just the main guitar riff and the chorus vocal melody, which bassist Krist Novoselic dismissed as “ridiculous”. In response, Cobain made the band play the riff for an hour and a half. Eventually, Novoselic began playing the riff more slowly, inspiring drummer Dave Grohl to create the drum beat. As a result, it is the only song on Nevermind to credit all three band members as writers.
Prior to the Nevermind recording sessions, the band sent Vig a cassette demo of song rehearsals including “Teen Spirit”. While the sound of the tape was distorted due to the band playing at a loud volume, Vig felt the song had promise. Vig and the band recorded “Smells Like Teen Spirit” at Sound City recording studio in Van Nuys, California in May 1991. Vig suggested changes to the arrangement, including moving a guitar ad lib to the chorus and shortening the chorus. The band recorded the basic track in three takes, and used the second take. Vig corrected some timing errors created by Cobain switching between his guitar effects pedals. Vig was only able to get three vocal takes from Cobain; the producer commented, “I was lucky to ever get Kurt to do four takes.”