By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
Is ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’, Nirvana’s best-known song and the anthem of the short-lived grunge movement, a song about revolution, music, or losing one’s virginity? How can we pin down the meaning of this iconic song with its suggestive but rather opaque lyrics?
The origins of the song’s title are well-known: Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain was gifted the title by his friend Kathleen Hanna, singer of the riot grrrl band Bikini Kill. She wrote ‘Kurt smells like Teen Spirit’ on his wall – the phrase ‘Teen Spirit’ being the name of a popular deodorant – and Cobain made a mental note of the phrase.
Cobain, who co-wrote ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ with his fellow band members Krist Novoselic and Dave Grohl, later said that the song was Nirvana’s attempt to write a song in the style of The Pixies. But whilst this may explain the musical style of ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’, it leaves us none the wiser concerning the meaning of the song’s lyrics.
‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’: song meaning
The lyrics to ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ do not lend themselves to what the literary critic Terry Eagleton called the ‘wisdom tooth’ school of criticism, whereby one comes along and simply extracts the meaning from the text, like a dentist removing a wisdom tooth.
As a result, numerous possible meanings of the song have been put forward. One leading theory, which Kurt Cobain himself appears to have endorsed, is that it’s a song making fun of the idea of having a revolution.
So we move from the rousing call-to-arms (loading up one’s guns) in the first line to the aboulia and indifference of ‘oh well, whatever, never mind’ towards the end of the song. Nevermind, of course, was the title given to the band’s 1991 album, on which ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ was the opening track.
So this theory – that not only ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ but the whole of the shruggingly named Nevermind are about indifference to the notion of political revolution – is a compelling one.
But as soon as we move closer to the song’s lyrics and try to fit them to this interpretation, we encounter problems. How do the references to mulattos and mosquitos, and the rest of it, bear out a revolutionary (or anti-revolutionary) ‘message’ to the song?
One response is to say: they don’t. They’re just nonsensical lyrics, because the song is poking fun at those who are naïve enough to think, in 1991, that they are living in 1968 and all they have to do is head to the barricades and put a poster of Che Guevara on their bedroom wall and a new dawn will be ushered in.
Can we neatly and satisfactorily interpret the song’s rather baffling and elliptical lyrics so that they make sense?
Perhaps. And there’s a way of doing so which involves putting forward a second interpretation of the song’s meaning, different from the first (the mock-revolutionary one) and yet not entirely at odds with it.
One possible interpretation, which helps us to make sense of many lines of the song, is that it is about a fear of sex, and specifically, of losing one’s virginity. Losing one’s virginity and having sex can be liberating and fun, but it can also carry dangers: unwanted pregnancy, or even disease. And how many adolescents, navigating those difficult teenage years, haven’t contended with that conflicted attitude towards the act of giving up one’s virginity?
Losing one’s virginity can be fun; it can also be fun to ‘pretend’ that one has lost one’s virginity, or brag about sexual encounters which haven’t actually happened, to look big in front of one’s friends – while loading up a gun, again to look ‘big’ in front of said mates.
And people who brag about having lots of sex might also be the same people who like to talk big about how they’re going to start a revolution or bring down the establishment and other grand, sweeping, swaggering gestures. So these two interpretations of the song need not be mutually exclusive.
Any self-respecting girl is likely to be ‘bored’ by such male posturing (she, unlike them, has already lost her virginity and is thus self-assured); all the teenage boys can do is show off by swearing and using dirty words, as a poor substitute for actually engaging in dirty antics with the opposite sex …
The chorus to ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’, then, is about how to make sex ‘less dangerous’. With the lights out? What if a young male teenager actually succeeds in getting a girl into bed, a girl who is demanding to be entertained by someone who hasn’t the foggiest what he is doing?
The speaker feels ‘stupid’ but also ‘contagious’, not only because of the risk of contracting something (a sexually transmitted disease) but because of what he might himself be capable of transmitting (thus leading to the unwanted conception of a child: the words ‘mulatto’ and ‘albino’ both suggest children conceived through mixed-race unions, while the speaker describing his libido or sex-drive as a ‘mosquito’ conveys the darting, frenetic energy of his newly developed sexual desire).
The second verse, with the singer’s paradoxical reference to being ‘worse’ at what he does ‘best’ (that is, he has lost his touch), and yet feeling blessed to have a ‘gift’, is more puzzling and opaque, but might be co-opted into the ‘losing one’s virginity’ interpretation: perhaps he used to be (ironically) ‘best’ at being a virgin and useless with girls, but now he has grown ‘worse’ at it, and gained some experience, but he doesn’t like it because of the risks outlined above.
Of course, this is just a theory, but it becomes a little more compelling when related to the song as a whole, and the theory that the song’s meaning is teenage fear of sex (not knowing what to do, but also the consequences which might follow the sexual act itself).
The singer appears to have forgotten why he ‘tastes’ (alcohol, drugs, sex?) but then he recalls that it brings him happiness and makes him smile. It was hard to find (the happiness, or the cause of said happiness, whether drugs, or a girl willing to let him bed her?), but it doesn’t matter in the end.
‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’: analysis
In the last analysis, then, ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ can be interpreted both as a song making fun of people who talk big about starting a revolution and as a song about the fear of sex. The song is about someone who wants nothing much to do with either of these things, because of apathy and cynicism (in the case of political revolution) and fear (of the problems sex can bring with it).
After all, Kurt Cobain was the laureate of teenagers who don’t fit in, especially in high school, and ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ reads like an expression of this: where some kids are trying to impress their peers by carrying guns, and others are talking about the need for revolution, and others are boasting about their sexual prowess, the speaker of the song does not want to engage in such popularity contests.