Recently reading “The Story of You Know Who”, a graphic novel by Garth Ennis that has absolutely nothing to do with Harry Potter or Lord Voldemort (having come out prior to the Philosopher’s Stone), I was surprised by one specific line of dialogue. The story is about the run up to the attempted suicide of a teenage boy following Kurt Cobain’s death, and the protagonist is a massive Nirvana fan. However, in the scene where he is explaining his love for the band, the song he references is the group’s biggest hit, “Smells Like Teen Spirit”.
Smells Like Teen Spirit is the song that most people remember Nirvana for - Because it’s catchy. I remember watching Saturday morning kids TV, and the opening instrumentals of the song were used as an introduction to the studio show that came on right after the cartoons. I’ve heard people say that the song captured the feelings of an entire generation, and that it is the most true reflection of the early 90s youth culture to have ever been recorded. But is it?
I remember reading one writer’s outrage at Eric Clapton winning the Grammy in 1992 for the acoustic version of Layla, stating that Smells Like Teen Spirit was the superior song. However, as a fan of both Clapton and Nirvana, I have to respectfully disagree. Whilst it’s true that I was too young at the time to remember the impact of Nirvana, I have become somewhat of a fan in later life, and therefore feel qualified to make statements regarding this topic.
You see, the truth about “Smells Like Teen Spirit” is that even Cobain himself wasn’t that impressed with the song. Now, you may be thinking “so what? Kafka asked for all his works to be burned right before his death because he thought they were awful and never wanted them to be read”, or at least you will be if you were trying to think of another great artist who hated their own works and have “The Trial” sitting across the room from you. If you’ve got a boxset of “The X-Files” on your DVD shelf, you’re probably thinking the same about Darren Morgan. But the fact is; Kurt wrote the song to be popular. He didn’t write it because he wanted to express himself, or because it was a topic that was important to him. He wrote the song so that people would buy it. And that’s the problem with it.
Most fans will agree that what makes Nirvana great is that Kurt et al seem to be expressing real feelings – real pain, real confusion, real suffering – and it shows. Smells Like Teen Spirit, however, was nothing more than Cobain’s attempt to write a Pixies’ song. Now, I have nothing against The Pixies – I even mentioned my passion for “Here Comes Your Man” in a previous post. Nor do I have a problem with Smells Like Teen Spirit as a song. It’s well written, well performed, and it’s catchy as hell. What I do have a problem with is Smells Like Teen Spirit as a Nirvana song. Compare it to some of their other songs. Not even more obscure ones like “Endless Nameless”, but tracks off their hits album – even the other catchy pop-like songs they wrote are a lot darker in tone, and more honest sounding: Sliver, Lithium, Come as You Are. Sure, they’re similar in tone and pace to Smells Like Teen Spirit (Lithium and Come As You Are having been on the album “Nevermind” too), but there’s more honesty behind them. Then compare these tracks to the ones that appeared on In Utero – Heart Shaped Box, Pennyroyal Tea, Rape Me – these tracks are far softer, more poetic, and it is this album which I feel truly reflects Kurt’s feelings. They were already famous at the time of recording, and had long ago stopped caring about their image – to me, if you want to pin a song to the group, make it one of these. It is common knowledge that the group listed both the song and video for Heart Shaped Box as being one of their greatest achievements, and personally I’m a big fan of Pennyroyal Tea, where Cobain’s love of poets such as Leonard Cohen clearly shows through, whilst at the same time, the song still retains the dark feeling of Nirvana’s older tracks.
Now, I accept that since In Utero was Nirvana’s last studio album, perhaps it wouldn’t have been appropriate to list one of the songs on it as the reason the character from “The Story of you Know Who” was so into Nirvana – but I just wanted to make the point that Nirvana is not “Smells Like Teen Spirit”, and pretty well any other track would have been more appropriate. If the character lists Smells Like Teen Spirit as being the great track that really changed who Nirvana were for him, then he doesn’t strike me as a guy who actually cared for the content of the songs, and was just going along with the flow. I guess what I’m trying to say is – I doubt any of the 68 people who committed suicide after Cobain’s death, as the story depicts, would have listed Smells Like Teen Spirit as their favourite Nirvana song.
As for Smells Like Teen Spirit winning the grammy over “Layla”, I find it hard to believe Cobain would have even wanted the award had they won it. Now, I hate posers far more than the next guy. An old Girlfriend (as in Ex-Girlfriend, she’s younger than me) once mentioned how cool she thought the Artic Monkeys were for refusing to take an award, and I just thought “What posers, trying to act all Rock ‘N’ Roll as though that makes them cool. Losers”. But with Cobain, it was just the guy he was. He didn’t care for his image, and he didn’t care for his fans. I’m glad Clapton won the award, simply because I feel he probably appreciated it more than Kurt would have. And for the Gentleman arguing a good 14-15 years after Cobain’s death that he should have won the Grammy, I feel I should quote Kurt’s response to over-zealous fan letters from the year before he died.
“Why Don’t they get a life and stop worshiping me?”
He’s dead, man – get over it. Clapton’s awesome.