The song that launched 1,000 grunge bands and changed the course of popular music found its conceptual spark in a grocery store in Olympia, Washington, in August 1990.
While pacing the aisles, Kurt Cobain's musician girlfriend Tobi Vail and her Bikini Kill bandmate Kathleen Hanna came upon a can of deodorant named Teen Spirit.
"We were both joking around because the name looked so funny," Hanna told Double J in 2016. "I mean, who names a deodorant Teen Spirit? What does teen spirit smell like? Like a locker room? Like pot mixed with sweat? Like the smell when you throw up in your hair at a party?"
That night, after a few too many drinks, Hanna was gleefully trashing Cobain's apartment when she found a Sharpie marker and wrote the magic words on the wall:
Kurt smells like Teen Spirit
Cobain later noted that he thought the phrase referred to their earlier discussion about teen revolution and was suggesting, however ironically, that he was an inspirational figure.
"I took that as a compliment," he said in Come as You Are: The Story of Nirvana. "I thought that was a reaction to the conversation we were having but it really meant that I smelled like the deodorant. I didn't know that the deodorant spray existed until months after the single came out."
Cobain wrote the song after breaking up with his girlfriend
After Cobain and Vail broke up late in the year, Cobain channeled his frustrations into penning new songs, including one that would become the band’s breakout hit. There were references to the woman still on his mind, someone "over-bored and self-assured," but also more within the unusually juxtaposed imagery, a call to "load up on guns" and "entertain us."
Somewhere amid the ideas swirling in his mind was the desire, he told Rolling Stone in 1994, to write "the ultimate pop song."
As noted in Nirvana: The True Story, the frontman supposedly wanted to call this creation "Anthem," though Vail pushed back since Bikini Kill already had a song of the same name. Cobain then reached out to Hanna, who was perplexed but happy to give permission for her drunken scrawling to be used for a song title.
His bandmates originally considered the song derivative and clichéd
Although Cobain was aiming high, the early feedback from his bandmates wasn't encouraging. Bassist Krist Novoselic seemingly glossed over the lyrics, and when they began rehearsing the song, initially consisting of the guitar riff and chorus, he deemed it "ridiculous."
Cobain himself felt the riff was "clichéd," similar to the one from Boston's "More Than a Feeling," though the pieces fell into place as they continued to rehearse. Novoselic suggested slowing things down and laid the groundwork for the verse, providing space for drummer Dave Grohl to jump in with the beat.
The song soon sounded less like Boston and more like something by the Pixies, the proto-grunge group that Cobain idolized and was known for its interchanging soft-loud dynamic. Still, the music came off as powerful and novel, particularly when infused with Cobain's semi-cryptic lyrics and full-throttle wailing.
And audiences agreed. As noted in Come as You Are, Nirvana's public debut of "Smells Like Teen Spirit" at Seattle's OK Hotel on April 17, 1991, generated a distinct buzz. A few weeks later, as the band recorded the tracks for the album Nevermind, producer Butch Vig could barely contain his excitement upon hearing the explosive song in the studio.
Not that anyone fully realized the commodity they had in their hands. According to Grohl, the band wasn't overwhelmed with "Teen Spirit" and wanted another track, "In Bloom," to be the album's lead single. Others at the group's label, GDC Records, felt that "Come as You Are" would be the big hit.
Cobain later described the song as a call to arms
But the voices pushing for "Smells Like Teen Spirit" won out, and the rest is history. Following a quiet release on September 10, 1991, the song caught fire after a memorable video landed it in MTV's regular rotation. By January 1992, Nevermind had displaced Michael Jackson's Dangerous at the top of the Billboard 200, heralding a seismic change in the industry.
Often asked to explain the meaning of the song that made him a household name, Cobain generally acknowledged that it was meant to be a call to arms. "It has revolutionary themes, but I don't really mean it in a militant [light]," he said in a fall 1991 interview. "The generation's apathy is getting out of hand. [I'm] pleading to the kids, 'Wake up!'"
Whether or not he succeeded in creating the ultimate pop song, the iconic musician unquestionably crafted one that spoke to millions – an anthem for the aimless that fittingly drew inspiration from an otherwise forgettable product with a silly name.