A couple of weeks ago, I was watching an interview with Joey Cape, lead singer for the band Lagwagon (see below). Watch it yourself. In it, he is discussing how he was touring with the bank Blink-182 at the time when the made the transition from obscure Southern California skate-punk band to national radio-rock stardom. He is describing how, just hearing the song Dammit, he knew thank Blink had something big going on.
As he tries to adequately describe the experience, he twice talks about when he heard Smells Like Teen Spirit. As I watched the interview this, in particular, resonated with me.
People often talk about that one event that sticks vividly in their memory. They remember exactly where they were and what they were doing when [X] happened. Growing up, the most common reference point was when President Kennedy was shot. I’m not old enough to have that memory. A more common one for the younger generations is the terrorist attack on the Twin Towers. I actually do remember exactly where I was when that attack occurred, but it doesn’t make for a good case in point. I was in Lower Manhattan within sight* of the the World Trade Center, so of course I remember being there.
So while I’m not sure I share a memory with “my generation,” I do seem to share an experience with my fellow music enthusiasts. You see, I can tell you exactly where I was when I heard Smells Like Teen Spirit for the first time. This is remarkable because I was driving when I heard it – commuting to work (not in Manhattan). Yet, I can tell you exactly where I was on the road when that song came on. When I listen to Joey Cape speak, I can feel from him that same level of impact that I had when I heard** the song.
How do I know all this? Because I remember when it came out.
I might have been content to let the subject lie, but then the other day I saw a new quarantine episode from Rick Beato, who does his What Makes This Song Great videos. Immediately, I could see he was referring to a similar experience, not just for himself, but as expressed by others in the music industry. The entire 22 minutes of video is probably worth watching as, in fact, he does explain much of what makes Smells Like Teen Spirit a song that, as Rick says, “changed the course of rock music… really of music in general.” OK, that last part may be overkill, but we know what he means.
Speaking of knowing what people mean and what they don’t mean, Beato repeatedly addresses an imagined argument with his viewing audience about Kurt not knowing what he was doing. It’s a discussion that I’m sure rages across the internets, but one that I’ve never seen nor participated in. I happen to agree with Beato. It doesn’t matter if Kurt understood what he was doing, what mattered is that he did it. What matters is that we understand what he was doing.
While writing this post, I just discovered one more little bit of lore surrounding this song. It was many, many years after I knew the song and knew it well that I heard the story of where the title came from. In fact it was, coincidentally, around the time I had finally*** seen the music video. Kathleen Hanna had written “Kurt smells like Teen Spirit” on Kurt’s wall. It was a jab at Kathleen’s bandmate and Kurt’s girlfriend, who wore the Mennen-branded deodorant.
Up until that point I, frankly, hadn’t given that much thought to the title. Perhaps like Kurt himself, I thought was some kind of revolutionary slogan. Upon being reminded of the reference (and I had heard/seen Teen Spirit commercials, so I probably should have caught the allusion), it occurred to me how brilliant the title is. Here is this crowd of angry, revolutionary teens (and now, finally, I’m picturing the assembly from the music video) who smell, not of blood, sweat, and tears, but of the perfumed deodorant marketed to them by their corporate masters. How bitingly cynical.
Yet Kurt claims he didn’t, himself, get the reference until months after the Smells Like Teen Spirit single had been released. But does it even matter what Kurt knew or what he intended? Do we care if, to him, it was just another song about Toby Vail?
Oh well, whatever, never mind.
*I didn’t watch the aircraft impact the tower. I was inside a building and where I sat wasn’t near the window. I had to get up and walk across the floor to see the towers.
**I was about to type “the opening chords.” But it wasn’t the opening chords; not that first time. I don’t think the full impact of the song hit me until about half-way through and it probably took the ending to seal the deal. I’m going to guess that the radio station hyped up the “new song” there were going to play that morning, giving me motive to pay attention from the beginning. Rick Beato is right. That “a denial” from the end might be the most brilliant part of the song. Even how brilliant I never fully appreciated until I heard the isolated vocals. Back to the first time I heard the song, though, I thought he was saying “without a tie on.” That misinterpretation has stuck with me for years.
***Unlike several commentators, who cite their viewing of the video as the “moment” they were moved by Smells Like Teen Spirit, I never did see the video when it was popular. At the time, I was living on a shoestring budget and didn’t have cable TV. It would be years and years before I finally saw a reference to this “amazing” video and then sought it out.