Smells Like Teen Spirit: Or how a brand of deodorant became a symbol for rebellion

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I remember when Kurt Cobain took his life via a shotgun in the head in 1994. I was riding a jeepney, minding my own business, when I saw an article. I caught glimpses of the news item. Club 27. Of his mother telling his son not to “join that stupid Club”. And a couple of girls doing a double suicide weeks after.

And that I actually believed that it is a literal club where famous people kill themselves once they reach 27.

It wasn’t until three years later when I “discovered” Cobain, his music, his life story, his band, and the song credited for catapulting grunge as a serious sub-genre of rock music, Smells Like Teen Spirit.

“With the lights out, it’s less dangerous
Here we are now, entertain us
I feel stupid and contagious
Here we are now, entertain us”

The song spoke to me.  I was fresh out of college, and was well on my way to questioning my long-held beliefs.  I was an angry young woman, angry at the establishment, angry at injustice, angry at a passive deity that silently watches its children bleed.

And Smells Like Teen Spirit fed that anger. My friends and I tried to deconstruct the whole song.

A mulatto, an albino
A mosquito, my libido.

It’s wonderfully cryptic, like those telegram messages sent by a man in a detention room to his would-be rescuers. Maybe, we thought, it was a reflection of Cobain’s tortured soul. Maybe it was his cry for help. Maybe, maybe he was talking about the chain that binds man (“a mulatto, an albino”), and his own raging message of individuality, and herd mentality.

The official music video is a riot. Shot in brown and smoky filters, it flips the middle finger at conservative conventions and norms, channeling a rage party from the Second Circle of Hell, with the unabashed sensuality of, well everyone from cheerleaders to spectators brought up to 11 (the delightful parody of Weird Al poking fun at Cobain’s gibberish merely adds to the appeal).

"Photo montage of the members of Nirvana." by Julie Kramer (Kurt) is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0
“Photo montage of the members of Nirvana.” by Julie Kramer (Kurt) is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0

Smells Like Teen Spirit was our generation’s American Pie. We were trying to deconstruct the Nirvana ethos, and the song’s pathos. We knew Smells Like Teen Spirit was trying to tell us something. We just didn’t know what.

It was only much much later that I realized Cobain was singing about deodorant (Teen Spirit was a brand of body spray). And it was also much later that I realized that Cobain eventually dropped the song from his live repertoire as he felt it was attracting the wrong kind of audience (he was pro-LGBT before it became a fashion).

Still, my love affair for Nirvana never waned. There were more songs to love: Lithium, Plateau, Lake of Fire, Come as You are, All Apologies, Polly, The Man who Sold the World, Pennyroyale Tea, Something in the Way.

My love for the band also opened my love for other acts like Foo Fighters (a natural transition – hello Dave Grohl!), Red Hot Chili Peppers, Pearl Jam, Led Zeppelin, AC/DC, Silverchair, Audioslave, Ramones, LIT, Oasis, Rage Against the Machine, Placebo. The list goes on.

I devoured everything about Nirvana, including entire albums, a Kurt Cobain bio (Heavier than Heaven), even (very nearly) a pair of Cobain Chucks.

And up to now, Cobain keeps me company while I’m trying to sleep as he growls over Jesus not wanting him for a sunbeam or wondering where his baby slept that night.

The world might have robbed us of Cobain too soon but his legacy to the grunge world and garage bands is unmistakable.

The world will keep on turning without grunge music true. But it will never be the same.

And it’s all because of Cobain and his ode to rebelliousness, and body spray.

A mulatto, an albino
A mosquito, my libido…
A denial.

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