This song changed American music when it first came out, so choosing it for the list was my decision (as all selections are). But I thought my son, Quinn Chalkley, would do a better job of describing the song’s impact. Here’s what he wrote:
I can still remember where I was the first time I heard “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” shortly after its release in 1991. The setting was unremarkable – I was riding in the car with my dad when the song came on the radio – but the impression it left on me was the seed that grew into a lifelong obsession with music. I was 14 years old, and the time couldn’t have been better for me. I was old enough to be realizing a bent towards music, but young enough to still be impressionable and strongly influenced by something so unique.
“Teen Spirit” was just a four-chord rock song with soft verses and loud choruses (hardly a new formula in rock and roll), but the abrasiveness, simplicity, and sheer energy of it was the antithesis of what had been dominating rock radio for the previous decade. The big hair, tight pants, and slick production of 80’s bands like Def Leppard, Guns N’ Roses, Bon Jovi, and Motley Crue had run its course, and “Teen Spirit” singlehandedly ushered in a new generation of rock music.
This one song by an unassuming three-piece band from Aberdeen Washington, a gloomy logging suburb of Seattle, created a new genre of music. It benefitted many 90’s bands, some because they deserved it (Pearl Jam, Alice In Chains), and still many more that proved to be nothing more than copycats (Silverchair, Bush, Seven Mary Three, Candlebox).
Legend has it that Kurt Cobain came up with the song’s title when a female friend of his spray-painted “Kurt smells like teen spirit” on his wall. They had been discussing politics, and Kurt took it as a compliment, and interpreted it as a metaphor with revolutionary meaning. He found out after the song was written that she had actually meant that he literally smelled like the deodorant Teen Spirit. I wonder how the course of rock history would have been altered if Kurt hadn’t misinterpreted his friend, and been inspired to write the greatest rock song of the last 20 years.
My tastes have obviously broadened considerably since that night in 1991 when I first heard “Smells Like Teen Spirit” – I have a seemingly unquenchable thirst for new, different, and weird music – but a lot of my favorite music is visceral, abrasive, yet melodic rock that I can trace directly to ‘Teen Spirit’ and Nirvana.
My band played a show three years ago in which we closed the night with an entire set of 17 Nirvana songs. It was a blast, and a night I’ll never forget. But as close as my band mates and I are to “Teen Spirit”, we didn’t play it, because it has become bigger than itself, and essentially “uncoverable”. You could say it’s the “Stairway to Heaven” of my generation. I expect that one day the signs hanging in guitar shops that say “Please, No Stairway” will be replaced by ones that read “Please, No Teen Spirit.”