Nirvana, “Smells Like Teen Spirit”
Where I heard it: XRT
Why it’s awesome:
1. It’s a cliche, but this song was at the vanguard of a significant change in what was considered popular music in the early 90s. The reductive version of the argument is that when it broke, it signalled a sea change that wiped any number of (for lack of a better term) hair metal bands off the charts in favor of alternative artists. True? Sort of, but I’m sure there were other factors at play. Still, the charts were a whole lot different in 1993 than they were in 1991.
2. For myself, hearing this song was (cliche alert #2) a life- (or at least musical life-) changing experience. It wasn’t the first “college rock” song to blow my mind - that honor goes to Jane’s Addiction’s “Ocean Size,” which I clearly remember hearing for the first time in Brent’s dorm room during the first trimester of my freshman year - but it’s the one that had the most impact.
One of my best friends in college (and my co-DJ) was a guy named Dave, who was from Seattle and way more aware of the burgeoning scene there than I was. He had Bleach and was already a big Nirvana fan. I remember hearing “Teen Spirit” early in my senior year - in fact, I remember hearing it blasting out of the portable stacks that we would use to DJ parties, so loud that I must have been doing significant damage to my ears - and then buying the album over winter break, by which point it had become one of the biggest records in rock history. It may not be the best song on Nevermind (it’s either “Teen Spirit” or “Lithium” for me), but it’s certainly the most evocative.
3. The video. If you haven’t already, go buy Rob Tannenbaum and Craig Marks’ fantastic book I Want My MTV, which discusses both the video as well as its impact on MTV, at great and entertaining length.
Bonus clip: Patty Smith covering “Teen Spirit”: