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In a small town in Washington state in 1990, you had to make your own amusement. So it was that Kathleen Hanna and her friend Kurt spent an afternoon spraying graffiti on to a Christian teenage pregnancy advice centre and then returned to his rented apartment to drink. One thing led to another: Hanna “smashed up a bunch of shit” and defaced the walls in marker pen. One of her phrases stuck in his mind. “Kurt”, the scrawl read, “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” Teen Spirit was, in fact, the deodorant worn by his then girlfriend Tobi Vail, who was Hanna’s bandmate in embryonic riot grrrl band Bikini Kill. But, thought Cobain, it could be a song lyric.
Grunge, a form of alienated music on the border of metal and punk, had been around for a while before Cobain and two friends formed Nirvana. But “Smells Like Teen Spirit”, released on the band’s second album Nevermind in 1991, made it an international sensation. Kurt Cobain’s influences included the Pixies and, less fashionably, soft-rockers Boston; the song’s elliptical lyrics (“load up on guns/ bring your friends . . . a mulatto/ an albino/ a mosquito/ my libido”) hinted at troubled racial politics and Aids panic without ever making anything explicit. When he chorused “I feel stupid and contagious/ here we are now, entertain us” he summed up the new fin de siècle. Quiet passages alternated with rage: guitars crunched, drums crashed, Cobain howled. No doubt about it, “Smells Like Teen Spirit” was the quintessential grunge anthem.
Except, was it? A succession of musicians produced cover versions that, collectively, make the case for the song not being rooted in grunge at all.
First up was Tori Amos, an American singer despatched to the UK by her record company in the hope that Britons would appreciate her Gothic confessionals more than her fellow-countrymen did. In 1992, Amos was in her pomp: her version replaces Nirvana’s Sturm und Drang with moody Romantic piano. When Cobain first heard the record, he “couldn’t stop laughing”, but he later told MTV it was “flattering” and claimed that he and Courtney Love danced to it over their morning cereal.
So “Teen Spirit” could land in a wide musical territory. But no one could have anticipated a metamorphosis a decade after Cobain’s suicide in 1994. In 2005 the Canadian-born crooner Paul Anka, best-known for writing the English lyrics to “My Way”, recorded the album Rock Swings, recreating the rock canon as swing jazz. Along with “Eye Of The Tiger”, “Jump” and “Everybody Hurts” is, of course, “Teen Spirit”. Performing the song at the North Sea Jazz Festival a couple of years later, Anka prowled the stage, clicking his fingers. Where Cobain’s “Hello, hello” had been a wary warning, and Amos’s a come-hither, Anka might have been welcoming the Rat Pack into a Las Vegas casino.
It didn’t even need words. The Bad Plus, an avant-garde jazz trio matching Nirvana’s line-up but with piano for voice, deconstructed the song on a 2003 album. Ethan Iverson, the pianist, starts with the ringing guitar phrase but immediately drops it and warps the melody, taking off into sheets of atonal noise. The clamour drops out to expose Reid Anderson’s double bass nagging away at “With the lights out/ it’s less dangerous”; finally the piano returns to the tune.
The song is so well known now that there can be rap versions, comedy versions and a reading from Patti Smith; grunge, as a genre, is ancient history, but “Teen Spirit” has outlived it. Hanna’s graffito never actually became a lyric, but it made a great title.
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For more in the series, and podcasts with clips of the songs, go to ft.com/life-of-a-song
Photograph: Getty Images