'Smells Like Teen Spirit' sees Nirvana change the world overnight [November 24, 1991]
Plus: U2, East Side Beat, Diana Ross, Simply Red, Happy Mondays and M People
This week’s Number 9: ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ — Nirvana
Everyone who creates stuff dreams that their stuff will go on to change the world.
I’m doing it right now. As I write this essay, I’m trying to foster some sense of connection, to make you feel something. I know that if I can just find the right combination of words, I can make you, the reader, go ding.
(Ding is the sound a human brain makes when an idea strikes it in just the right way.)
If I can somehow get you to ding, your next instinct will be to share this feeling with the people you care about. Hopefully, they will also ding and share it with their friends.
And, if all goes well, it will lead to a ripple of simultaneous dings ringing out across the globe, like all of our alarm clocks going off at once.
This kind of mass ding-ing used to be rare. In the digital age, it happens multiple times each day. We had to invent a term for it — going viral.
But virality is fleeting. The moment passes, and everything goes back to the way it was.
Artists dream of is something beyond that. They want to make something that causes a ding so deep and profound that those who experience it are transformed forever.
On November 28, 1991, Nirvana did a ridiculous, chaotic, piss-take version of their new single, ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’, on Top of the Pops. And at the time, it felt to me like everyone I knew had watched it and went…
Quick bit of background here:
For a long time, there had been a feeling among myself and my 14-year old cohort that we were musically homeless. We had cringey mainstream rap like Vanilla Ice and MC Hammer. We had repetitive techno that all sounded the same. We had the dying wails of the hair metal dinosaurs, such as those on the Use Your Illusion records.
Metallica’s black album had resonated most loudly with my peers (pasty, white, catholic, bourgeois, horny, angry boys), but it had given us the sense that we were part of a movement.
I missed Nirvana’s Top of the Pops performance that night. But when I came to school the next day, everything had changed.
And I mean, everything. There was flannel everywhere. People had started combing their hair differently. Boys walked with this disaffected slouch, as if bored and resentful for being alive.
I felt confused and disconnected until I heard the music, and then I got it too.
(Confession: I didn’t get grunge immediately. I was puzzled by ‘Teen Spirit’ for a while, and then I heard ‘In Bloom’ and it all clicked.)
The only time — and I say this without a hint of exaggeration — the only time I have seen a cultural transformation as complete and as rapid as this was in March 2020, when Covid drove the whole world went into lockdown.
Sometimes, a generation of teenagers will get the feeling that they are the axis upon which the world is spinning.
It’s the feeling my parents’ generation had when they heard ‘Houndog’, or when early Gen Xers saw Bowie do ‘Starman’ on Top of the Pops in ‘73.
In that ‘Starman’ performance, Bowie sings “I had to phone someone so I picked on you-ooh-ooh”, and as he says “you”, he stares right down the barrel of the camera and points at the viewer.
In that moment, you understand that this really is all about you. All of it. All of pop. All of music. All of art and culture. The whole world exists just for you. You are young and alive, your brain is fresh and uncluttered, and the world can be whatever you want it to be.
You are the children of the revolution. You are the kids in America. It’s a new dawn, it’s a new day, and you’re feelin’ good.
Bliss it was in that dawn to be alive. But to be young was very heaven.
When does that feeling slip away?
I don’t know. I remember being in my early 20s, fresh out of college, sitting in a cafe with a newspaper. There were a bunch of kids outside, maybe 16 at most. They were dressed like it was still 1992. Flannel and Converse, t-shirts with the Nirvana smiley face.
I felt a little sad. Nirvana was to them what Bowie had been to me at their age. Something awesome but something old, the sound of a party you missed. They wouldn’t know what it was like to have Nirvana happening right now.
I wished their own movement for them. And, six months later, I saw them all again (or another ground of teens, I wasn’t stalking them or anything) dressed as emos.
Did emo give them the same feeling grunge had given me? I hope so. I suspect it’s nothing to do with the music. Maybe it’s just about being young and realising that your youth is a kind of power.
Yesterday, while buying groceries, I saw a middle-aged woman behind me in the queue. She was dressed sensibly, with a nice warm winter coat and a cloth mask. Grey hair under a bobble hat.
But peeking out from under her jacket was the unmistakable central V of the Nirvana logo. There’s no denying the garish yellow, or the weirdly formal serif font.
I looked at her and my first thought was, “wow, that old lady is a Nirvana fan.”
Approximately one second later, a wave of crushing self-awareness beat down on me. It’s that feeling you get when you walk into the bathroom and think, “shit, there’s a weird old man in here. Oh, no, wait. That’s just the mirror.”
My daughter is now the age I was when ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ dropped. She’s heard the song many times, most recently as a sad piano ballad at the start of Marvel’s Black Widow. To her, it’s just some old song.
But sometimes she’ll breathlessly play a new song for me, something that has resonated with her and seems to be resonating with lots of people her age. It doesn’t resonate with me. I am too old now.
But I’m glad she has that moment where the world feels open to her. I’m glad she gets her turn to find things that make her go ding. I already had my moment, and I enjoyed it.
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Elsewhere in the charts
Number 6 (New Entry): ‘Ride Like The Wind’ — East Side Beat
East Side Beat were two Italian blokes who came up with a simple formula for hit records: take a recognisable song and slap a eurobeat on it. It’s about as innovative as Jive Bunny but, whatever, it worked for them.
This particular track, which is a reworking of an old Christopher Cross single, is absolutely fine and was an enjoyable chart hit in 1991. But it encouraged a glut of imitators that stunk out the charts for the rest of the decade. There were many low points of this genre. For me the absolute nadir was the cheery house cover of The Cranberries’ ‘Zombie’.
Number 10 (New Entry): ‘When You Tell Me That You Love Me’ — Diana Ross
Listening to this again, I got that nagging “I’ve heard this somewhere before” feeling.
A quick Wikipedia check reveals that this smash hit (which was only a few hundred copies away from being the 1991 Xmas Number One) was co-written by the prolific Albert Hammond, who co-wrote Starship’s ‘Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now’.
And that’s it: the big chorus is a slowed-down ‘Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now’.
Number 20 (New Entry): ‘Stars’ — Simply Red
Easily the best song on the album of the same name, ‘Stars’ contains a glimmer of the band that once dropped bangers like ‘Money’s Too Tight to Mention’.
Hucknall is a frustrating figure because he had so much talent but most of his later output stayed firmly in the middle of the road. The other singles from Stars are all so plodding.
Number 24 (New Entry): ‘Judge Fudge’ — Happy Mondays
‘Judge Fudge’ is a weird one. The Mondays had gone into the studio in thesummer of 1991 to try to put some material together, but those sessions were total chaos fuelled by heroin and crack cocaine. Producer Paul Oakenfold called the session off and Factory was left with nothing to show for it, except this one track which was released as a standalone single.
The band were in total disarray at this stage. However, 1991 would be a high point compared to the absolute chaos of 1992, the events of which killed off both Happy Mondays and Factory Records. We’ll talk about that next year…
Number 29 (↑ from 31): ‘How Can I Love Your More’ — M People
I used to go to this comedy club in the early 00s and a guy called Simon appeared almost every week. He was dreadful and always got booed off, which seemed to make him even keener.
One joke of his did always get mild laugh. It was this:
What’s a cannibal’s favourite band?
Anyway, we’ll talk M People more next year too, but for now I’ll say this: Heather is a better singer than Hucknall.
Album of the Week
Achtung Baby — U2
The release of a new U2 album was a big deal in most countries, except in Ireland, where Achtung Baby was an event that ranked somewhere between the moon landing and a papal visit.
Dave Fanning teased it by exclusively airing a new track each day in the buildup to release date, which meant that Irish people got to hear this record before the rest of the world. And after a few bellyflops from 80s bands, I think there was a nervousness that U2 were going to be the next dinosaurs to go extinct.
But then we heard the record and it was… good? It was very different from U2 we used to now. Very Depeche Mode, very experimental by their standards. I think the general response was bemused curiosity. Nobody if it would be a success.
Looking back now, Achtung Baby is probably the definitive U2 album simply because it contains the definitive U2 song: the absolute behemoth that is ‘One’. There’s not much to say about ‘One’. It is the Platonic form of songs that sound like ‘One’.
And yet, ‘One’ is the song that feels most out of place on this, U2’s most ambitious album. The crashing chords that introduce opening track ‘Zoo Station’ are more in keeping with the overall mood: gritty, European, future-facing.
Also, riddled with conflict. This was a band where three gargantuan egos were clashing with Bono’s Thanos-size ego. These guys were one disagreement away from murdering each other.
You can hear it in the music. And it sounds great.
There are some knockout tracks here, like the cinematic ‘Until The End of the World’ and ‘Who’s Going to Ride Your Wild Horses’, which sounds like a band performing a live autopsy on their own legacy.
I think the whole mood comes together best in the single ‘Mysterious Ways’. Everyone goes off in their own direction here: Larry and Adam lay down a groove that sounds like Happy Mondays; Edge plays around with guitar sounds that shimmer like flashes of lightening; and Bono gets to drop some Bono-isms like “if you want to kiss the sky, better learn how to kneel”, before flinging himself into a huge, stadium-rocking chorus.
In a lesser band, this song would fall apart. But here, they somehow all meet in the middle, creating something that somehow sounds both chaotic and meticulous.
Whatever else you might think about U2, the fact is that they are extremely good musicians. Their craftmanship is what steers them through it all. As a result, Achtung Baby ends up being one of the rarest things in pop music: a successful reinvention.
They travel the world in their ice cream van
They've voyaged to the bottom of time
They've been to the place where the Mu-Mu mate
And the children still cry 'Mine's a 99!'
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Early gen x’ers were 3-5 years old when Bowie did Starman. Try again.