Ok, so this post is a little bit overdue but I’m still getting used to the idea of writing ABOUT my shows – instead of simply writing them to present on air. And this piece has probably been the trickiest thing I’ve ever attempted to write. Instead of trying to answer everything myself, I’ve asked a lot of questions. Firstly, to try and explain what I’m thinking and also, to encourage your own thoughts on it all.
A couple of weeks ago, I presented a “teen angst” show and it was a really silly thing that prompted it. I made a comment to a friend, who is my age, about only listening to Nirvana because it was the done thing for angsty teens and it really got me thinking.
Smells Like Teen Spirit, released by Nirvana in 1991, is absolutely considered one of the greatest “teen angst” anthems of all time. Many statements have been thrown around: “an anthem for the apathetic kids of Generation X”, “an anthem for (or is it against?) the ‘Why Ask Why?’ generation” and a “teen revolution anthem”.
On researching the song, the lyrics and reading hundreds of different interpretations and articles, I can’t help but to question how my generation still identifies with this song over 20 years later. I’m not one to judge anyone’s reasons for listening to a certain style, artist or song but I do have this curiosity about what other young people enjoy about Nirvana and I thought I’d write about my own observations. And as I do so, I seriously don’t mean to offend anyone or change anyone’s personal opinion – they’re just my own observations.
Nobody can argue the fact that Nirvana were “game-changers”. They were extremely successful and influential in ways that could never have been predicted. They gave a face to the Seattle grunge movement, which had been largely underground and unrecognised in the mainstream music industry, and this enabled other acts to emerge and other styles to gain recognition. Nirvana were huge and Kurt Cobain become an unofficial spokesperson for an entire generation. And that’s putting it all very simply.
But my generation, we weren’t even around then. The cultural, social and emotional effects of Nirvana will never be felt directly by any of us. We didn’t see them perform, we didn’t hang for every new song or album to be released and we didn’t know life any differently to what we know now. So out of hundreds of artists and songs throughout music history – why Nirvana and why Smells Like Teen Spirit?
A common answer I’ve found is that young people feel they get the lyrics, and I understand that because it’s a huge reason I like many songs. But in my opinion, a lot of the lyrics made no sense. They were all over the place and showed no recognisable sentiment for anything in particular. There was little consistency, little fluency and at times, they literally meant nothing at all – and this was confirmed by Kurt Cobain himself. He was constantly frustrated by the fact that fans and music commentators would try to dissect and interpret his lyrics, when he had literally written them in five minutes or he just thought they sounded good and worked. This has even been talked about by band member Dave Grohl, who witnessed Cobain literally throwing words together in minutes.
And when the lyrics did mean something to Cobain, they drew on some pretty dark themes and interesting concepts and I know that young people experience some crap times and some ordinary life circumstances, but the thing is Kurt Cobain hated his life and he became a drug addict and he killed himself. He hated the fame, he hated the attention and he hated the fact that the public constantly studied his every move and every word he spoke, believing they knew how he was feeling and what he was going through, when for the most part – he tried hard to disguise all of that stuff.
So it just confuses me a little bit that young people today seem to think of Kurt Cobain as some sort of hero or God. Is he worshipped because young people truly appreciate the impact Cobain and Nirvana had on music? Is he worshipped because he was a dark soul with obvious demons he struggled with? Is he worshipped because he died? And if Kurt was still alive today, would people still worship him?
In a June 2014 interview, singer Lana Del Ray expressed admiration for several artists who died young, including Kurt Cobain, and added, “I wish I was dead already… I do. I don’t want to have to keep doing this“.
Frances Cobain (daughter of Kurt Cobain) responded on her Twitter account: “I’ll never know my father because he died young and it becomes a desirable feat because people like you think it’s ‘cool’… Well, it’s fucking not. Embrace life, because you only get one life. The people you mentioned wasted that life. Don’t be one of those people“.
Del Rey subsequently stated that her words were taken out of context.
Another other interesting thing relevant to young people today is that when you listen to Nirvana, most of the time, you can’t actually understand the lyrics, which means you need to look them up on google to really know what Cobain was saying. And when you do look them up, most of the time you find that they aren’t really straight-forward at all, so you try to interpret what they mean. And when you can’t interpret what they mean, you read other people’s interpretations and you choose to go with what you like and what best represents your own personal needs and the cycle begins all over again.
There’s nothing wrong with finding your own place within a song and the lyrics meaning something to you personally – I do it all the time! But if you’ve been grasping at the fact that you can identify with Kurt Cobain and the ups and downs of his life or of being a teenager because of a song he wrote – you might need to think again because that was a huge factor contributing to Kurt’s displeasure and dissatisfaction in performing and fame. He never wanted to be the spokesperson the fans forced him to be. He just wanted to make his music.
Ok, so I’ve actually stopped myself here and I’ve deleted a lot of writing because as I said to a friend of mine – I don’t want to sound douchey. I definitely don’t want it to sound like I’m not a Nirvana fan because I am. I have an enormous appreciation for what they achieved and for the role they played in music history and for everything that took place from that point on. I enjoy listening to Nirvana.
So I’m going to finish up with one more question: What do you think today’s equivalent to Smells Like Teen Spirit is?
I have my moments of being an angsty teen, so have a listen to the songs I chose to prove my point.