A mulatto, an albino, a mosquito, my libido
"Smells Like Teen Spirit." And my first thought was, "Is that right? That can't be right." Then I counted back the decades - 2001, 1991 - and realized that yep, it was true. 20 years.
In late 1991 when the song became a hit, I was in my second year at college in Washington, in a town not too far from where Kurt Cobain grew up. We wore jeans and flannel because it was appropriate clothing for our climate. If you got more than a few states away, you encountered people who had never heard of Seattle. Washington was Nowheresville, in other words. But before long, MTV made "grunge rock" the next new thing, and suddenly we were, like, a thing.
And a lot of that happened because of "Smells Like Teen Spirit."
It wasn't the best of the grunge anthems. Even Nirvana hated it. Kurt wrote it on a whim, in an attempt to deliberately rip off the Pixies. He riffed on a bit of graffiti his friend Kathleen Hanna of Bikini Kill had left in his house ("Kurt smells like Teen Spirit").
At the time, Kurt Cobain didn't realize at the time that Teen Spirit was a cheap brand of deodorant with an annoyingly cheerful ad campaign. (He's lucky that it fit, though.) Kurt claimed that he thought Hanna was praising him with a revolutionary anthem, but in reality she was simply commenting on the toiletry choices of his girlfriend at the time, Tobi Vail (also of Bikini Kill).
"Teen Spirit" became so ubiquitous so fast, it was difficult to believe. It seemed to happen overnight. And the funny thing is that the radio station 107.7 The End was cutting edge then, but it has carefully preserved itself in amber. Turn that station on today and it's only a matter of minutes before you hear a now-classic song by Nirvana or Pearl Jam.
In the days before the internet made such knowledge ubiquitous, it used to be a point of pride - then a point of ironic tongue-in-cheek-ery - to have memorized all the correct lyrics to the song. I still remember every single one, even the ones you can't understand when Kurt sings them, even though I never once listened to the song on purpose. It was just that pervasive!
The band quickly began seeing the song as an embarrassment. Albeit certainly an embarrassment that did pretty well for their career!