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The 100 Greatest Songs of the Rock Era: #94: Smells Like Teen Spirit


Nirvana from Nevermind (1991)

“There’s a handful of before-and-after moments in rock history,” Peggy said. “This is one of them.”

“I don’t know,” I said, “nihilism was around long before Kurt Cobain.”

“Yeah, but it never sounded like this.”

Peggy was of course right, which was why “Smells Like Teen Spirit” made my top 100. So many other bands of this time captured some of what Nirvana was capturing – the dynamics, the raw anxiety, the alienation – but it seemed as though Nirvana was the only band to master all of it. Not only that, but they did it with a level of musicality that demanded listening and stood the test of time.

“So you think music changed from this point forward?” I said.

“Not permanently – it never changes permanently – but ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ was a pivot point.”

“It’s also the kind of song that a band can only do early in its career.”

Peggy hesitated on that for a few moments. “Hmm, I’d never considered that. So you can’t do a song like this on your fifth album?”

“I don’t think so. Not unless you recorded your first album when you were eight. It’s a combination of physical age and musical development. I think both need to be fairly young to make a statement with this much blunt force. Things start to become more nuanced after that.”

“Which leads to the eternal question of where Kurt Cobain might have gone if he’d lived.”

I think most of us who take rock music seriously have considered this, maybe as often as we’ve wondered where Hendrix would have gone. Many have conjectured that Cobain would have been the John Lennon of his time if he hadn’t taken his life.

“I’m not in the John Lennon camp,” I said.

“I’m with you there. Cobain wasn’t nearly as accomplished a songwriter at 27 as Lennon.”

“I do think he would have evolved and written a bunch of memorable songs, though. You can see from Nirvana’s Unplugged performance that he was already experimenting with new forms. Combine that with his innate understanding of structure, and I think it’s safe to assume that there were some great compositions down the road.”

“Too bad we never got to hear them. Do you think he got a decent deal?”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean, he only got to live 27 years, but he left behind a piece of work that people will be listening to for generations. Is that a good trade?”

“Well, Bruce Springsteen is in his sixties and he’s left behind lots of work that people will be listening to for generations.”

Peggy made the “tsk” sound she often made to indicate that I wasn’t getting it. “That’s not what I’m saying. I know there are people who’ve lived much longer and contributed much more. What I’m asking, though, is if you would consider 27 years and one immortal album to be enough of a life.”

I thought about that, but only briefly. “I don’t think so.”

“I do.”

“But then instead of the two of us having these conversations, I’d be putting on your record every now and then and thinking about how sorry I am that you were gone so soon.”


That caught me up short. “I think we might have more to talk about than I thought we did.”

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