Set the wayback machine to 1991. Smells Like Teen Spirit blasted every radio station in the country. Sure, those of us who stayed mainstream knew of this whole “alternative / grunge” thing, but to many of us…Smells Like Teen Spirit served as a gateway to a world of music outside of Pop 40. Smells Like Teen Spirit really wasn’t even the best Nirvana song (I prefer Lithium or In Bloom). Still, Smells Like Teen Spirit remains the most popular Nirvana song. And thus comes the Smells Like Teen Spirit covers.
Naturally, the most popular song by a band as big as Nirvana will spawn a cover or two. The Smells Like Teen Spirit covers range from comedic, to beautiful, to downright weird, and even shallow. But which cover outshines the others, or even the original? Let’s take a closer look…
Original – Nirvana (1991)
Smells Like Teen Spirit is called the theme of Generation X, with its nihilistic cries. For being such a quintessential gen x song, we must point out an oddity; so many of the words just don’t make sense. Still, Cobain sings the chorus so loud and passionately, we just can’t help but love the song. And again, we don’t hear the lyrics. In fact, at the time of release, no one could really get their hands on the lyrics because they weren’t even in the “Nevermind” liner notes. Really, Smells Like Teen served as an anti-anthem of Generation X more than anything. A cry of nothingness….just loud music that expressed….something, or nothing.
One lyric we did hear, and related to: “Whatever, Nevermind.” We Gen Xers loved saying these two specific words. Partly, we liked to say these words ironically as the media said we were a bunch of whiny nihilists. We just kind of went with what others said about us. We shrugged our shoulders, and went on with our lives. Whatever….and then we played our rock music loud and incoherent.
So, while Smells Like Teen Spirit had no meaning, and served as an anti anthem, the song still wraps up the feelings of a generation. But mostly, Smells Like Teen Spirit said we just wanted to live our lives our way. Leave us alone, we’ll leave us alone. Smells Like Teen Spirit served as a socially libertarian anthem just as much as an anti anthem for Generation X.
Cover – Tori Amos (1992)
Of all the Smells Like Teen Spirit covers, Tori Amos gives us the most creepy version. Tori strips the song down to just a piano and vocals. She uses minor chords and lower octaves almost exclusively. Oh, and Amos also dramatically slows down the tempo of Smells Like Teen Spirit. The results sound like something you might hear in a haunted mansion. When listening to this Smells Like Teen Spirit cover, you just feel something is wrong.
Oh, but you need Tori’s cover in context to get the whole story….
Amos released her Smells Like Teen Spirit cover as a B side to “Crucify,” a song about liberation. “Crucify” uses Christian imagery to symbolize the chains of guilt others use against us (and even themselves) – and breaking free of those chains to show our true selves. With that context, we realize Tori’s cover of Smells Like Teen Spirit is not the dirge of impending death we originally imagined, but something different. Tori’s cover, with its slow tempo and minor chords, show us different emotions. We feel the fear of breaking free – but also the joy. The Tori Amos cover of Smells Like Teen Spirit recognizes that the world will not make sense, just like the lyrics of the song, but also recognizes the truths of living your own life – the truth of freedom.
Tori Amos makes Smells Like Teen Spirit an anthem not of a generation, but of breaking free from oppression and guilt.
Parody – Weird Al Yankovic (1992)
I usually stray from parodies in a cover vs original. With that said, Weird Al nails Smells Like Teen Spirit so well, it would be a shame NOT to include Smells Like Nirvana. Weird Al’s parody plays on the fact that the words to Smells Like Teen Spirit are so unintelligible. With lines like “Now I’m mumbling, and I’m screaming, but I don’t know what I’m singing,” we just get the point.
My favorite line in Smells Like Teen Spirit comes from the second chorus: “Well we don’t sound, like Madonna, hear we are now, we’re Nirvana.” The line signifies that this new rock, modern rock, alternative, grunge, or whatever the listener wanted to call Nirvana was something different. The genre did not sound like pop, and yet the genre, at least in the early 90s, competed with the typical top 40 spots, peaking at #6.
By the way, Cobain loved Weird Al’s parody – even if it wasn’t about food.
Cover – Paul Anka (2005)
From the intro, we can tell that Paul Anka’s version of Smells Like Teen Spirit is something totally different. A full horn section with a bit of piano and percussion replaces the loud guitars on the original. Anka sings Smells like Teen Spirit like the 1960s crooner standard. Surprisingly, this works well.
In my examination of Mack The Knife, I mention how crooners in the 50s and 60s tend to ignore the severity of the lyrics. When we listen to Sinatra or Bobby Darin or Paul Anka, we want to hear their beautiful tones – who cares about the words! If the song happens to be about a serial killer, who cares. If the song seems to be about…whatever…even better! A maloto, my labido….they’re just noises, no matter if you’re Cobain or if you’re Anka.
Paul Anka gets the nihilistic notions of Smells Like Teen Spirit in a way we don’t expect from a crooner.
Cover – Patti Smith (2007)
Patti Smith’s Smells Like Teen Spirit cover sounds almost like a folk song. A host of acoustic instruments, including banjos, guitars, and a minimal percussion forms a pleasing and relaxing sound.
We can understand the lyrics perfectly, and yet the relaxing folk nature of the Patti Smith’s version of Smells Like Teen Spirit invites us to passively listen to the lyrics. Just relax, and..
Towards the end of Smells Like Teen Spirit, Smith adds a very dark and even apocalyptical monolog, mostly about our way of life, and how it kills children. Finally, during the last chorus, Smith almost sounds as though she’s crying.
Patti Smith’s’ version of Smells Like Teen Spirit provides an antithesis to the Paul Anka Version. Both feel like “nice songs,”but Anka’s ignores the darkness where Patti Smith brings the darkness in full view of the listener.
Cover – Scala & Kolacny Brothers (2011)
Scala’s Smells Like Teen Spirit uses a slow tempo reminiscent to the Tori Amos version. Unlike Amos, Scala does uses major keys for the most part. The results sound less like the set of a horror movie and more like a hauntingly beautiful song fit to play on a rainy day.
During the final chorus, Scala cranks the volume significantly, giving us a dramatic feel. We feel like something important is being said….but that’s the thing. This is Smells Like Teen Spirit, and the lyrics don’t really matter. What really matters are the emotions of the song. What are those emotions – well, those too are ineligible. However, we know these are strong, passionate emotions. We know these emotions mean a lot to the speaker of this version.
Scala tells us something….and yet tells us nothing, thus playing up the nihilism of Smells Like Teen Spirit.
Cover – The Muppets (2011)
For The Muppets (2011), we’re treated to a barbershop rendition of Smells Like Teen Spirit. Sam the Eagle, Rolf, Beaker, and Link Hogthrob sing the various parts, all the while giving a captive Jack Black a shave. Yeah….that happened.
Yes…I said Beaker is part of the quartet, and his parts are sung in a his “meep meep” voice, save for the time when he says “oooooo” after the line “I know a dirty word.”
The Muppets version of Smells Like Teen Spirit exudes silliness. We get the feeling the quartet just doesn’t care about the song. Smells Like Teen Spirit serves as just an excuse to act silly. Even the usually stoic Sam the Eagle has a few zany moments during the Muppets version of Smells Like Teen Spirit.
Taking the Muppets version of Smells Like Teen Spirit at face value makes us wonder if (as Jack Black claims), they’re ruining a great song. However, ass I already stated, Smells Like Teen Spirit has a socially libertarian feel – be yourself and do your own thing. One could argue that, by acting silly and ignoring the song itself, The Muppets actually get the song.
Consider my mind blown….a Muppets cover actually has some merit past the comedic value.
Meta Cover – Kathleen Hanna (2010)
Kathleen Hanna (of Bikini Kill and Le Tigre) tells the story of a really freaking weird night, where too much alcohol was drank, and Kurt Cobain vandalized a religious anti-abortion pregnancy center. During the course of the night, Hanna wrote “Kurt Smells Like Teen Spirit” on Kurt’s wall. She sings a few bars of the song, and then talks about her experience of stripping to Smells Like Teen Spirit.
Hanna then sings the rest of Smells Like Teen Spirit, but we realize how extremely personal this song is to Hanna. All because of a drunken prank by Hanna, she inspires a chart smashing song. She then strips to make money for her own band while the mega-hit she inspired plays!
Once more…Hanna was obviously a close friend to Cobain. While Hanna convesy her stories as humorous, we see a bit more than just humor. Anyone that has lost someone important knows that even the most humorous stories of our departed loved ones have a little twinge of pain. And looking at Hanna’s face, we can see that pain while she’s telling her story.
Thanks for sharing your stories (and your pain) with the world, Kathleen.
Nevermind whatever Smells Like Teen Spirit Covers Work
Usually I would pick the best of the Smells Like Teen Spirit covers. This time, however, I just can’t. Every one of the Smells Like Teen Spirit covers has merit -from the dark Patti Smith version to the clueless Paul Anka cover. From the liberating Tori Amos, to the parody by Weird Al. Even the Muppets version of Smells Like Teen Spirit works…and on multiple levels.
Granted, some covers sound better….and of course the Kathleen Hanna “cover” makes us want to cry. With that said – nevermind the rankings. Whatever Smells Like Teen Spirit covers you happen upon, that’s the cover works best.