Smells Like Teen Spirit became an anthem for disaffected youth, and still continues to resonate almost thirty years later. However, I’ve come to the realisation that Nirvana may have lied to us and Kurt Cobain was being disingenuous. Why? Because teen spirit smells nothing like what the band were claiming it does.
‘Bloody nylon, bloody nylon’. If misheard lyrics were a monarchy, I’d surely be king, or at least in line to the throne. The final words of Nirvana’s Smells Like Teen Spirit consist of ‘a denial’ in refrain. However, when I first heard it I thought Kurt Cobain was singing ‘bloody nylon’, possibly in reference to some tights he was wearing. Despite my dodgy lyrical interpretation, I loved the song, and the album, and the band.
"Teen spirit smelt a bit different where I grew up, back in Newbridge in the early 1990s."
We all remember the iconic video for the hit single. The very opening frame is a Converse runner, tapping along to the opening chords. No item of footwear more represents cool, slacker, disenfranchised North American youth culture. The location is a gym hall, smoky and dimly-lit. There are cheerleaders, but they’re untypical: clad in black, tattooed, and the opposite of the bright, blonde, perfect-smile stereotype. The band is also dressed suitably understated – almost thrift shop – but unutterably cool to a teenager of the day. As the first chorus breaks out, the crowd surfing starts and the moshing begins. It’s visually arresting. This surely is everything you could want in a visual representation of the smell of teen spirit.
The lyrics say everything that needs to be said: ‘I feel stupid and contagious, here we are now, entertain us.’ So few words carry so much apathy and disillusion: ‘I found it hard, it's hard to find oh well, whatever, never mind.’ Lyrics like these epitomise the smell of teen spirit, the corporeal essence of adolescence and its emanating miasma.
"We had no cheerleaders, although there was a lad who once stole his sister’s school uniform and wore it to P.E."
Truly, Nirvana defined the smell of teen spirit. Except they didn’t. Teen spirit smelt a bit different where I grew up, back in Newbridge in the early 1990s. We didn’t have Converse. We knew Converse existed but don’t forget this was a time when people had: a) no money, and b) no money. They may have been available in Dublin, but even if you had the money it was a two or three day trek from Kildare to the city, half of it on foot and across hostile terrain with no water or food. The best you could hope for was a pair of basketball boots from Dunnes. You’d then get a few markers and hope to make them look like Converse, but fail miserably.
Our gym halls were far from smoky and dimly-lit and cinematic. They were cold, brutal places, filled with the ghosts of crushed hopes and broken dreams. They smelt of industrial strength floor-cleaner and stale body odour. That’s the kind of malodorous teen spirit we’re talking about, completely at odds with Nirvana’s depiction. We had no cheerleaders, although there was a lad who once stole his sister’s school uniform and wore it to P.E. We all got a bit of a thrill out of that, some more than others it has to be said.
"Sure, we had Aslan, but they were from Finglas and had their own unique smell."
We may have felt some of the sentiments contained in Cobain’s lyrics, but we were too busy reading Peig and conjugating French verbs to take any notice. Teen spirit constantly had a strong whiff of exam pressure. Teen spirit smelt like a stolen dab of your father’s Old Spice and the dregs of a can of Lynx deodorant you’d got last Christmas from your granny. It smelt like flat Bulmers, swigged from a flagon down the local park on a Friday night, along with the stale reek of Benson & Hedges.
You lied to us Nirvana. You presented an ideal that was never achievable. Your smell was not our smell. We could never smell like you, no matter how hard we tried. Ours was a stink which would never be represented in the songs of the most important rock band of the 1990s. Sure, we had Aslan, but they were from Finglas and had their own unique smell. Yours was a smell we could only dream about. For some of us, we’re still dreaming that dream.
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