Smells like teen spirit

Since this blog is all about Kathleen Hanna all the time, did you know that she spray painted Kurt Cobain’s wall with “Kurt smells like teen spirit”?  That’s where he came up with the name of probably Nirvana’s best known song.

I’ve been meaning to write this entry for a while since Nirvana has been on my mind a bit since their induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame earlier this year.

Nirvana was a really big deal- they hugely influenced me, and I think most people of my age- late 30’s would say that seeing the video for Smells Like Teen Spirit for the first time in late 1991 really did change everything.  But the point I want to make is that it wasn’t so much a moment of- where did this come from? so much as a moment of- the thing we knew was coming is finally here.

Hair metal had a steady formula that proved surprisingly durable.  The original glam rock movement in the UK that it was loosely based on lasted only three or four years.  Glam Metal/Hair Metal began in the late 70s with Van Halen and dominated the entire decade of the 80s.  Bands followed a pretty basic formula- release a straight ahead rock tune with lightening fast solos to establish ROCK cred, then release a power ballad to impress the ladies.  Keep doing this until a key band member leaves or dies.


Despite Hair Metal’s dominance there were lots of great underground acts in the 80s- The Replacements, The Pixies, The Gun Club, Sonic Youth, Husker Du.  By the end of the decade they were starting to get some attention.  Rap and Thrash Metal also starting to gain attention.

I remember loving this song:

Despite having some of the cheesiest raps every recorded, it was decidedly different- both incredibly silly and incredibly awesome at the same time.  The band didn’t seem to take themselves seriously, as, ironically, so many Hair Metal bands did.  And while I wasn’t sure what the song was about, I felt like I could relate to it in a way I couldn’t relate to party songs, probably because I wasn’t old enough to party yet.  Epic was released in January 1990.

This was another song I remember thinking- woah, what the hell is this?

It was a metal band playing a song about stealing stuff, set to bubblegum dance beat.  It’s a perfect pop song, with a classic CC Deville Hair Metal guitar solo.  This song still sounds good.  Been Caught Stealing came out in November 1990.

Red Hot Chili Peppers were another band along the lines of Faith No More- merging several different styles.   I don’t know how popular they were outside of California, but I remember hearing this on on the radio and thinking it was pretty cool:

The video was pretty- what the hell?– but they were different and they maintained enough rock cred to not seem overly ridiculous.  The ending was a straightforward punk riff.  Higher Ground came out April 1989.

It’s tough to pick an R.E.M. for the pre-Nirvana era because you can hear them in so many songs that came out in the 90s.  For no reason at all I’ll go with this one-

It’s a borderline nonsense song, but it’s got a tight guitar groove, a funky wah-wah guitar solo and an overall irreverence to it.  It’s got a huge pop hook to it.  I didn’t know what the song was about back then.  I still don’t know what they’re getting at.   Stand was released January 1989.

Sonic Youth had been around for almost a decade when Kool Thing came out

It featured an appearance by Public Enemy’s Chuck D.  Kim Gordon’s singing is almost deliberately hard to listen to.  The guitar aren’t really driving the song so much as filling up space.  A really odd song, but when I heard it my mind was blown.  Kool Thing came out June 1990.


I don’t think Guns and Roses gets enough credit for killing Hair Metal.  They were like the Gorbachev of Hair Metal- they killed it from within.

Captain America’s been torn apart?  He’s a cold jester with a broken heart?  Where is this coming from?  I was expecting something about meeting girls and snorting coke.  This is real rock and roll, played with realistic sounding guitars.  They were raw and dirty and written off by other bands like Motley Crue as a “punk band” (they are not a punk band, that’s ridiculous).  That’s why they could release Use Your Illusion in 1991 and it didn’t sound out of place, while the rest of their peers were floundering.  Paradise City was released November 1988.



  1. I must admit that I like the Hair Metal stuff and was sorry to see it go. As for GNR, I believe they could have been the greatest Rock band of all time if they could have held it together.

    1. For a few years they were GODS. For me no one was even close to them in the late 80s, not even Motley Crue. Even with their limited output I’d say they’re a solid top 5 of all time choice. I like hair metal too, but I didn’t so much at the time. I had to be older to appreciate what they were talking about. Silly freakout rock was more my style at around 13.

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