In the early 1990s, Seattle stood at the center of a new rock ‘n’ roll genre called grunge. The music was loud, pared down, and largely unrestrained. Hundreds of garage bands formed in Seattle over a short period of time. One of them, Nirvana, achieved mammoth success with its first major-label single, “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” That song, the band and lead singer Kurt Cobain would come to represent the genre.
By the time Nirvana started playing in the small clubs around Pioneer Square in Seattle, pop music was witnessing the decline of the highly produced synthesized sound that had dominated it for years.
At that time, rock subgenres were pretty one-dimensional. Heavy metal was loud, and the so-called alternative bands from England cranked out such earnest tunes that critics called the style New Romantic music. American punk, while still vital, wasn’t commercially viable. In 1991, all that was about to change.
Nirvana performed a version of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” in front of a small crowd at the OK Hotel in Seattle. Jonathan Poneman, co-founder of Sub Pop Records, was there.
“It started off with that chord progression, and it went into a really beautiful, almost dreamy verse,” Poneman says. “And then they went into a bridge, which seemed to be leading to something. I mean, there was this tension in the bridge. It’s hard to explain, but then it erupted into this chorus and it was really a jaw-dropping experience. I believe that everybody in the room knew that they were listening to something that was truly magnificent.”
“Smells Like Teen Spirit” became an unlikely hit. It wasn’t a track designed to be marketable, or even accessible. Check out the pop charts in 1991, and you’ll find artists like Paula Abdul, Color Me Badd and Mariah Carey all dominating the Top 20. It’s the kind of music that parents could listen to with their kids.
But “Smells Like Teen Spirit” was a song that parents were going to hate. It didn’t make sense. You couldn’t understand the words, and the chorus sounded like shouting.
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