There are only a handful of songs that have significantly altered the course of music history. Lennon’s “Imagine.” Dylan’s “Blowing in the Wind.” Cage’s “4’33.” Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit.” Another, unassailably, is “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” Nirvana‘s benchmark single that unexpectedly rocketed both the band and alternative rock to new heights. The subsequent video, too, was instantly iconic. “Teen Spirit” would go on to net Nirvana Best New Artist and Best Alternative Group honors at the 1992 MTV Video Music Awards, and in 2000 Guinness World Records declared “Teen Spirit” the Most Played Video on MTV Europe.
Yesterday marked the 25-year anniversary of the video’s filming, when it was soon to debut on a late Sunday night on a then-niche MTV program, premiered by a man that didn’t even know who Nirvana was. He would soon enough, though, and so would the rest of the world.
To shoot and direct the now-seminal video, Nirvana hired first-time director Samuel Bayer (he’s since helmed the 2010 remake of A Nightmare on Elm Street and shot and directed music videos for David Bowie, Green Day, Metallica, The Strokes, The Rolling Stones, and a slew of other eminent musicians). Bayer, according to the 2005 Nevermind documentary, believes he was chosen because his test-reel was so shoddy that Nirvana was guaranteed to get a “punk” and “not corporate” video out of him. He was also affordable and willing to shoot the video on a relatively shoestring budget ($30,000 – $50,000).
To those that have seen it (420 million have seen the above version alone), you know that the video is decidedly “not corporate.” But, of course, it’s also not shoddy. Set in a high school gym (which is actually a soundstage in Culver City), the video takes cues from the 1979 coming-of-age film, Over the Edge, as well as the Ramones‘ cult classic, Rock ‘n’ Roll High School, borrowing the model in which a school concert devolves into riot and anarchy.
To capture that aesthetic, Bayer used cheerleaders garbed in black outfits with the Circle-A anarchist symbol and restless, bleacher-bound high school students—all actual Nirvana fans that answered an open casting call. At the end of the faux pep rally, unable to constrain their angst, the kids destroy the set and the band’s equipment, which actually happened. After a day full of shoots and reshoots, Kurt Cobain convinced Bayer to let the kids mosh, so they did. “Once the kids came out dancing they just said ‘fuck you,’ said the late frontman in Michael Azerrad’s Nirvana biography, “because they were so tired of this shit throughout the day.”
The video would eventually premiere on September 29, 1991 on MTV’s alternative music program, “120 Minutes.” At that point, despite the fact that Bleach had arrived two years earlier, Nirvana was still relatively unknown. Even the host of “120 minutes,” Dave Kendall, didn’t know the band. “I hadn’t heard Bleach, I wasn’t that aware of new, American rock … when I first heard the Nevermind record,” he told MTV in a Nevermind retrospective. “I thought it was going to be another Seattle record, so I was a little suspicious and a little resistant to it because I thought it was going to be a lot of guitars, sort of a ’70s feel. I didn’t think it was going to be something new,” Kendall continued. “And then when I heard it, I knew I’d been wrong. It wasn’t just heavy, it wasn’t just rock, it was real melancholy, real passion, real vulnerability, the way it married intense rage with deep melancholy and sadness. And that really touched me.”
The perceived authenticity of the video is really its crowning accomplishment, especially considering Cobain admitted to Rolling Stone that he was “basically trying to rip off the Pixies” when he wrote “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” Still, nothing about the video comes off as dishonest, and its success helped paint alternative rock as a more relatable, viable source of mainstream music. Moreover, on the tail end of the synthesized, keyboard-heavy ’80s, “Smells Like Teen Spirit” helped reintroduce the guitar as a relevant rock instrument.
“Teen Spirit” was a breath of fresh air, plain and simple, and it reached an audience that had been left out by a formulaic pop industry that Bayer decried in the aforementioned documentary. Unlike other artists he worked with, Cobain was devoid of vanity and intent on capturing “something that was truly about what they were about.”
And what they were about, as we all know now, was impassioned, guitar-laden grunge that made otherness feel inclusive. “Teen Spirit” was one of the first documents of that revered Nirvana authenticity. It’s the gritty mirror image of the chemical-clean sterility of a gymnasium. The foil to high school hallway decorum. An alternative option for high schoolers not keen on cosmetic, homecoming rally pep. The ultimate rebel yell of the past quarter century.
Image: Sub Pop