Nirvana “Smells Like Teen Spirit”: What Went into Writing an Anthem of a Generation

Kurt Cobain is a songwriter with a very distinct personal style.

What he didn’t know was how many people would resonate with what he was expressing.

Whether it’s a blessing or a curse, when you create a highly expressive piece of art, one that crystalizes and sharply evokes a focused emotion, people can’t help but respond to it.  An apt analogy may be watching a ultra-high-resolution TV that has more dots than human eyes can detect.  Its vision goes beyond being realistic to being hyper-realistic, more defined and sharper than reality itself.  Which is, of course, un-“realistic” but what it depicts is a representative of a reality, made more dramatic and more acute than it gets to be in real life.  And that’s very engaging to our senses.

Songwriting

Harmony

Considering how much this song accomplishes, it may come as a surprise to rock songwriters that this is almost a single-progression song.  For about 90% of the song it’s repeating the same set of chords over and over — F(m) Bb Ab Db.

That’s also surprising because the song has a very clearly delineated verse and chorus.  There is a rhythmic variance between them, where the verse are played with straight eighth notes while the chorus features syncopated rhythm that comes across as bouncy and propulsive.  That momentum comes from how the 2nd and 4th chords don’t land on the downbeats, but rather restrain themselves to arrive half a beat late.  It’s a bit like a musical sling shot — you pull back so it punches hard when it arrives.

So what’s so good about this single progression that it can anchor a genre-defining anthem?  If you look at the notes that make up those chords, which are the same notes that in the melody, you’ll notice that the song uses F natural minor scale.  Made up of F G Ab Bb C Db Eb.

If you play this scale, you notice that it doesn’t offer any sense of resolution, which makes it come across ambiguous in a not-so-happy way.  In the evolution of Western music, composers found this so frustrating that they started messing with it.  If you raise the 7th so we force the sense of resolution, we get the harmonic minor scale, but then the big gap between the 6th and 7th comes across very dissonant and awkward.  Then somebody got really clever and figured out that if you’re going up the scale, also raise the 6th, giving us a smooth, familiar sound.  But then the whole thing sounds too much like the major scale, so if you’re coming down (thus not needing the 7th-to-root resolution) then have the flat 7th and 6th back in there.  This crafty solution is the melodic minor scale.

Kurt Cobain probably didn’t know or didn’t care about how music theory solved the issue of how ambiguous and frustrating the natural minor scale is, and instead used its characteristic as a vehicle for expressing the sentiments built-in to this scale.  That can come quite naturally and intuitively, if you know to pay attention to how your material comes across emotionally.

The song deviates away from its main set of chords only briefly in the post-chorus section, where it briefly engages in dissonant, pounding F Gb F Bb Ab progression.  This one really sticks out like a sore thumb, because 1) it’s the only other riff, and 2) Gb, the flat 2nd, is not in the key of F minor and is among the most dissonant and abrasive chord there is.   The main harmony is disconcerting enough, but just when you get too comfortable Kurt comes in and pounds you with this greater discomfort.

In short, from the very foundation the harmony of this song was built to express angst, disillusionment, and bitterness.  And that carries on to the melodies.

Melody

Looking at the verse melody, note the overall trajectory of the line — going down.  But it’s not a smooth ride down, it starts out going up and there’s a huge drop, then it goes back up and then from there resumes the downward motion again.  Big jumps in melody is always attention-grabbing (unless you do it all the time, but then the melody tends to sound mechanical) and when it’s going downward it creates a sense of letdown.

Also, in any given phrase the concluding note is of high importance, and the verse melody ends on a G, which is a note not found in any of the chords in the main progression.  It’s a very unsettling place to end.

To drive that unnerving mood even further, the verse melody has notes mostly placed on off-beats, the weaker spots in the rhythm.  There are occasional on-the-beat notes, which further serves to make the rhythm unpredictable.  The whole thing has this slippery, slimy, untrustworthy feel, slithering its way down to an uneasy conclusion.

If you read music, note all the tied notes. It looks a lot more complicated than it sounds because a lot of the notes are placed off-beats.

And the whole pre-chorus section makes you sit on that out-of-place G note even more, by repeatedly going back and forth between Ab and G.  Repetition is a tension-building device, so build it does, in anticipation of the impending chorus.

Smells Like Teen Spirit pre-chorus melody
The pre-chorus melody is made up of repeated two-note figures.

Then the chorus makes a huge jump to high Ab, completely out of range of the places the verse treaded.  This change in range is a classic songwriting vehicle, and going higher in chorus than in verse helps bring out the contrast between the two sections.

The chorus is made up of short bursts of phrases, all downward in motion, but jagged and disjointed because phrases always jump in range from one to another.  This “going down then take a big leap only to come down again” series communicates that sense of disillusionment, even without hearing any of the words.  This is a song about taking out your frustration, and the music alone is built perfectly to deliver that experience.

Notice how the chorus melody is made up of short downward phrases jumping around.

The verse and chorus melodies are so sharply focused and attuned that Kurt found it unnecessary to add any more material here.  Other than the angry deviation of the post-chorus riff, the song sticks to its guns by going back and forth between verse and chorus.

Except at the very end, the melody repeats the final figure (the first three notes of the chorus melody) to create the climactic point of arrival.  And that sense of arrival is strong because its notes, Ab G F, contains the resolution of that unsettled G down to the root/home of F minor.  Of course, this being a minor key the resolution is strong in its tragic sense.  The moody and tempestuous tale comes its thunderous end, and as we feared (or hoped), it’s not a happy ending.  But this section was very needed in creating the sense of finality.  Without it the song would have remained ambiguous and perturbed, leaving the audience hanging in the air.

Lyrics

Just as he is efficient and evocative with music, so he is with his words.  I actually had never read the lyrics to this song until I started writing this article, and I am struck by the magnificence of his poetry.  He writes in my favorite style, which I call “impressionistic” because rather than telling a cohesive story he uses words for their connotation and sounds to provoke an acute emotional landscape while leaving plenty of room for interpretation.

Overall he has a knack for choosing words that perfectly ride the ebb and flow of the musical phrases. He may be the type of writer who writes words and melodies at the same time, but all words fall in place quite naturally and gracefully.  Not many occasions of words with unnaturally emphasized syllables, nor did he cram words in a way that feel forced and frantic. Even though he was trying to express disillusionment and dissonance, his words and melodies perfectly match like they were meant for each other.  For example, the many “hellos” uttered here all roll off the tongue in a very familiar way, with short and long syllables each given the appropriate amount of time.

He sticks to the exact same choruses three times, but they are so rich in imagery and cutting in its sentiment that you don’t mind the repetition.  These disjointed melodies are perfect vehicle for delivering defiance by challenging “them” to “entertain us.” The word play at the end of the chorus is particularly brilliant.  Notice how he’s going after a difficult rhyme of words ending with “o” sound.  Not only did he pull it off without mangling any of them but all the nouns here depict things that are considered awkward and undesirable.  And the final section drives home the bleak conclusion, expertly matching the intensity of the music, with a series of “a denial” screamed over the last bit of pounding.

Cohesion between words and music is something I pay great deal of attention to, and Kurt gets A+ on this front.  The music and words are sharply focused to convey the exact same emotion, so much so that if you just paid attention to one or the other you’d still be perfectly clear what this song is about.

Which brings me to the point I made earlier, that of how I didn’t actually read the words until very recently.  He lets himself get sloppy in his performance so enunciation isn’t the clearest, but that adds to the whole vibe — between his raspy voice and the subject matter, you don’t want a perfectly studied and properly articulated words.  The blurry sounds of these words are assets to this performance, not detracting from it.

Arrangements

When the raw material is pretty brilliant, you don’t have to mess with arrangements.  Arrangement-wise it’s a pretty simple affair.  If you read about this song elsewhere, the soft-verse-loud-chorus pattern is often mentioned.  It is a key arrangement tactic on display here, though hardly revolutionary.

Kurt’s two-note verse riffs are beautiful in their minimalism.  The notes are C and F, and the interval of 4th is well-chosen here, because it creates a sense of openness.  Those are notes that don’t define major or minor tonality which makes it neutral-sounding and you don’t mind hearing them over and over again.  More “colorful” notes would come across stronger but may get tiring when they are repeated.

The post-chorus riff breaks up the steady rhythm of other parts of the song.  Also noteworthy is how Kurt injects one-note vocal stabs to accentuate the strong points in the guitar riff, which creates this gnarly, defiant sound.

The guitar solo simply traces the verse melody, but note that it’s played over the chorus riff.  It goes over fine, of course, because they are the same chord progression, but by keeping it on the “loud” riff it sets up the final verse nicely, which is now extra quiet and open because the guitar foregoes even the minimalist verse riff and plays nothing.

If I were the producer I would have created a small variation in the second verse so it’s not the exact same thing as the first verse.  But then that may be more a reflection of my arranging philosophy than the song’s need for that variation.

All in all the arrangements highlight the efficiency and economy of Nirvana’s sound — as a power trio they didn’t have many layers to work with, so they make it work by writing interesting songs and staying spare and focused on arrangements.  I am a big believer in this approach myself, it’s easy to make mediocre songs sound decent by layering thicker arrangements but it’s better if you can write a great song that doesn’t need too many layers to come across well.

Performance

The song is in a rare-for-guitar key of F minor, and the chorus sits in the perfect place for Kurt to have to reach for the notes so the voice displays rasp and strain.  This song wouldn’t have had the same impact with other, cleaner types of voice or more “practiced” delivery.  The jagged edge and slurred words all add to the vibe here.  Kurt knew his voice and wrote songs that fit his voice very well.  It’s surprisingly common to find singers who are writing songs that don’t fit their voice very well, but that’s obviously not the case here.

The bass part is very simple but has the important role of anchoring the harmony because the guitar all but drops out during verse.  And the bass and drums have an interesting relationship, in that in the first verse the drums lay back and the bass is leading the groove, but starting with the 1st chorus the drums come forward and from there on the bass sits behind the drums in the groove.  This is somewhat unusual because often musicians develop a habit of feeling the beat a particular way — either stay in front or behind it — but here the roles are changing.  It’s a subtle thing but contributes to the drama of the song, especially in a spare arrangement like this.  I watched several live performances and generally Dave Grohl stays ahead while Krist Novoselic stays behind, but it seems to be a loose, dynamic relationship, changing and morphing depending on the day, what part of the song they’re playing and how they’re feeling.

Production

When the arrangements are spare and layers are minimal, the production does best to stay out of the way, and it does.  The opening scratchy riff is very dry sounding, but the reverb stays subtle even when the band kicks in.  The guitars are pretty crunchy, harsh and crispy, so the distortion probably was generated at least in part by a guitar pedal and not all coming from an amp.  The modulation on the verse guitar puts that makes that part sit back in the mix, which is appropriate, so that the vocal can take the center stage without distraction.

The mix sticks to tried-and-true approaches for the most part but there are some noteworthy subtleties.  In the mix the bass and kick drum are way forward and really in-your-face (unless you’re listening using bass-challenged speakers) and even the crunchy guitars seem to be sitting slightly behind the low-end.  The pre-chorus “hello” section has the voice spread out left and right, which makes it less monotonous than having the lead vocal stay strictly center throughout.  It also creates a nice transition to the chorus vocal, which has much thicker reverb than the verses.  The guitar solo moves around in the stereo field, not in an attention-grabbing way but its movement adds to the sense of uneasiness.

Conclusion

Nirvana sets a classic example of how a brilliant song only needs to be presented plainly so that the song can do all the talking.  In the digital era it’s easy to over-layer, over-polish and over-produce music to suffocation.  Nowadays good production is assumed and not a differentiator, so we the musicmakers should learn to focus our efforts on the place where it matters the most, on the songs.  Kurt Cobain and cohorts succeeded where most others fail because they wrote sharply focused songs that really brought out the qualities they could put into music.

It’s really easier said than done.  It takes an honest grasp of your own capabilities (Kurt wouldn’t have written this song if he had rasp-free voice) and finding strengths within what you can do.  In the other words, they weren’t trying to be who they were not.  I myself have been guilty of writing stuff that I can’t pull off or doesn’t come across right with my own playing and singing.  With classical or jazz there are technical standards you are expected to meet, but with rock you have to accept who you are and still find something great within it.

Which is a lesson that applies to life in general as well.  We all discover who we are and then change our approach to life to take advantage of what we can do.  It’s so easy to get attached to hopes and dreams that are not right for you.  It’s a humbling experience to realize that.  I don’t know if Kurt had such growth moments but by the time he cowrote “Smells Like Teen Spirit” with Krist and Dave, he knew perfectly well what he was doing.  And it hit the rest of us quite hard, harder than any of us imagined.

Leave a Reply