“Smells Like Teen Spirit” (1991)
Seattle punks start a revolt, and snuff hair metal.
Robin Sloane, Geffen Records Exec: Kurt Cobain was the only artist I’ve ever known who had brilliant, fully realized ideas he could express in one sentence. With “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” Kurt said, “My idea for the video is a pep rally gone wrong.” He looked at director Sam Bayer’s reel and loved it, so I hired Sam. But there were a lot of problems between Sam and Kurt.
Courtney Love: Kurt hated Sam Bayer. For “Teen Spirit,” Kurt wanted fat cheerleaders, he wanted black kids, he wanted to tell the world how fucked up high school was. But Sam put hot girls in the video. The crazy thing is, it still worked.
Dave Grohl, Band Member: The idea was, the kids take over and burn down the gymnasium, just as Matt Dillon did in Over the Edge, with the rec center. Kurt was a huge fan of that movie. We walked into that whole thing really cautiously, because we didn’t want to misrepresent the band. There were certain things we found to be really funny about videos—tits and ass and pyrotechnics, shit like that—and when we showed up at the shoot, we were like, Wait a minute, those cheerleaders look like strippers.A lot of people we worked with didn’t understand the underground scene or punk rock.
Samuel Bayer: I scouted L.A. strip clubs for the cheerleaders. Kurt didn’t like them. I couldn’t understand why he wanted to put unattractive women in the video. I think Kurt looked at me and saw himself selling out. So anything I did was construed as corporate. But to me, these were nasty girls. They had rug burns on their knees. In my eyes, the whole video was dirty. It’s all yellows and browns. It was the opposite of everything on MTV at the time; every video was blue and backlit with big xenon lights. I was a painter. I was trying to rip on Caravaggio and Goya.
Sloane: All the kids in the bleachers were drunk.
Grohl: We did a couple of takes, and the audience just started destroying the stage. The director’s on a bullhorn screaming, “Stop! Cut!” And that’s when it started to make sense to me: This is like a Nirvana concert.
Bayer: The day of the video shoot was pure pain. Kurt hated being there. Maybe it was his venom coming through, but I’ve been on 200 music-video sets since, and that was the best performance I’ve ever seen.
Amy Finnerty, MTV VP of Programming: Initially, my boss said, “Look, the visuals are great, and they have a catchy name, but beyond that, I don’t really know what this is gonna do.” I said, “I understand why we’re playing Paula Abdul and Whitesnake. But if there isn’t a place for this, I don’t know what I’m doing here.”
Love: The first time Kurt and I slept together was at a Days Inn in Chicago. We were having our first postcoital moment, and we’re watching MTV and the video came on. I pulled away from him, because it was his video, his moment, he was the king of the fucking world, and he put his arm around me and pulled me closer. Which was symbolic, like, “I’m letting you into my life.” That really endeared him to me. The next time I saw the video with him was at the Omni Northstar Hotel in Minneapolis. I’d flown there to fuck Billy Corgan, who still had lots of hair. I didn’t even know Nirvana were playing that night. Kurt and I wound up at the Northstar, and our daughter, Frances, was basically made that night. “Smells Like Teen Spirit” was on MTV every five fucking minutes.
Bayer: That video gave me a career. Everyone wanted to do a Nirvana-type video: Ozzy Osbourne, Johnny Lydon, the Ramones.
Kip Winger, Hair-Metal Singer: I watched “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” and I thought, All right, we’re finished.
Kevin Kerslake, Director: “Teen Spirit” crossed the Rubicon. Nirvana became the mold for success, the way Poison had been four years before. There are many ironies within the history of MTV, and that is one of them: The revolutionary fights the dictator, and ultimately becomes the dictator. It’s just swapping chairs.