Kurt Cobain accidentally named Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit" after a deodorant for teenage girls.
Like many famous songs, Nirvana's seminal hit Smells Like Teen Spirit has an unusual history. For starters, the author of the 1991 song (Nirvana's lead singer Kurt Cobain) did not know what the term "teen spirit" meant when he used it as the title; he thought it was an arcane anti-establishment motto, when in fact it was the name of a mildly popular deodorant aimed at young females.
Smells Like Teen Spirit is generally conceded to be one of the most epochal songs in the history of rock'n roll. This is because it constitutes the fault line separating the "alternative", grunge era of the early Nineties from the "hair-band" era of the Eighties. As has been noted before, Nirvana was both the kiss of death and the death of Kiss. Grunge had been around for quite some time before Kurt Cobain showed up, but Smells Like Teen Spirit was more catchy and sophisticated than the average grunge song. It was both primitive and complex, both cerebral and coarse. From the moment MTV began playing the grainy, bizarre Teen Spirit video on a late-night program devoted to music it didn't really expect its audience to enjoy, the inane, interchangeably pointless hair bands that had dominated the previous decade understood that their time had passed. Except for Bon Jovi.
No one knows where the riff that defines Smells Like Teen Spirit comes from, other than from Kurt Cobain's head. But the phrase "smells like teen spirit" had been scrawled on the wall of his apartment by Katherine Hanna, the lead singer of the band Bikini Kill. Hanna wrote this as a joke because her bandmate Tobi Vail, who happened to be Cobain's girlfriend at the time, was a fan of the Teen Spirit deodorant. Teen Spirit was manufactured by the Mennen Corporation, which had developed a line of very popular, somewhat "alternative" deodorants for men in the 1960s.
Because Bikini Kill was recorded on the Kill Rock Stars label and was generally contemptuous of mainstream American society, Cobain mistook the phrase for a seditious catchphrase, like "À Nous La Liberte!" or "El Pueblo Unido Jamas Sera Vencido." Cobain, it will be recalled, grew up in suburban Washington State, which had no history of sedition, is best known for logging, fishing, anomie, and precipitation. When Cobain found out what Teen Spirit was, he was highly upset and very possibly humiliated, but as he didn't live very long, naming a song after a well-liked deodorant probably didn't hurt his career.