“Do not try to slide rule, measure or equate the universe. That way lies only melancholy. I know, I’ve tried it; to hell with it.”-Captain Beatty from Fahrenheit 451
Today I will cheerfully admit that when I first listened to this song, I didn’t get it. It left me squinting at my computer screen with an arched eyebrow. I looked it up and found how well-known and famous it was and couldn’t see what had distinguished from everything else. I kept trying to pick away at the words in the lyrics for some deep hidden meaning. Finally I decide that it would always be a song that would frustrate me and let it go. Then, a month later, after having basically forgotten it, the desire to listen to it again spontaneously found me and the next thing I knew I was listening to it with a grin slowly unfurling over my face as I discovered I was actually enjoying this strange creation.
I then saw with hindsight that my old problem with the song was that I couldn’t figure out its meaning. That when I realized what the joke of the whole song was: it didn’t mean anything. It was an expression of pure existential angst, a lack of answers and all the angry emotional roller-coasters that stirs up in people.
The song wastes no time, getting our attention up front with its grating, electrifying opening riff that growls like a ferocious animal that’s on the edge of attacking. It alternates between high and low notes to simulate the inner buildup of anger reaching its most intense peak then being expelled with sudden, blunt force, with the mutes in between being the moments of introspective rest between theses freak-outs. In a way, the riff is a microcosm of all the changes in dynamics that take place in the song and it builds immediate tension, letting the audience know that some great wave of raw emotion is about to hit. And indeed it does.
With no more warning than Dave Grohl pounding his first few hits on his drums, the song launches an all-out assault of pure noise, fueled by the main riff and distorting until it’s barely recognizable and sounds as though the guitar itself is screaming.
This blast of pure crushing sound loops around on itself continuously until the audience finds itself wondering where the song is supposed to be inside of this mess. Right when that begins to happen, the guitars and drums suddenly build in speed, leading us to expect even greater levels of intensity, and then the song pulls the rug out from under us by unexpectedly cutting out the guitars and the drums, dropping the audience flat on its back into the calm of the verse. This buildup then release is brilliant because it makes this shift, and the many others that follow, feel natural instead of jarring. The greater importance of these changes is that they mimic the real life mood swings of a person whose introspection leads to no concrete results.
Still, despite how its handled, the audience is surprised by being let go like that and strains to hear everything that just vanished. All that can be heard is Kurt’s 2 high notes, along with Krist’s and Dave’s faint but steady rhythm that slowly draws us in deeper, keeping the tension of the song alive. The audience is waiting but for what?
That’s when Kurt begins to sing the verse in a soft soothing tone, like a lullaby, releasing the energy of the previous section.
We focus our attention on the lyrics, hoping that here, in the calm, we will be given an explanation for the changes in tones we have been witnessing so far, only to find the lyrics either indecipherable or, once they have been look up on Google, random and senseless. Anyone who is approaching the song hoping to sort its message out rationally will end up frowning, confused and annoyed.
After offering us nothing but this nonsensical chorus, the song moves into the echoing, trance-inducing “Hello/Hello/Hello/How low?” segment that numbs the mind, slowly dissolving thought and reason with its dreamy, cyclical rhythm. Also, by having a quicker tempo than the chorus, it unmistakably ratchets up the energy levels of the song, which grow to a peak then explode with the return of the distorted and Kurt screaming the now-famous chorus, the morose and insolent “Here we are now, entertain us!”
It is a snarling rebuke, designed to shield the proud person’s inner turbulence from others people’s eyesight, so that the person can figure out their problems without help from others. Kurt then belts out the “A mulato/ An albino” section, a collection of words that have nothing in common but the fact that they rhyme, further confusing those who wanted the song to explain itself. It is a, however, an accurate reflection of the mental state of those who sink too deeply into the disorganized, frothing angst the song portrays. This seething, frustrated anger is further mimicked in the guitar that leads the audience back into the verse, which has a sharp edge to it that the rest of the song doesn’t capture, except the outro.
The drums build and give out again to ease the transition to the chorus a second time but this time we are truly surprised by the shift, having expected the song to keep growing more gratingly powerful. Kurt’s two high notes, so seemingly unimportant before, help to reorient us. Now the song has capture our attention completely, having become an enigma we are intent on solving as we try to predict its next move. It gives us another nonsense verse, as though mocking our efforts, then takes the exact same wild, escalating ride as before.
The sameness of the process, and our own uncertainty about the song encourages us to predict that it will again re-enter the verse right after the chorus is done. We couldn’t be more wrong. And that’s part of the songs brilliance, its unpredictability.
Right when the song should fulfill our expectations, Kurt plays a ghostly howl that steadily emerges from the noise around it, like a spontaneous cry of overwhelming existential despair and then all hell breaks loose in a solo that is an apocalyptic chaos of unbridled and destructive rage directed at all the contradicting thoughts, values, morals, opinions of others and constraints of society around us that that can’t be reconciled, canceling each other out, making no sense and driving us all crazy.
This solo is also a distorted musical recreation of the tune of Kurt sang in the verse, thus combining the calm of the verse and the rage of distortion in the chorus. The result of this brings to life a person so out of control with unseeing anger they feel as though they are watching themselves from far away, unable to stop themselves. This is what made it, and what still makes it after so many years, one of the great songs to lose yourself to. It is also when the audience understands that the song has actually been following the traditional pattern for pop songs (into, verse, chorus, verse, chorus, solo, verse, chorus, outro) and that all our guesswork and prediction resulted from being duped into thinking that the song must be following a unique style since its segments differ so sharply from each other.
The solo ends with a long drawn-out note, bringing to mind a man screaming on his knees with frustration. Krist’s bass and Dave’s drums begin their quiet rhythm again but without Kurt’s 2 high notes: this is the silence after emotion and a breather for the audience. But the song is still going and we realize it’s not over yet.
Kurt begins to sing the verse for the final and the first two lines of it, “And I forget just why I taste/Oh yeah I guess it makes me smile,” almost sound as if Kurt is ruminating on all the entire disjointed, raging insanity that has just occurred.
The next line, “I found it hard, it’s hard to find,” makes the audience sit up straight again, as we wonder if we are about to be given some answers, some fantastic explanation that will connect all the dots of the song and justify its surreal senselessness. And that’s the song pulls its final joke on us, taking all of our burning questions and gently brushing them aside with no more than “Oh well, whatever, nevermind.” And it’s the perfect ending. The words of this line fall smoothly into place, syllable by syllable, fitting the rhythm like a glove and ending with a note of finality one the word “nevermind,” giving the album its title and us our answers. Because, in a sense, by pushing away our questions the song is actually giving its true meaning to its audience, saying that all the meaningless chaos that has occurred was just that, meaningless chaos. In that way, the song is very much like this thing called life, which gives no definite answers to those who go looking to their minds to find the right path, and to hear the song basically admit to it is a moment that is satisfying and even cathartic.
Those who still try to figure the song out will be left bewildered, while those who got it will be laughing themselves to pieces. Either way, the chant of “Hello, hello” begins again and, get it or not, we are all going to follow this ride to its end.
The song ploughs through its now familiar sections, growing and growing in strength until, without even bothering with the back-to-verse guitar section, it shoots immediately to the crescendo of the outro to form one final blast of raw, sustained emotion that is more direct and intense then the solo could ever be, spearheaded by Kurt’s continuous, focused “A denial! /A denial!” that pounds away at the audience, going on and on, beating us into submission, over and over again until it seems like it will never end. It the focused attack of a person who has found that the meaninglessness of life isn’t really what’s causing them so much trouble, it’s actually their constant, bullheaded attempts to figure life out with absolute certainty. If they’d just accept it the uncertainty and live with it, they’d save time to live and end the wild mood swings the entire song is made of. And the person’s response to this realisation of their responsibility is to fight against the truth of it. This is why the outro is so much darker than the solo, whereas the latter was a moment of genuine, out of control anger that had to be expressed, the former is a calculated, stubborn and prideful attempt to ignore reality. It’s also why the song ends on such a tortured scream of tearing hurt. And so ends Smells like Teen Spirit, leaving us drained and energized all at once. No other Nirvana song has quite the same level of sheer power that this one has. It is their loudest, most balls-to-the-wall piece of work. Some will walk away and never think of it again. Others will listen to it on repeat, as I did.
The song relies on intuition to get its meaning across to its audience. It has to because angst can’t be explained or it wouldn’t be angst. The song’s ability to reach out in this subliminal way to those who listen to it is part of why it is and always will be a true achievement. Much more importantly though, on top of all that has been mentioned, it is one damn fun song and therein lies its greatest staying power.
By : Gabriel Cole