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Top 40 Philosophy Flashback: Nirvana, “Smells Like Teen Spirit”

Posted in Friendly Philosophy, Music, and Top 40 Philosophy

Yesterday we discussed heroes and the Foo Fighters. Today, let’s jump back even further in time to the song that introduced the world to the Foo Fighters’ Dave Grohl.

Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” was released in 1991, made it to #1 on Billboard’s Modern Rock chart, and (shockingly) to #6 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart. The album, Nevermind, went #1. (In this video, Mr. Grohl is the one playing drums.)

Here is where I begin to cough nervously, realizing I’m still dressing and wearing my hair the way people did when I was 11 (though at the time I was still dressing and wearing my hair like it was the 80s). I’ve become one of those guys.

“Smells Like Teen Spirit” belongs to no genre lyrically. The words are somewhere between Beckett-esque absurdism and McCartneyesque nonsense. With that being said, they significantly contribute to the song’s appeal. Some of the lines are just really powerful, even though they really don’t mean anything.

Q: “If it doesn’t mean anything, why are they so angry?”

A: I don’t know. Why are Scandinavian musicians so angry, when everyone knows they live in a socialist paradise — the best of all possible countries?

Q: “It’s just teenage angst, isn’t it? Get over it, babies.”

A: Look, I get it. You’re bored and old now. You’re embarrassed about your younger, angsty self. But that just means you got tired and gave up, not that your angst was illegitimate. Being a quitter is nothing to be proud of.

Q: “I didn’t give up on my angst. I matured. I grew up.”

A: First, that wasn’t a question. Second, if you’re saying that “That’s just how I feel” is no defense, then I agree . I’m an Aristotelian about emotions. They can be properly or improperly (maturely or immaturely) attuned to reality.

Q: “But you think teenage angst is an appropriate emotional response to the world? The world really  is that bad?”

A: I suppose. But what I’m also saying is: look what Nirvana did with the angst. They turned it into inspiration for some of the greatest rock-n-roll ever produced. They helped redeem it by using it as fuel for creativity. They helped make an angst-worthy world a better place by filling it with awesome music. And I think that’s something not only to thank them for, but to praise God about.

Q: “Uhhhhhh. . . .”

A: No, I’m serious. God didn’t have to design things such that art could burn even misery and anger as fuel. God didn’t have to design humans such that we tend to create meaningful bonds with each other in response to suffering. I wrote earlier about community in (and in response to) Bobby Shmurda’s work. 90s alternative wasn’t a celebration of self — like contemporary hip-hop is — but it had the same community-building effect. We could just respond to misery with more misery, and to suffering with isolation. But we don’t, or at least don’t always.

Q: “So, you think we live in the best of all possible worlds?”

A: No, I just think we don’t live in the worst of all possible worlds, and that’s something both to notice and to be thankful for.

Q: “Well, this post has taken an unexpected turn.”

A: Yeah. It wasn’t planned, if that’s any comfort.

Q: “No, it isn’t.”

A: If you’re sad, I’ve got an entire genre called “grunge” for you to listen to. It’ll make you feel better, and less alone.

Q: “Thanks, but I prefer classic rock.”

A: Good, because that’s where we’re going next.

Tomorrow: Boston’s “More than a Feeling.”

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