As I scoured the internet, recovering after my post-Christmas dinner food coma, I came across a post from the official Nirvana Facebook page. It read: “‘Smell’s Like Teen Spirit’ has just crossed 1 billion views on YoutubeMusic”.
I gave it a nod of encouragement, perhaps still a bit numb after one too many mince pies, then continued scrolling. However, as I skim-read my Facebook feed, I kept on thinking about the news. Not many videos actually manage to hit over one billion views, and of those videos, I couldn’t think of any half as heavy as Nirvana.
So I found a list, and as you can imagine, they weren’t.
I was bombarded with videos of all kinds: PSY’s ‘Gangnam Style’, the first video ever to hit 1 billion views on YouTube, the ‘Baby Shark Dance’, an internet fad which has already been and died, and such iconic tunes as Carly Ray Jepsen’s ‘Call Me Maybe’. I even saw a couple videos which still send shivers down my spine, such as the ‘Gummy Bear Song’ and ‘Crazy Frog’. I’m sure half of you reading still have nightmares from his repetitive “ding-ding-ding”.
So why is it that heavier songs, such as Nirvana’s ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’, have managed to hit such an amazing achievement… and why is it only in 2019? Well, I guess the only way to answer this question would be by taking a look at the band, and how this hit record came about.
Nirvana were a band formed in Aberdeen, Washington in 1987. Lead singer/guitarist Kurt Cobain, and bassist Krist Novoselic, would be its founding members, being later joined by Dave Grohl on drums. They were mainly responsible for the rise of grunge music at the time, and inspired a variety of acts from the period. Such include the Red Hot Chili Peppers, who were close with the band, and even the Gallagher brothers, with their famous track ‘Live Forever’ being a response to Nirvana’s ‘I Hate Myself and I Want to Die’
“At the time, it was written in the middle of grunge and all that, and I remember Nirvana had a tune called ‘I Hate Myself and Want to Die’, and I was like… ‘Well, I’m not fucking having that’. As much as I like him, I’m not having that. Seems to me there’s a guy who has everything […] and we had fuck all, and I still thought getting up in the morning was the greatest thing ever.”
Noel Gallagher, 2006
Their first album, Bleach, sold around 40,000 copies, and included such tracks as ‘Floyd the Barber’ and ‘About a Girl’, a song I first encountered on Guitar Hero during my formative years. After a nationwide tour, the introduction of Grohl, and Cobain’s suggestion that the band was taking a different direction with their music, they started a new chapter in their discography. They began working with producer Butch Vig, and recorded such tracks as ‘Sliver’. They hoped to evolve from the somewhat primitive tone of Bleach.
“The early songs were really angry… But as time goes on the songs are getting poppier and poppier as I get happier and happier. The songs are now about conflicts in relationships… emotional things with other human beings”
Kurt Cobain, 1989
The year was 1990, and after creative differences with their current label, the band looked for a new avenue to pursue. They managed to sign on with the aforementioned Butch Vig at DGC records. They hopped into a van and travelled to LA to record at the world famous Sound City Studios.
On a side-note, if you’re wanting to recover on Boxing Day, there’s an incredible documentary online talking about Sound City, and all the amazing acts that have performed there. It’s one of my favourites, and anyone who’s a fan of Nirvana, Fleetwood Mac or Foo Fighters can’t afford to miss out. The trailer is below for anyone interested.
The band recorded a variety of songs, such as ‘In Bloom’, ‘Breed’ and ‘On a Plain’, but after mixing the album, they felt a certain distaste, thinking it to be a “bit too polished”. The album, Nevermind, was only expected to sell 250,000 copies. However, it would reach 7 million in the US, and 30 million worldwide. After its initial release, during their tour the band started to realise just how popular one song on their album had become: ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’. It was almost nonstop on the radio, with MTV giving it significant approval, and it was a defining song for their presence at the time.
Even listening to it in 2019, the opening guitar riff, of supposed clean(ish) chorus to heavily distorted, melt-your-face-off power chords, is so recognisable. A combination of thumping drums and punk attitude almost forces the listener to rock their head back and forth. It takes me back to the first time I listened to Nirvana, coming across the entire album on (that’s right) YouTube. I sat down and made it through its opening track, the notorious ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’, all the way to its final track ‘Something In The Way’. Like many teenagers, Smells Like Teen Spirit was the first Nirvana song I heard, and its infectious energy inspired them to become one of my favourite bands of all time.
So why has this record just hit one billion views? Well, I think it’s because it’s just as relevant today as it was in 1990.
The record is an ode to the simplicity of music writing. It shows how four simple chords, while integrated with harsh drums and equally heavy bass, can become an overnight sensation. However, it’s also a testament to how much of their energy Nirvana put in their music. They matched the punk-attitude of their songs with their stage presence, often thrashing about in a chaotic but mesmerising manner, and bottled this energy into four minutes and 38 seconds of solid rock gold.
But don’t take my word for it. Just take a look at what some people have said online. One Facebook user commented:
“Bought my daughter a Tee and a copy of Bleach for Christmas last year. This year she asked for Insecticide and I re-upped her with the Reading Festival recording”.
This is the very essence of Nirvana: it truly is timeless. While they sadly may not be with us, due to Cobain’s unfortunate suicide in 1994, their energy will be with us forever through song. On 25 December 2019 they hit one billion views, but with more teenagers discovering them everyday, the sky really is the limit.
I see no better way to end this article than in the form of video and, if you haven’t listened to them before, do my bit to continue the timeless cycle of Nirvana.
Last modified: 4th January 2020