Viewed through the lens of time, “Smells Like Teen Spirit” by Nirvana isn’t a song. It’s a cultural moment, a marker in the history of rock music that changed everything that was and everything that would be.
Of course, it was just “a song” at one point — a song that received a music video treatment that suited its dissonant-but-hauntingly-catchy riffs, Kurt Cobain’s jagged guitar and vocal delivery and overall tone of disaffected youth. The lead track on 1991’s Nevermind was the moment Nirvana ceased to be a band and became a phenomenon.
It hit at the perfect time, and would launch the “grunge” trio to global stardom and Cobain, much to his eventual dismay, the status of “spokesman of a generation.”
And recently, the video hit a milestone that seems both unbelievable and totally believable, with its 1,000,000,000th stream on YouTube. That’s one BILLION, if you didn’t catch all the zeroes.
The imagery of this video, the first directed by Samuel Bayer, captured Nirvana in its element. The lens filter made everything look like it was underwater and buried beneath piles of dirt, angsty teens filling what was made up to be a school gymnasium while Cobain, drummer Dave Grohl and bassist Krist Novovselic thrashed about.
Nearly three decades later, the video remains one of the most unforgettable ever — and even inspired “Weird Al” Yankovic to mimic the song with his “Smells Like Nirvana” parody, which has gone on to be one of his signature tunes, as well.
The casting call for the original Nirvana video was simple and straightforward, and imagining young Nirvana fans who came across it, obviously unaware of the impact the video would have on the world at large, is fascinating.
In eclipsing a billion views — which, again, seems ridiculous, but is very true — “Smells Like Teen Spirit” became just the second music video from the 1990s to reach that figure.
The other? Guns N’ Roses’ epic “November Rain” clip from 1992.
It’s worth pointing out that the ubiquity of YouTube is undeniable, as even with a billion views these videos from the ’90s don’t come close to some of the most-viewed ever, which have racked up tens of billions apiece, ranging in styles and sounds.
In reaching a billion views, “Teen Spirit” averaged over 450,000 views per day in 2019, part of a larger trend of Nirvana-related videos surging on the video platform:
Over the last 12 months Nirvana has racked up over 730M views, earning massive views in the United States (150M) along with countries like Brazil (70M), Mexico (64M), France (31M) and the United Kingdom (26M)
It’s the song that won’t die, from an era of rock and roll that refuses to be forgotten — a fitting accomplishment for one of the most visceral breakthrough/crossover hits in music history.