This morning, on the School Run, I had the music on my phone playing on shuffle through my car stereo via Bluetooth rather than listening to the radio and Nirvana’s “Smells like Teen Spirit” came on.
As the intro faded into the angst-ridden first verse I said to my son, “One of the best songs ever written this.”
“It’s not the best song ever,” he said. “It’s rubbish. I can’t even hear what he’s singing.”
“I didn’t say the best one ever, I said one of the best ever. If you asked one hundred people who know about music to compile an all-time top one hundred greatest songs, this song would be in most of the lists. Ninety percent of them or something.”
“What’s percent mean?”
I gave him a ‘look’, because that’s a conversation we’ve had more than once on the way to school. He knows what ‘per cent’ means.
Anyway, we listened to the song and he said towards the end, “Nah, it’s rubbish. It’s just noise.”
He’s only nine. I’ll forgive him for that. After all, he’s only nine. But it got me thinking—why is “Smells like Teen Spirit” a great song? And how do you explain why it’s great to a nine year old?
The thing about it is that most of the lyrics are pretty much nonsense – even when you can make out just what the hell Cobain is actually singing. I mean, look…
Load up on guns
Bring your friends
It’s fun to lose and to pretend
She’s overboard, self assured
Oh no I know, a dirty word
With the lights out, it’s less dangerous
Here we are now, entertain us
I feel stupid and contagious
Here we are now, entertain us
Yay Hey Yay
And I forget just why I taste
Oh yeah, I guess it makes me smile
I found it hard, it was hard to find
Oh well, whatever, nevermind
They are nonsense, right? What is this song actually about?
It hit me when I was trying to work out how to explain the importance of this song and what makes it great to my son—there is literally no way for him to understand. Yet.
This is a song about the angst of a teenage boy and about the anger he feels at the world. It’s about that angst and anger continuing into young adulthood. It’s about the feeling of helplessness and hopelessness. From the opening riff that powers into life as the drums kick in, to the droning verse and hook into that amazingly powerful chorus. It’s up. It’s down. It’s up again. The drum beat is angry. The lyrics make no sense, but it’s not what they are that matters so much as how they are sung.
They whole thing is an expression of what it means to be a teenager in the modern, western world—or at least, the western world of the early-mid nineties. And I might be in my forties now but the world can’t have changed so much that this song doesn’t speak to today’s teenagers the way it spoke to us, can it?
In short, it’s about a whole bunch of emotions that, as a parent, I hope like hell my nine year old has not yet felt and won’t feel for a good few years yet.
“Don’t worry,” I said to him. “You’ll get it in five or six years. You’ll understand how great this song is then.”
At which point I was horrified. My own father had something similar to me at a similar age about the songs of Slade.
I’m turning into my Dad!
Actually, that’s not a bad thing. I mean, he was right about Slade.