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The Anthem of Generation X

Click here to watch Nirvana’s video for “Smells Like Teen Spirit”

“Smells like Teen Spirit”, released in 1992 by the band Nirvana, is the theme song for a generation raised on John Hughes’ movies, an era commonly referred to as Generation X (those born between 1968-1978). It heralded in an age of floppy hair, Converse sneakers, flannel shirts and ripped jeans. It laid the groundwork for the upswell of grunge music. The song encapsulated the anti-establishment, anti-consumer generation that would later bring us the internet, electric cars, solar panelling, and the movie Reality Bites. It embodied the angst, despair, and apathy of a youth movement in rebellion. Raised by parents from the hippie era, these teenagers noted that something wasn’t quite right with society, as their parents did. However, they matched this awareness with disillusionment, as opposed to activism. Fed up with the hypocrisy of their parent’s epoch, which heralded in both the Civil Rights movement and the consumer culture of the Reagan era, the song acknowledged this sentiment and the rising importance of the teenager in limbo simultaneously.

Click here to watch the ending scene from “The Breakfast Club”
This movie is about a group of teenagers who are in detention and deals with some common themes for Gen-Xers.

Generation X- Slackers, Sell-outs or Entrepreneurs?

Though Nirvana was not the pioneer of this movement and many people account the birth of grunge to bands such as the Pixies or Mudhoney, Nirvana shot to the heart of the mainstream, giving colossal acts such as Michael Jackson and Guns N Roses a run for their money on the charts. Three guys from a poor town in Seattle with an unassuming fashion sense and music stripped to its bare essentials sent shockwaves throughout the world. Their arrival on the music scene captured an energy and raw spirit that served as a backlash against the glam-inspired, capitalist spirit of excess that dominated the eighties.

Guns N Roses - Glammed Out

The song begins with Kurt Cobain’s lone guitar strumming chords for three measures, joined by Dave Grohl on the drums for one measure, followed by the bass of Kris Novoselic and an explosion of distorted guitar. The group is playing with the three member band dynamic at the song’s start, introducing themselves to us one at a time. They are letting us know right away that this is not your older sister’s rock band of the eighties. This is bass, distorted guitar, and drums driven by groove, dynamics and attitude, as opposed to embellishment and excess a la Metallica and Guns N Roses, who employed the typical two-guitar set up. (Kurt Cobain and Axl Rose, ironically, engaged in a fierce rivalry throughout his career). The music builds tension for several measures and finally resolves itself into a clean, melancholy two note guitar part, through a chorus pedal, over a pulsing bass. Cobain once attributed this dynamic of “hard and loud” and “soft and quiet” to the band the Pixies, who he claimed he was trying to imitate. The sound is not only characterized by this play with dynamics, but also by the speed with which they switch between the two- the effect being more jarring.

The Pixies

The Pixies

Click here to listen to the Pixie’s characteristic style on the song, “Debaser”

Kurt continues to loop these two notes as his voice whines scruffily “Load up on guns, bring your friends, its fun to lose and to pretend. She’s over-bored and self-assured. Oh no, I know a dirty word.” The lyrics are characteristically difficult to understand and can take on many different meanings. The lines could be a commentary on video game culture, a failed revolution, the military industrial complex, violence, apathy, and/or the teenage identity crisis in small-town USA. “Hello, hello, hello, how low?”, Cobain continues to moan in the pre-chorus, as the dynamics of the instrumentation begin to pick up momentum. This simple phrase is anthemic to a group of youngsters that would give rise to Prozac Nation, a generation characteristically riddled with mental problems. The lyrics are even more haunting when listened to in a modern context, since we are aware of Kurt Cobain’s eventual suicide after a short life and a long battle against heroin addiction, stress-related health issues and depression.

The song reaches its climax in the chorus, emphasized by the pumping, straight-ahead, crash-cymbal laden drum work of Dave Grohl, the brilliant musician who would later bring us the Foo Fighters. “With the lights out. It’s less dangerous,” Cobain screeches, “Here we are now. Entertain us.” These lines capture the essence of the backlash they were performing against the spirit of the MTV generation. They offer commentary on the corporate media who sought to keep people in the dark by providing them with mindless entertainment, what the academic, Noam Chomsky, refers to as “manufacturing consent.” He continues, “I feel stupid and contagious,” again describing the effects of media and advertising culture on the intellect and self-esteem of a teenager, which sells them products as if they had a disease no one would want to contract. “A mulatto, an albino, a mosquito, my libido,” Cobain continues in the most lyrically ambiguous line of the song. The notion is one of an outsider or perhaps people who are marginalized. A friend of mine interpreted the line to mean that Kurt’s ex drive was insignificant, similar to a mosquito, since sex did not motivate him, as it did most men.

Kurt Cobain Rolling Stone

Kurt Cobain on the Cover of Rolling Stone

The music then continues with a simple guitar riff that sounds like it is bending on the last note while the drums cut out, providing a rhythmic break. It contributes to the mental uncertainty of the song. Kurt then continues into the second verse with soft dynamics. “I’m worse at what I do best. And for this gift I feel blessed. Our little group has always been and always will until the end.” The implication is that a group of conscious outsiders will always exist, since society will never change. The view is fatalist and apathetic. The song continues into another pre-chorus, chorus, and instrumental break, where Kurt repeats the verse’s motif on the guitar, as opposed to performing a guitar solo or going into a bridge, giving the song its simple verse-chorus format. He holds the last note and allows it to continue to ring out.

The third verse is a bit more off-kilter than the rest. The two note guitar part is not present, but instead the guitar note from the instrumental break continues to ring out with feedback, building tension as it is perverts into a dissonant note. Kurt’s whiny growl is now more like a drone. The mental stability of the song has unravelled and the emotive quality is at its peak. Kurt moans, “And I forget just why I taste. Oh yeah, I guess it makes me smile. I found it hard, it’s hard to find. Oh well, whatever, nevermind.” This last line typifies the mentality of a teenager coming of age in the nineties, prepared to rebel but aimless in their rebellion with no real cause to latch on to except for superficiality. The song propels into the last chorus again, but this time Dave gives us more crash cymbal and Kurt adds an additional word which he repeats over and over until the songs gut-wrenching end, “A denial.” The word is operating two-fold- as both a denial of reality by society and the denial of the outsider by society.

Album Cover for "Nevermind"

The ironic thing about Nirvana is that they became a victim of their own authenticity, as their style was duplicated and spread throughout the mainstream. For Kurt, this was a difficult cross to bear. He was even offended if someone wore a Guns N Roses t-shirt to a concert, since he felt that band was misogynistic and homophobic. Kurt typifies the apathetic sentimentality and rebellion against superficiality that plagued the youth of the nineties. Like his hero, Leadbelly, however, he became a caricature of himself. The last lines of his suicide note were, “I’m too much of an erratic, moody baby! I don’t have the passion anymore, and so remember, it’s better to burn out than to fade away.” Nirvana’s impact has never faded away, since the folky quality of their music forged an entire movement of unassuming emo rockers who took the place of the titans of rock, excess, sex and glam for an entire decade. This trend later gave birth to the indie movement, which served an entire community of musicians who did not want to feel they had to “sell out” and suffer a fate similar to Kurt Cobain’s. Generation X eventually proved they had an entrepreneurial spirit. They proved that they weren’t “slackers” after all, as they attempted to reconcile their values within a capitalist society. The song and the band gave birth to this backlash and changed music and society forever.

Click here to watch the video to Pearl Jam’s “Jeremy”
This was another song that defined Generation X, about a disgruntled teen who commits suicide in front of his class. Suicide was a big theme in the 90s. The next generation, Generation Y, would move on to outward violence with the uprising of school shootings.

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~ by Jamie Parganos on February 26, 2010.

5 Responses to “The Anthem of Generation X”

  1. PS Professor- I chose this song before I realized you had provided it as an example. I purposely did not read it, so it would not inform my opinion. If there are any similarities, they are coincidental.

  2. Jamie, this is an A ++ paper in my honest opinion. And here are the reasons why. First of all, you are a fantastic as well as talented writer, alongside creative and bright. The photographs and links that you have provided adds so much to your paper. I can tell you put a lot of time and effort into this paper. I also get the feeling that you feel a personal connection to the band as well as with this particular song of theirs. An excellent choice of song, because it was definitely Nirvana’s greatest and most influential hit of their career and time. It is my personal favorite song of theirs, because the lyrics are brilliant and very relatable. I loved reading this paper, and felt as if i were reading an article in a music magazine. Once again, well done !

  3. Very well written post! You’ve provided a good analysis and interpretation and I would agree that this is probably one of my favorites from them. This song does have alot of contrasting elements from start to finish and I think it reflects on the fluctuating “teen spirit” and culture this generation – from high to low, from fast to slow and all inbetween.

  4. Wow- thanks for the compliment Anda. Interestingly enough, while I owned the album, Nirvana was never my favorite band, because I was so obsessed with Guns N Roses and couldn’t get over how Kurt hated them. It wasn’t until later in my life that I began to appreciate the effect they had on the world. I was always turned off by Kurt’s apathy, as well, cause I am a political activist, which is why I preferred a band like Pearl Jam who actually did something about what was going on instead of just whining about it. But like Kurt himself said- he was a big baby. Also, this is when I first started liking rock music. Before this, I only listened to pop, hip-hop, rnb, and punk music because that was what the people in my family listened to.

  5. You are very welcome. Yeah, i know what you mean about not really listening to rock all that much, and instead listening to pop, hip hop and other stuff. I too, for most of my life listened to these genres, but when i was fourteen and fifteen i loved listening to heavy metal and rock. But after that i pretty much went back to Britney and Jay Z and such. Nowadays, i love just about everything, i even went to a local bands show this weekend and it was all heavy metal, and i enjoyed it all over again. :0))

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