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With the lights out, it’s less dangerous

November 3, 2011

First of all, you guys all rock. Thanks for the many votes of confidence. I might even survive the syndrome that always seems to kick in the last week before I give a paper. It’s called the I’ve-been-working-on-it-for-months-and-all-of-a-sudden-it-doesn’t-make-any-sense-anymore syndrome (aka IBWOIFMAAOASIDMASAS. I think we all know why it’s not the disease of the week). I won’t recover until approximately six minutes before I have to take the podium. The paper will most likely be the better for it, but my blood pressure will suffer.

Actually, you all should come along for the ride, because I discovered quite by accident that this paper, which is drawn from one of my dissertation chapters, actually began its life as a blog post. Yes, it’s true. But it’s from long, long ago in a galaxy blogoverse far, far away, so I won’t link to it. But I got the idea for it when I was writing casually about something I’d been reading that day and that idea got stuck in my head. For years, apparently.

But I’m not going to talk about that music today. I’m going to talk about Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit.”

No, wait.

I know, you’re probably rolling your eyes. You’ve heard it all before. I’m definitely rolling my eyes. The song is ubiquitous, even two decades after it first got airplay. It’s been covered (both well and badly) by so many people: Tori Amos (first, I think, and probably the best known of the covers),

The Bad Plus (my personal favorite of the covers),

Patti Smith with a plethora of plucked strings (I love this one too),

violinist David Garrett (!),

Paul Anka (!!!!!!),

and about a gazillion others. I’ve been listening to the Bad Plus version quite a bit this week, so it was funny when today, while I sat outside AJ’s guitar lesson, I heard him working on the chords with his teacher. It turned out they were actually working on “I’m Not Your Stepping Stone” (same chords, same right hand rhythm):

But AJ’s teacher had apparently pointed out the similarities in the two songs to AJ, and when we came home, he wanted to hear the Nirvana song. I put it on and I swear I was instantly back in 1991. I remember the first time I heard it. I was standing barefoot in my apartment on the south side of Chicago, sun streaming in the windows, while I stared at my stereo receiver. It sent shivers down my spine and I couldn’t exactly tell you why. I hadn’t heard anything quite like it before. Kurt Cobain’s voice on this tune still amazes me. Turning it on today, I got that same frisson. The vocals sound so menacing and chaotic in stark contrast to the incredibly repetitive chord structure and melodic line. What was it? A cry for help? A plea for attention? What the hell were those lyrics anyway? Did he just say “mosquito?” [The only reason I know any of the lyrics at all is courtesy of Ms. Amos, whose version I love to mock. Sorry, Dr. Geek.]

There is no other song that evokes the early 90s for me — and no doubt for a lot of America, because it was everywhere then — than that one. I’m not a Nirvana fan. Never have been. And I’m definitely not part of the cult of Cobain. But that song caught something. And I was amazed at how it still resonates twenty years later.

This one’s for the history books.

Last night I was helping AJ with the chords. I suspect there is nothing more embarrassing to a 10-year-old than his mother rasping out her Kurt Cobain impression while wailing (in her own opinion at least) on her acoustic guitar. If not, I’m really not trying hard enough.

Late-breaking addition!
Jeanne has called my attention to this video, which animates a mishearing of the lyrics. AJ will love this one, Jeanne. Thanks!

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5 Comments leave one →
  1. November 4, 2011 8:56 am

    Being a lover of parody, the definitive version of this song has long been, for me, this one.

    “here we are now, eating tables”

  2. Cranky permalink
    November 4, 2011 9:08 am

    I loved the eating tables version, but prefer the Monkees to the original raspiness.

  3. November 4, 2011 9:58 am

    Just don’t wear high heels – too hard to balance and think at the same time.

  4. November 5, 2011 8:29 am

    Lemming, that explains a lot about the speeches the Miss America contest.

  5. November 9, 2011 1:34 pm

    i’m so glad you posted this. i have to bookmark it for later, because i’m in the office and…well…it’s not really the best place for music videos. 🙂

    i confess, though, that i have never (knowingly) heard that song, and it’s a hole i’ve been meaning to remedy.

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