It’s damn near impossible to believe that the most popular song of the alternative music era – Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” – was inspired, to some degree, by a personal hygiene product. After a bout of spray-painting graffiti around Olympia, Washington, Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain and Bikini Kill’s Kathleen Hanna returned to Cobain’s apartment. There, Hanna scrawled “Kurt smells like teen spirit” on the wall of his apartment, teasing him because he apparently spent so much time with his then girlfriend, Bikini Kill’s drummer Tobi Vail, he had started to smell of her deodorant.
Cobain didn’t know that Teen Spirit was a deodorant and thought that it was a reference to youthful revolution. The rest is history.
Vignettes like this form the most interesting parts of Sells Like Teen Spirit: Music, Youth Culture and Social Crisis, the new book from sociologist Ryan Moore. Written as his doctoral dissertation (or as part of graduate research), Sells Like Teen Spirit attempts to plot the origins of music subcultures in the United States against the economic and political crises and situations that accompanied the time in which the music developed.