Stupid And Contagious
‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ is the unofficial anthem of Gen-X angst. (Well, that and Radiohead’s ‘Creep’ and Beck’s ‘Loser’.) Even if you were on Weird Al Yankovic’s side and couldn’t really understand Kurt Cobain’s growling and screaming, Nirvana’s 1991 smash bottles a moment.
It’s smart even while it calls itself stupid, and sincere even when trying to be disaffected. While its title comes from Kathleen Hanna’s teasing accusation that Cobain used his girlfriend’s deodorant, the way it still manages to wring revolutionary rhetoric from its banality is compelling.
Paradoxically, it gives voice to inarticulacy. Blur’s similarly opaque, shouty ‘Song 2′ was intended as a grunge parody, but still ended up igniting suburban kids’ coming-of-age rituals six years later.
But ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’s cultural moment has passed. Now it’s an artefact of rock authenticity, and it tends to be covered as a kind of karaoke exercise by a singer who wants to claim, or update, his or her rock credentials.
Sometimes, the cover version annihilates cool. Take a bow, Miley Cyrus:
Miley sings ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ in her Gypsy Heart tour, which hits Australia on 21 June. Personally I don’t think it’s that bad; there’s a certain grit in Miley’s voice that suits the song. However, it’s not brilliant, either. She’s definitely trying pretty hard to be ‘rock’. It’s kind of like that time Madonna played the guitar.
But oh dear, she hasn’t tried nearly as hard, or as pathetically, as Take That. Performing at Earls Court in 1995 in tribute to Kurt Cobain, they only succeed in embarrassing themselves. Would Kurt have worn those pleather pants?
Tori Amos was the first prominent musician to cover the song. She recorded an acoustic version for her Crucify EP, which Kurt Cobain called “a great breakfast cereal version”. (This was before ‘Cornflake Girl’, by the way.) Here she is, performing it live at the Montreux Jazz Festival in 1992.
Hipsters can’t help themselves, either. Live in 2008, at New York’s Roseland Ballroom, Of Montreal had a go, with Andrew VanWyngarden from MGMT on guitar. Musically, it’s perfectly serviceable, but it’s pretty indistinguishable from your average drunken coolsie karaoke rendition, especially with all those dickheads in stupid outfits flailing about in the background.
Conversely, Patti Smith’s bluegrass-inflected version pretty much abandons the original tune, but the instrumentation is brilliant, and at least she brings her own persona and attitude to it. The way it builds slowly into a furious hoedown is really something.
Paul Anka’s schwingy lounge version reminds me of that late-’90s trend, popularised by Frank Bennett and the Mike Flowers Pops, to ironise alternative music with easy-listening arrangements. French singer Julien Doré performed it in a similar style on his way to winning the French Idol talent quest, Nouvelle Star.
One thing I’ll give Paul Anka – he’s a total showman. He sounds great, and he’s not even out of third gear here. This, I’ll remind you, is the guy who wrote ‘My Way’.
There’s also a healthy dollop of irony to the Ukelele Orchestra of Great Britain’s version. The actual ukeleles sound fantastic – vaguely like that lively folk stuff from the ’60s – and it’s just a shame about the terrible vocalist. And, um, how about that guy on the far left with the grey ponytail…?
Willie Nelson was just noodling around in 2001 when this impromptu cover was recorded in Australia, and it’s still effortlessly cooler than Take That.
However, if you want to make Kurt Cobain sound like Whitney Houston, check out this cover by Argentinian metal band Bruthal 6, featuring members of Slipknot, Mudvayne and Static X.
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