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Smells Like Teen Spirit-1

Smells Like Teen Spirit-2

Now repetition is a very dangerous thing in music. It can result in something that is very dull. After too many repetitions of a boring section of music, the audience can go nuts. For me, the most infamous example is Pachelbel’s canon. It is probably only 2 minutes in length. No matter, I’m too arsed to sit through the whole thing. To its credit, it does try to relieve the boredom through counterpoint, but to my ears, it does not succeed. The parts are not sufficiently orthogonal to each other.

I almost considered it as a rule once that you should never put out the same 4 chord sequence over and over again, and call it a song. That was until I remembered that “Smells Like Teen Spirit” does just that. So what does “Smells like Teen Spirit” do right?

The way to mitigate the effect of repetition is that it is not really repetition if you are going to use the main idea as a platform to develop the music in various different ways. It’s like saying that “Groundhog Day” is not a repetitious movie. Yes, there is one scene where he crawls out of bed at 7 am, but every day, in spite of the same events taking place over and over again, it is the triumph of the human spirit that he can make every single day interesting and different. (OK not every single day, but enough to sustain our interest over the entire movie.)
So let’s see how Kurt Cobain plays over those chords over and over again.

First, let us at least acknowledge that those 4 chords are rather novel. Not many people use I, IV, IIIflat, VIflat. In fact, Kurt Cobain has built his own vocabulary of chords which is something that mostly only the great songwriters do. Stevie Wonder has his signature combination of chords, as does Burt Bacharach. So he’s in pretty distinguished company.

The first four chords introduce the riff. (Bars 1-4) The 4 chords are played the same way. The riff is hell of a catchy, an earworm that you can hold on to for a long long time. And it is the basis for 90% of what follows. It is played quietly, in pointed contrast to the loud deluge (Bars 5-6) that immediately follows after. Yes, it’s very good to show off that your riff works equally well, loud or soft.

To recap, so far, we have soft riff, and then we have loud riff. What’s next? The riff passes to Novecelic’s bass (bars 7-8), and Cobain’s guitar plays a simple 2 note figure over it. The riff becomes implied, as it does for the rest of the verses. After that, Cobain sings the melody (Bars 9-12). And what a melody! “Load up your guns, bring your friends…” etc etc. Yes, all melodies have to follow the underlying chords. But this is not just a melody that apes the 4 different bass notes. It is distinctive enough, and has enough of a character to stand in direct counterpoint with the bass, as well as the implied riff. This part is what your music teacher would call “section A”. We start from the main melody onwards, because the first bits were just the intro.

Then, the bridge. “hello, hello, hello, how low?” It follows beautifully from the last 2 notes of the verse melody. This is section B. Section B is as simple as Section A is elaborate. By now, you would have noticed how clever it is for Kurt Cobain to put contrasting sections next to each other. Soft follows loud, follows soft. Elaborate follows simple. That is contrast. Contrast is very important in art, expecially if the sections are going to be repeating each other.

The chorus, everybody knows. “With the lights out, it’s less dangerous, here we are now, entertain us!” Section C. Kurt’s voice, Kurt’s guitar and Dave Grohl’s drums are locked in a battle royale against each other. 3 way counterpoint, check it out. The oldest songwriter’s trick: the chorus goes up one octave for dramatic effect. (Naturally this is such a cliché that if you don’t use this trick properly you will fall flat on your face, so be careful when doing this.) All the riffs, all the musical ideas that are implied earlier on in the song come together in unison for a few bars before it falls away again. A short section, section D is played to break the monotony of the same 4 chords. OK, let’s have a recap:

Soft riff (soft, simple)
Loud riff (loud, complex)
Bass riff (soft, simple)
Section A (soft, complex)
Section B (soft, moderate complexity)
Section C (loud, complex)

Notice how neighbouring sections are always contrasting with each other? That is a plus point, but not the main point. The soft version of the riff was already one hell of a riff, but Kurt Cobain’s genius was to come up with 6 equally valid, equally contrasting ways to express the same 4 chords. The song is about boredom and nihilism but the irony is that it never became boring. Punk is supposed to be 3 minute wonders but there are enough ideas in that song to last 5 minutes. (To my utter surprise, I found out that “Police and Thieves” by the Clash is 6 minutes. 6 minutes! A 6 minute punk song! Simply sacrilegious!)

What is the lesson? No, the lesson is not that you can get away with playing the same shit over and over again, even though that is true. The lesson is that novelty – in any form – is very important in music. And that sometimes, the novelty will not come from the chord changes (because other than the middle eight, this is the same four chords over and over). It will not come from the melody (even though the verse and the chorus are two different and equally ingenious ways of penning a melody over the same chord sequence.) The novelty comes from the arrangement.

“Smells Like Teen Spirit” is a song where the arrangement is an INTEGRAL part of the songwriting. Look at the track listing for Nirvana on MTV Unplugged. That’s right. There is no “Smells Like Teen Spirit”. There is no acoustic version of “Smells Like Teen Spirit”. There cannot be an acoustic version of “Smells Like Teen Spirit”. Actually, there is an acoustic version by Tori Amos, that you can check out.

That’s right: it doesn’t work. Take away the loud soft dramatics, the song loses its power. The lesson is that an arrangement is a songwriting device that you can use. Sometimes, the crescendo of a song is the main, even the whole point of the song. It is not enough that you can have a “nice” verse, and put it together with a “nice” chorus. Both parts have to be integrated together into a coherent storyline (never mind the irony that the coherent storyline here is that this is a great expression of incoherence.) Build up, punch line. Build up, punch line. Frame the whole structure into a narrative, and understand what that narrative is.

That song is immortal. It went viral a few months after it was released, and it broke down the great wall around the music industry.

There is a great parallel between the song revolutionizing the music industry and the revolutionary themes of punk. Punk was meant to be revolutionary. It is the destruction of the old and its replacement with the vigour of youth – that is, until the youth either becomes old, or self destructs, as in the case of Kurt Cobain.

Very symbolically, “Nevermind” replaced “Dangerous” by Michael Jackson at the top of the album charts. We know that although both are now dead, Michael Jackson outlived Kurt Cobain by more than 15 years. Michael Jackson was a symbol of the 80s, and Kurt, the 90s.

Punk is extremely nihilistic. Kurt Cobain embodied that nihilism. He lived for barely over 2 years after he became popular. When he was alive, a friend told me that doctors had gone up to Kurt Cobain to warn him that if he continued to sing the way he sung, his voice would be gone in 5 years. We never got to find out whether it was true. He was a full blown heroin addict. In contrast, Jimi Hendrix, another rock star infamous for plenty of drug taking, never ever touched that stuff.

“Smells Like Teen Spirit” is a song that captures a lot of the spirit of punk. It implodes upon itself by the end: the lyrics, which were already confused and incoherent to begin with, collapsed upon themselves, and by the end, Kurt Cobain is singing, “yeee-ah yee-ah!” and other gibberish. The only thing constant and coherent about the lyrics is that they all point to some refusal to ever become coherent.

There is this constant tendency towards a vaguely defined thrill seeking that is never made clear. The id is talking at full volume, and nothing else will restrain it. The guy’s attention is never fixed on anything long enough to be satisfied by anything. The lyrics trail off towards the end, because the singer has simply become bored of the song.

This is in stark contrast to the music itself. Yes, the music is also about temporary and fleeting cravings, but it just seems too tightly controlled and self-disciplined for that. So here’s the paradox: the amount of disciplined that goes into articulating something as slapdash as this!

When you see the music video, it is set in a high school gymnasium. According to American folklore, that’s a nasty place where a lot of childhood insecurities are realized. Everybody’s cheering him on. Incongruously, he shares the stage with the janitor and the cheerleaders – people on opposite ends of the spectrum of social status. Everybody has this moronic stupid grin on their faces, as though the Joker from Batman has released laughing gas on everyone. The rule of punk (and also, hence, of revolutions): there is no such thing as social status. Everybody is equal, and there are no elites. Anybody can make a record. This is the brave new world that I have bashed the door down for. We are all equal, we all love a good time, and we all love music.

Guys, let’s not underestimate Kurt Cobain’s prowess as a songwriter. To me, he was one of the greats. Melody wise, anyway. It doesn’t matter that he was championing the music of a lot of other people after he became famous. He was as good as most of his own musical heroes, and in most cases, even better. Neither the Vaselines, Mudhoney, Black Flag, the Raincoats or the Meat Puppets changed the world like he did.


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