Day Seventy-One: "Smells Like Nirvana" from Off the Deep End
The tedious dictates of conventional wisdom hold that pop music had devolved into mindless inanity in the late 1980s and early 1990s until the righteous opening chords of Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” kicked off an alternative rock revolution that blasted away the stale machismo of hair metal and the sweaty emptiness of synth-driven dance pop.
This is of course an incredibly reductive take but there’s an element of truth to it borne out by the track listing of Al’s second big comeback album (after Even Worse washed away Polka Party’s relative failure). Remove Nirvana and “Smells Like Teen Spirit” from Off the Deep End and you have an album weighed down with parodies from the low-wattage, bubblegum likes of M.C Hammer, Gerardo, New Kids on the Block and most obnoxiously, Milli Vanilli.
Al loves disposable pop music. All good people do. But there’s a big difference between irresistible, enduring ear worm bubblegum like “Mickey” or “My Sharona” and the soulless zombie version peddled by Milli Vanilli, Gerardo, M.C Hammer and New Kids on the Block. Al is a master of crafting smart parodies of stupid songs, but the subject matter of the parodies here tend to be just as tired as the songs themselves. We have two songs about food (the “Rico Suave” parody “Taco Grande” and the Oreo-themed “The White Stuff”), yet another TV song (“U Can’t Touch This” parody "I Can't Watch This") and a song about plumbing cleverly titled “The Plumbing Song.”
It might not have known it at the time, but pop music needed Kurt Cobain. It needed Nirvana. So did our pal “Weird Al” Yankovic. “Smells Like Nirvana” sounds like “Smells Like Teen Spirit” might if producer Butch Vig had a Morning Zoo DJ’s love of wacky sound effects and animal noises but it also sounds like nothing Al had ever attempted before. It's rawer, louder, and more aggressive.
In that sense, “Smells Like Nirvana” is at once a beginning and a return. Yankovic hasn’t yelled his way through a song at such deafening volume since he recorded “Another One Rides the Bus” at the very beginning of his career. On “Smells Like Nirvana”, Al allows himself to be loud and abrasive and more than a little bit obnoxious. The soft/loud dynamic of the original is retained but here it feels more like a matter of soft/loud/even louder/loudest.
The first single, music video and track on Off the Deep End finds Al in deconstructionist mode as he picks apart Cobain’s original so that he can simultaneously parody, with great affection, Cobain’s singing, songwriting and persona as well as the song itself. It’s perhaps the best of “Meta Al” Yankovic’s songs about songs because it’s executed with such palpable love and affection for its subject matter that it doubles as a tribute to the borderline incomprehensible genius of a true pop culture original.
After those telltale guitar chords and thunderous drums, “Perplexed Al” Yankovic begins the song on a confused note, mumbling, “What is this song all about, can’t figure any lyrics out?” He’s in a very early 1990s fog, which could be attributed to the haze of depression, the disorienting powers of drugs soft and hard or just the jaded apathy endemic to a generation whose defining album was tellingly titled Nevermind.
In one of his most intense, challenging and diverse vocal performances, Yankovic seems to be heckling his own song. He’s so lost that he’s continually beseeching the listener to tell him what he’s supposed to be singing or doing. This confusion has an existential as well as practical dimension, for what was “Smells Like Teen Spirit” if not a passionate howl of confusion and ambivalence?
As satire goes, “Smells Like Nirvana” is decidedly on the genial side. This is not a blistering takedown of rock star hypocrisy. It’s not supposed to be, and in this case the dad joke softness end up working in the song’s favor.
When Yankovic screams “We’re so loud and incoherent!, Boy this oughtta bug your parents!”, it’s gently mocking, of course, but it’s also furtively celebratory. After all, in rock and roll, being loud and incoherent and bugging parents aren't just positive attributes: they’re what makes rock and roll rock and roll and on “Smells Like Nirvana”, Al and his band rock as hard, if not harder, than they’ve ever rocked before.
Cobain was a dark star hurtling towards oblivion. That was his essence. That’s what made him so instantly and powerfully iconic but that free-floating darkness and rage and confusion needed to be balanced out by some sort of light, and that’s what “Smells Like Nirvana” provided. Only Al and his collaborators knew that what “Smells Like Teen Spirit”, a pretty much perfect pop song, was missing all along was kazoos, belching, the “Boing!” sound produced by a spring, the mooing of cows and a dude singing/gargling with water in his mouth.
The silliness in “Smells Like Nirvana” wasn’t just the perfect antidote and answer to the grumbling portentousness of Grunge Rock; it was cathartic and liberating. It was a satirical anthem both for people who loved Nirvana and for people who found the whole Grunge thing a little silly and overblown.
“What’s the message we’re conveying?” Al yowls at one point. It’s a more loaded question than it might appear. What was the message Nirvana was conveying? They were feminists and gay rights advocates and anti-bullying, but Cobain’s lyrics were, as Yankovic conveys here, willfully enigmatic and obscure, even nonsensical. They meant something important and profound to people like me, but they also angrily defied comprehension and literal, linear understanding.
Cobain famously had an ambivalent-to-traumatic relationship with money and fame and stardom, yet he was, like every pop star, a consumer product whose angsty despair was packaged and sold to disaffected young people who saw a lot of themselves in his eloquently unintelligible misery. Yet on “Smells Like Nirvana” he yells at the public to “buy our album!”, another reminder that in Al’s world, nearly everything comes down to making money and moving units, even songs from an icon who strived desperately to go beyond the machinations of a brutal and corrupt industry that ended up destroying him.
I have written extensively about Al as our preeminent minstrel of the grocery store aisle as well as our culture’s official singer of silly songs about television, commercials and television commercials. So there’s a neat irony, I suppose, in Al swapping out the name of a tacky consumer product for the name of the band he’s spoofing.
Nirvana's “Smells Like Teen Spirit” is named after Teen Spirit, a deodorant brand aimed at teens famous for inspiring the title of Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” (Incidentally, I'm submitting that last sentence to the Pulitzer people for consideration and feeling good about my chances!) Cobain is re-purposing tacky pop culture detritus to his own ends in a very “Weird Al” Yankovic kind of way. Why did Cobain name his generation-defining anthem after a deodorant? Because he was a weird dude, and a funny dude, and “Smells Like Teen Spirit” is a very funny song even if, as Al makes clear, it’s very difficult to understand what Cobain is even saying.
There’s a whole lot going on, lyrically, musically and production-wise in “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” It’s overflowing with ideas and jokes and wacky sound effects without feeling cluttered. Like “Smells Like Teen Spirit”, it was the perfect song for the moment and brought Al back in a big way, even if fans (and sweet blessed Lord I can barely imagine hardcore fans of Al reading this, let alone non-fans or casual fans) knew that he never really went anywhere.
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