Kathleen Hanna on how she named ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’
Double J’s Artist In Residence for September Kathleen Hanna jumped on the phone with Myf Warhurst this week to chat about her shows before her final edition this Sunday.
I never spray painted it. I just wrote it on his wall.Kathleen Hanna
But while on the line, she also got to talking about the 25th anniversary of Nirvana’s classic album Nevermind that we’re celebrating this weekend and her connection to it.
Hanna was famously responsible for the name of one of the biggest rock songs of all time, ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’.
It’s an odd title and of course there’s a great story to go along with it.
Hanna’s band Bikini Kill and Nirvana had a close relationship. They were friends, and Kurt Cobain and Tobi Vail were in a relationship for a while as well.
“It was just a scene,” Hanna explained. “We felt kinda alienated and I think Kurt always felt alienated – he was a working class guy in a college area.
“He sometimes felt surrounded by kids whose parents paid for them to go to college and that could be very frustrating and annoying.”
As for how the name came about, it all starts with a trip to the grocery store and a can of deodorant that caught Hanna and Vail’s eye.
“I remember that night. We were just hanging out and getting drunk. At the grocery store in Olympia me and Tobi were like ‘Ewww, look at this, it’s so crazy! It’s called Teen Spirit!’.
“We were laughing, saying ‘Your arm smells like Teen Spirit’ or whatever. We were both joking around because the name looked so funny. I mean, who names a deodorant Teen Spirit? What does teen spirit smell like? Like a locker room? Like pot mixed with sweat? Like the smell when you throw up in your hair at a party?”
Later that night, things got crazy.
“I ended up hanging out with Kurt and Dave that night,” Hanna recalled. “We got pretty drunk and did this thing where we turned off all the lights and smashed everything in Kurt’s room.
He didn’t know it was a deodorant. I felt like a bit of an asshole that I didn’t tell him.Kathleen Hanna
“I started drawing on the wall in Sharpie markers, I wrote ‘Kurt smells like Teen Spirit’, because it was in my head from earlier in the grocery store.”
Hanna was keen to dispel a few rumours about the title that have cropped up over the years.
“People started saying it was in reference to Tobi, that Tobi wore Teen Spirit – but that was totally not true,” she said. “She was just a part of it because we’d been in the store earlier that day.
“And I never spray painted it. I just wrote it on his wall. It was written in not very big handwriting on his wall in Sharpie. It wasn’t like a big spray painted thing.
“We woke up the next morning and the apartment was a big mess. I was like ‘Oh my god, did we like kill anybody last night?’.”
Hanna was not at all taken by surprise when the song was released. Cobain made sure of that.
“He called me and asked me,” she said. “I was like ‘Sure. I don’t know why you’d want to call a song that. But fine.’ I just thought it was weird.”
Kurt might have too if he knew where it stemmed from.
“He didn’t know it was a deodorant,” Hanna laughed. “I felt like a bit of an asshole that I didn’t tell him, but I kinda thought it was funny. He just liked the ring of it. Smell Like Teen Spirit. But he also just had a good knack for picking out interesting phrases.”
Hear Kathleen Hanna’s final Artist In Residence show Sunday from 3pm AEST.