General Info

Smells Like Teen Spirit

Monday 8 August 2011, by Cécile Desbrun

Lyrics by Kurt Cobain Music by Nirvana
Virgin Songs, BMI

Acoustic piano, vocals – Tori Amos
Produced by Ian Stanley

This was the first cover of this Nirvana anthem ever released in studio version, very shortly after Nevermind came out in 1991 and it is probably the most renowned. With it began Tori’s reputation for doing surprising and powerful covers of male artists and making these songs her own. Alone at the piano, she performs the song with an intensity that equals Nirvana’s loud rage. Plus, it emphasizes the desperate and ironic lyrics of Kurt Cobain whereas most people didn’t notice them when the band released the single.

When asked about why she chose to cover such a song, Tori explained she considered Cobain as a symbol for a whole generation and that his song nailed the disillusion of young men. “Well, I just think that that represented how the guys felt so much," she told KSCA in August 1994. "And um, I did it with a lot of respect. But I brought it to the piano ’cause it’s what I understand. And I felt like I wanted to take it to the feminine place of rage. Not that quiet is feminine and loud is masculine, I’m not saying that ’cause L7 can hold their own quite nicely. I’m just saying, I felt that there was um, the whispered scream that I wanted to bring to it.”

When Kurt Cobain committed suicide in April 1994, Tori was touring Europe and she sang the song four days after his death, in a church in Berlin. She sang a bit of "American Pie" by Don McLean ("... the day the music died") before performing the song as a tribute and sang this particular version throughout the rest of the tour, as well as a few times in 1996. She kept a very strong memory about performing the song soon after his death and was deeply moved by the reaction of the audience.

"The night after we heard he had died, I played Berlin in a church. And it’s funny because I didn’t know Eddie Vedder (of Pearl Jam) was doing this the same night, but we did ‘American Pie.’ (...) I do it sometimes on the tour now. I did it in Dublin a few weeks ago and 2,000 people were singing. There’s just a moment sometimes when I just go, ‘God, I don’t know if people realize the musical mind that we lost.’ I can’t speak of the friend that he was, because I didn’t know him on that level. But there was a respect from the music side that I had for him. And I feel like I understood what he was doing. And it would make me smile when I heard something of his. I’d say, ‘Thank you! For taking me out of this boredom.’ And I can’t say that now.” (Star Tribune, July 10, 1994)

“I did a tribute to Kurt Cobain with ‘Teen Spirit’ and ‘American Pie’ this night in Dublin because ‘American Pie’ is what I heard over and over in my head the night he killed himself. I played it to 2,500 kids: it started like a whisper, and then in perfect pitch, in perfect rhythm, very softly, they all sang ‘American Pie’ with me. None of us in the crew had ever experienced anything like it.” (Free Music Monthly, August 1994)

As he was tired that fans kept on requesting "Smells Like Teen Spirit" at the shows, Kurt Cobain took the habit to play Tori’s version as an intro to several European festival dates during the summer 1992. A journalist also told her a few years ago that Cobain used to listen to her cover every morning full blast at a time. "It means a lot to me," Tori told Star Tribune in July 1994.

In 1992, Atlantic Records released a very odd but funny promo item: a Tori Amos deodorant with the slogan "Smells Like Tori Amos". It was actually a reference to the real brand of American deodorants Teen Spirit. One of Kurt Cobain’s female friends has written on a wall one day "Kurt Smells Like Teen Spirit" and that inspired him the song.

Since Tori’s cover in 1992, "Smells Like Teen Spirit" has become one of the most covered songs, with dozens of artists making their own versions in very different styles (including bossa nova, by the French singer Danny Brillant!!)

information sources

Precious Things #1, Summer 1993.
Star Tribune, July 10, 1994.
Free Music Monthly, August 1994.
KSCA, August 24, 1994.
7 sur, September 27, 2011.