It was the drum crack that taught teenage boys how to hit a snare drum with their boner. On September 29, 1991, Dave Grohl’s rip-snorting drum fill introduced the world to the video debut of Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” on MTV’s Sunday night alternative rock show, “120 Minutes.”
The next 30 years would not see another song so transcendent, a song that single-handedly caused an entire country of prepubescent boys to part their hair in the center and scour thrift stores for cardigans.
It also made every teenager with a secondhand guitar dream of being a rock star as they strummed those now-famous power chords. In fact as I write this in my Singapore apartment, I can hear “Smells Like Teen Spirit” come on the TV in the other room. There is an interview with the band Bastille, and one member quips, “It was the first song I learned to play on guitar.”
And thus was born three decades of terrible covers of the grunge anthem. For every amazing tribute by the likes of Tori Amos and One OK Rock, there are 10 additional asshats that think a distortion pedal makes them a rock god.
Here are the top 5 versions found on YouTube that are making Cobain roll in his funereal flannel.
1. Limp Bizkit
Fred Durst is the guy at the Shakey’s buffet that walks away with one plate full of pepperoni pizza and one plate loaded with french fries. He’s not even going to pretend to eat salad.
Just like his limited range at the all-you-can-eat buffet, Durst has used one note to butcher some of our favorite songs. Limp Bizkit’s breakout screamtastic version of George Michael’s “Faith” was groundbreaking in its own way, paving the way for the nu metal versions of “Blue Monday” and “Cry Little Sister” that we never asked for.
By the time Durst warbled through The Who’s “Behind Blue Eyes” in 2003, absolutely nobody cared. Woodstock ’99 had effectively killed the 20th century and bros turned in their red backwards caps for Ed Hardy T-shirts.
More than two decades later, Limp Bizkit is still sucking. God bless guitarist Wes Borland and drummer John Otto – two musicians with true talent – for grinding it out. It’s funny what money can make you do – including sharing a stage with fucking Fred Durst.
Based on the live videos I’ve watched on YouTube, Borland still has juice, but he can’t be bothered to bless Durst with as much as a side eye, much less award him a participation ribbon. It seems they’ve made a brief version of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” part of a cover medley that Borland noodles through, with Durst joining in whenever it fits his fancy.
More than two decades later, somebody needs to finally unplug Fred’s mic.
2. Take That
The early ’90s UK boy band Take That was most notable for giving us the dreamy Robbie Williams, dancing in the rain in a fur coat. By the time 1995 rolled around, Williams took his soggy coat and his bag of coke and hit the solo trail.
Even though the rest of the band was sober, they still didn’t have enough sense to stay in their boy band lane. Instead, they decided their audience wanted to hear them play musical instruments. At least Limp Bizkit knows how the song goes.
As soon as the sweaty boys of Take That kick off the jams of “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” the wheels fall off faster than a bender with Liam Gallagher.
The drummer flubs the opening drum fill. The goofball of a guitar player messes up the transition into the first verse. Meanwhile singer Gary Barlow rips off his T-shirt and preens before the crowd flexing his rock hard abs. Something Cobain did during every show.
By the time the band fumbles into the chorus, Barlow does a kick-step and fist pump and every British prep boy’s wet dream comes to life.
Take that and shove it.
3. The Voice
I don’t know much about the NBC singing competition show “The Voice” except that my boy Josiah Hawley was a top-10 finalist. “The Voice,” as far as I can tell, glorifies bad karaoke and provides a stage for those who get drunk enough and think, “I can sing!”
As Josiah once told me about his youth in the ’90s, “If you said you played the guitar, there were two songs you had to at least sort of play. One, ‘Enter Sandman’ by Metallica. And two, ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ by Nirvana. It’s not like it’s hard, but if you didn’t know how to play those songs, then you couldn’t play guitar.”
As many of Josiah’s fellow contestants on “The Voice” prove, if you want to say that you are a singer than you at least need to sort of be able to sing “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” Unfortunately, there is a reason none of these singers made it big.
4. A$AP Rocky
I’ve been to some good hip hop shows and I’ve been to some bad hip hop shows. The Roots, for example, play an amazing live show. They elevate their originals with new arrangements. Other acts, on the other hand, have a DJ play other musicians’ songs, and then the rapper shouts nonsense over the recording.
A$AP apparently falls into the latter category. I’ve never listened to A$AP Rocky and I’ve never seen him live, so perhaps this one snippet is not representative of his entire repertoire. That being said, this rendition of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” can’t even be called a cover.
The DJ drops the needle on the record, and the crowd goes wild to a recording of the original song. Meanwhile, A$AP Rocky occasionally barks into the microphone while his buddies jump about like third-string cheerleaders.
Do better, ASAP.
5. Kurt Cobain
Thom Yorke hates playing “Creep.” Robert Plant hates “Stairway to Heaven.” Paul McCartney loves playing “Hey Jude.” You don’t even have to ask him. Just pop in a coin and wind him up and go, “Na, na, na, naa.”
When it came time to perform their legendary Unplugged show for MTV, Cobain notoriously refused to play any of Nirvana’s hits, “Smells Like Teen Spirit” in particular. Earlier on in their career, the band was asked to perform “the number nine song in the UK” for Britain’s “Top of the Pops.” It was apparently demanded that Nirvana pantomime their playing over a pre-recorded version of the song.
Street cred was of utmost importance to Cobain. He complained that Butch Vig’s polished production work on the Nevermind album was too mainstream. He lamented that he would be viewed by his punk idols as a sellout.
Thus there was no way Cobain was going to let some dipshit British assistant producer make a monkey out of him and his music.