Music Analysis Project (Corrected)

Nirvana was arguably the most famous grunge band, and was credited as being the face of the entire grunge/alternative music movement; specifically front man and chief songwriter Kurt Cobain. This image was forever cemented when the band released their 2nd album Nevermind in 1991. The album itself received an immense amount of attention via constant airplay or radio, but most notably through constant rotation on MTV who would frequently air their first singles’ music video on it. That single of course was “Smells like teen spirit” and would forever change the music industry, as well as many social scenes from there on out. The song itself is a very high fidelity, yet still raw in its feelings. It had similar characteristics of punk, although with a more syncopated rhythm (one of the cornerstones of the later baptized Alternative Music). It was a great departure from the hard rock and metal bands that dominated the 80’s. It also inspired a new wave of fashion that was meant to embody the description of the music itself – dirty, raw, stripped down, and anything but pretty. The grunge style dominated the early 90’s culture and began finding its ways into more and more cities. It went from an isolated Seattle trend to a nationwide cultural phenomenon.

“Teen spirit” resonated mostly with teenagers and people under 30. It did this because of the inherent stresses and frustrations that already follow those age groups. Philosophically, it focused on otherwise negative emotions (envy, depression, self-loathing, anger, confusion) were put out in the open within this song. It was a more honest composition, albeit brutally honest, but still it was something that listeners got behind and was considered more believable than most of the heavily produced engineered sentiments of its musical predecessors. Production wise, the entire album Nevermind was recorded on the DGC label and was produced by Butch Vig. From the very beginning, Vig’s main goal was to move away from the otherwise Low fidelity sound of the band’s previous album Bleach. Vig did this through the incorporations of overdubs and vocal double-tracking (recording more than one vocal track and playing them simultaneously). This was a complete different process to their previous debut Bleach which was from what I believe to have been recorded for roughly $600. The goal on Bleach was to capture what the band was attempting to achieve musically. The underground, low-fi sound quality was definitely one of if not the biggest characteristic of giving Nirvana that different new sound, contrasting against the engineered perfection of the majority of the mainstream 80’s metal/hard rock recordings. This stripped down sound help conveyed a sense of talent and grit through which audiences became excited about and infatuated with. However with a strong base established, and a motivated and talented producer behind them; Nirvana was now i n the big leagues and making more intricate recordings with song like “Teen Spirit”. Significantly bigger budget, more intuitive, redundant, and saturated recording techniques brought big changes to the bands production values, all the while trying to continue on the original rawness and grit of their freshman outing. “Teen Spirit” had constant airplay on the then cultural phenomenon of MTV was an effective one two punch that took the masses by storm, catapulting Nevermind into being one of the most successfully albums of the last 20 years, and is widely considered to be Nirvana’s Magnum Opus.

Socially “Smells like teen spirit” created an outlet for individuals whose angst hadn’t an outlet previously. Instead of a song telling them how they should feel, it was no a soul individual merely stating how he himself was feeling and finding like-minded individuals. Within the lyrics of the song, many various sources of angst and turmoil are cited as sort of a teenage check list of things that potentially affect them. In the chorus of the song, Cobain states “A Mulatto, an Albino, a mosquito, My Libido”. All these classifications can be taken as metaphorical in some instances where an individual can feel insignificant like an insect. Additionally he states certain disillusions with identity by being a particular racial/ethnic classification. Directly before that portion Cobain states “With the lights out, it’s less dangerous” citing then often time people find solitude within the dark of their own bedrooms or naturally feel more comfortable alone in dark environments. This feeling makes perfect sense when the bands original sound on bleach was described as being negative and claustrophobic.

Musically, the song is based on the key of F minor. This is evident within the songs chord progression (F Bb G# C#) as well as melody line both falls within these parameters. The playing of each pair or chords that are the same interval (a 4th in this case) helps convey a feeling of gears shifting up and those giving us a sense of musical closure with each full progression. The movement of positioning from the F up to the G# position in another characteristic on the minor scale being that it’s a minor 3rd interval, one of the more prominent progressions in rock music (hard rock & Metal).One thing I always like about this song was the vocal melody line is later in the song mirrored by the guitar playing the same notes. I feel the most unique aspect about this song musical arrangement comes from it drummer, future foo fighters front man Dave Grohl. Grohl helped define the alternative genre by his highly syncopated, off meter rhythmic style that was very uncharacteristic of the mainstreams music of the day that would be primarily either 4/4 timing, or the occasional3/4 but would almost always be straightforward in terms of accents and be played primarily on the downbeat. “Teen spirit” itself is in common 4/4 timing, but the more complex alternating (perhaps where the genre got its namesake) inflections on different up and down beats kind of throws you off and makes you listen to it more closely creating this initial deception of timing, much like how jazz probably threw people off who were used to traditional marches and other traditionally rigid structured timing patterns.

The most significant thin about Nirvana’s “Smells like teen spirit” will always be its lasting legacy. Having been immersed in the alternative and post/grunge scene, I can attester to their musical, stylistic, and overall influence on music today. Bands and artists now predominately write their own songs based on their interests, feelings, and what have you instead of having selling images they are predetermined, engineered, and do not necessarily reflect the feelings and sentiments of the artist themselves. These sentiments lead to a rapid surge within younger people learning instruments, particularly the electric guitar, so they too can try and put their own stamp on music that they want to hear. A trend which many of today’s contemporary bands Seether, Three Days Grace, Evanescence, Shinedown, Godsmack, Chevelle, Sevendust and others have all benefitted from the initial alternative musical movement created when “Smells like teen spirit” hit the airwaves in 1991

Sources Used:
Butch Vig’s biography

Various Articles
Regarding “Nevermind” and “Smells like teen spirit”

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42 Responses to “Music Analysis Project (Corrected)”

  1. dperry100 Says:

    My friends and I were sitting around the other day and someone popped the question, “What do you feel was the most influential album of our time?” We all unanimously agreed it was Nirvana’s, ‘Nevermind.’ This album, by far, opened the doors to the grunge movement as well as alternative to follow.

    Kurt Cobain was extremely influenced by the early protopunk and punk movement of the 1970’s. Nirvana’s look and sound gave honor to this and took it to another level. “Teen Sprit” could be seen as the motto of our generation. As many artists have stated, “You know you’ve made it when “Weird Al” does a parody of one of your songs.” He, of course is referring to, “Smells Like Nirvana,” paying tribute to this single.

    After doing research for my presentation on early punk, I discover that Patti Smith-also know as the Godmother of Punk, influenced Kirt Cobain and his music. After his death, she performed “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” and wrote the song, “About A Boy,” in memory of Kurt. I included a link to her video….hope you enjoy.

    Smells Like Teen Spirit:

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