December 2007

Impact! Songs That Changed the World - Nirvana: Smells Like Teen Spirit
Standing Room Only Entertainment  D4272
Format: DVD
Originally broadcast: 2003
DVD released: 2007

by Joseph Taylor

Musical Performance ***
Recording Quality ***1/2
Image Quality ***
Overall Enjoyment ***

I have to admit up front that I really didn’t catch on to Nirvana during the band’s heyday. We had their discs around the house -- my wife’s a fan -- and I could understand the band's popularity. The songs were good and Kurt Cobain was obviously describing the alienation a lot of kids were feeling. But I felt that the Replacements were a similar, better band that should have had Nirvana’s sales figures. To me, Paul Westerberg’s songs dealt with the sadness and isolation of youth at least as powerfully as Cobain’s, and they were as personal and confessional.

It wasn’t until about a year after Cobain’s death, when I watched a rebroadcast of Nirvana’s performance on MTV’s Unplugged, that I realized I had not really listened objectively to them. Cobain was a gifted songwriter, and in the end it didn’t matter if the Replacements deserved more success. Nirvana didn’t deserve less.

Impact! Songs That Changed the World attempts to explain the cultural and historical impact of Nirvana’s best-known song, "Smells Like Teen Spirit," in this short (36 minutes) documentary, part of a series of 12 DVDs that give similar treatment to tunes ranging from Chuck Berry’s "Mabelline" to the Ramones’ "I Wanna Be Sedated." Rock critics and cultural commentators come forward to put the song in a historical context, and I had to wonder if they just weren’t paying attention at the time. "In 1991," Dr. E Michael Herrington tells us, "You look at what was big then; it was a lot of safe stuff, Mariah Cary, Whitney Houston…" Uh huh. Also Achtung, Baby (U2), Blood Sugar Sex Magik (Red Hot Chili Peppers), Trompe le Monde (Pixies), Weld (Neil Young). Doesn’t this guy know how to use Google?

A couple of rock critics here claim deep political importance for the song, and they talk about how it described the frustrations of a lot of young people in the early '90s, but they avoid asking any hard questions. Why, for example, did baby boomers, the generation reared on the freedom of rock‘n’roll, rear such unhappy children? In addition, this installment of Songs That Changed the World never considers what makes "Smells Like Teen Spirit" such a unique tune -- how Cobain took the energy, drive, and rawness of punk rock and married it to a songwriting sophistication that had as much to do with the Beatles as it did the Ramones. (For a nuanced look at Nirvana’s achievements, check out this piece by Robert Christgau from 2001.)

Speaking of the Ramones, Songs That Changed the World does a better job of presenting that band’s history and the influence of one of its signature songs, "I Wanna Be Sedated," and even the installment on Madonna’s "Like a Virgin" makes a convincing case for her effect on pop culture. None of the three discs bothers to analyze anything about the songs as music, but perhaps 36 minutes is too little time to go into any depth. Of the three, the "Smells Like Teen Spirit" DVD is the least successful in helping us fully understand the importance of its subject.