In the summer of 1991, an unknown aspiring video director named Samuel Bayer went to lunch with friend Robin Sloane, the Geffen Records executive in charge of commissioning videos for the label. With a flimsy résumé to his name, Bayer had little prospects except for an advance from a regionally popular Seattle group. The band had just finished recording their major label debut and were cajoled into shooting a video. With no previous video credits, Bayer landed, in retrospect, one of the most influential jobs in music history: director for Nirvana’s breakthrough video “Smells Like Teen Spirit.”
20 years ago today, MTV debuted “Smells Like Teen Spirit” on the alternative rock show “120 Minutes.” Nobody, not even the show’s host Dave Kendall, knew the impact the video would have on an entire generation, but its influence was quickly felt. “It wasn’t just heavy, it wasn’t just rock, it was real melancholy, real passion, real vulnerability, the way it married intense rage with deep melancholy and sadness,” Kendall told MTV News. “That was the record that ushered in the ‘grunge era’ into the ‘alternative mainstream… It was gutsy and heavy and authentic, and that’s what changed the landscape. Nirvana opened people’s eyes.”
Inspired by The Ramones’ 1979 musical comedy Rock ‘n’ Roll High School, Bayer recruited local Nirvana fans from a show the group had recently performed at Los Angeles’ storied Whiskey A Go Go club. Bayer and Cobain famously clashed over the video’s direction, with the director wanting a more narrative approach and Cobain, still wary of corporate influence and compromising the band’s ideals, insisting on a more spontaneous, fly-on-the-wall feel. (To Cobain’s chagrin, Bayer’s original edit showed nerds and “establishment” types with confused or disapproving looks.) Cobain went the alternative route, despising the idea of lip syncing the song and purposely not matching up his visual guitar playing to the actual track.
The one-day shoot, lasting from 10 a.m. to 11 p.m., had a budget approximately the size of your nephew’s allowance. The janitor was a real janitor from Bayer’s apartment complex. The cheerleaders were local strippers. (The anarchy symbol was the band’s idea.) After 12 hours of shooting the same song repeatedly from different angles, the audience became restless, and with the band already hating Bayer and his vision, was egged on to mosh and destroy the set. The real ensuing pandemonium would comprise the last minute of the video.
When it came time to edit, Cobain returned to Los Angeles to work on the video with Bayer. “He took out a bunch of conceptual shots that in retrospect absolutely should have been removed, and he switched some performance stuff around,” Bayer said in a MTV Hive excerpt of the new book Everybody Loves Our Town: An Oral History of Grunge. “It was very uncomfortable — we weren’t real friendly with each other — and I was just happy when the whole thing was over.”
“It looked like a Time-Life commercial to me, with that backdrop, it just looked like such a contemporary … you know those kind of commercials where people are sitting there trying to sell aspirin or something?,” Cobain told MTV News in 1993. “Or an AT&T commercial? That’s what it looked like to me; it looked too contemporary.”
I was 12 years old when the video premiered and distinctly remember hearing the most famous guitar riff in the past 20 years play while a black Chuck Taylor tapped along on the bleachers. It’s not like hard rock never existed before “Teen Spirit,” but in six words –- “Here we are now. Entertain us.” –- Cobain crystallized the thoughts of every teenager in America at the same time, discounting different geographies and economic statuses and aligning everyone on the same collective psychic wavelength. While it’s reductive to say one video replaced an entire genre, it was suddenly harder to take videos like Warrant’s “Cherry Pie” and Skid Row‘s “Slave to the Grind” seriously anymore. And while Bobbie Brown, A.K.A. the “Cherry Pie” girl, may have stirred up other parts of my 12-year-old mind, it was the last minute of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” that I emulated, over and over again, to confused and concerned parents.
The “Smells Like Teen Spirit” video made a subculture culture. After it was placed in heavy rotation within a month of its premiere, MTV began to see just how much of a generational shift was occurring and acted accordingly, replacing previously popular hair metal band videos with darker and, fine, grungier material. The accolades would follow. Village Voice ranked it Best Video in their annual “Pazz & Jop” poll. Nirvana won Best New Artist and Best Alternative Group at the 1992 MTV VMAs. And VH1 named “Spirit” the fourth greatest music video of all time.
Sex would, of course, still find its place in the new landscape, but putting a girl in a waitress uniform on roller skates now seemed quaint and, strangely, uncool. As Bayer says, “The ‘Teen Spirit’ video was nasty, brown-colored — it looked dirty, it really stood out. Within a year of that, there were a lot of different-looking videos: Pearl Jam, Stone Temple Pilots, Soundgarden. It seemed like all the videos now had this angry, dark vibe to them.”
Every generation gets its watershed moment. Woodstock. “Saturday Night Fever.” “Thriller.” For a nation of adolescence and teenagers perpetually bored and disgruntled (either justified or imagined), our moment had arrived.