Revisit Nirvana’s First Performance of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” in Honor of the Song’s 30th Anniversary

A ferocious onstage debut from April 1991

Nirvana 1991
Nirvana performing in 1991, photo by Frans Schellekens/Redferns

    Today marks the 30th anniversary of the release of “Smells Like Teen Spirit”, the lead single off Nevermind and undoubtedly Nirvana’s biggest hit.

    As the story goes, Kurt Cobain came up with the title after friend Kathleen Hanna, then of Bikini Kill, wrote the phrase “Kurt Smells Like Teen Spirit” on his wall. Cobain mistakenly thought the slogan had to do with the revolutionary riot grrrl movement, when in fact Hanna was referring to Teen Spirit, a brand of deodorant that his girlfriend and Bikini Kill bandmate Tobi Vail frequently wore. (Though longtime producer Butch Vig has a slightly different theory.)

    In commemoration of this rock history milestone, we’re revisiting the very first live performance of “Smells Like Teen Spirit”, which is believed to have taken place on April 17th, 1991 at Seattle’s OK Hotel — almost five full months before the song officially came out. It’s a grainy watch, but thrilling and intense nevertheless, especially when Cobain presses his lips against the mic and howls out to a crowd of insatiable, reckless teens. Also, it’s worth noting that this rendition differs slightly from the recorded version, which was released on September 10th, 1991. The chills felt while witnessing such a thing were real then, and they’re still very real now.


    30 years later, “Smells Like Teen Spirit” remains one of the most popular songs in rock music history. Earlier this year, the song surpassed one billion streams on both YouTube and Spotify.