You either had to be part of a fairly small subculture of music fans or a professional on the business side of the music industry to have heard of Nirvana before the autumn of 1991. To the few who followed their particular brand of alternative music before “alternative” went mainstream, Nirvana had announced themselves as a band to watch with their independently produced 1989 album Bleach. And to the music-business pros who knew that Bleach sold 30,000 copies after being produced for only $600, Nirvana was seen as a prime candidate for a breakout with their second album being released by the major label Geffen Records. But absolutely no one—not Nirvana’s biggest fans, not their biggest industry supporters and certainly not the band-members themselves— suspected the magnitude of what was about to happen. In just a few short months, a group that was a complete nonentity to the mainstream music-buying public would become the most important rock band on earth. The transformation began on September 10, 1991, with the release of Nirvana’s landmark single, “Smells Like Teen Spirit.”
The song Nirvana’s label and management hoped would be a hit off the band’s forthcoming album, Nevermind, was “Come as You Are,” which was set for release later in the fall. “Smells Like Teen Spirit” was released quietly and without significant promotion in the hopes that it would begin building awareness of the new album among listeners to college and alternative radio. “None of us heard it as a crossover song,” Nirvana’s manager, Danny Goldberg, later recalled, “but the public heard it and it was instantaneous. They heard it on alternative radio and then they rushed out like lemmings to buy it.”
Kurt Cobain, Nirvana’s guitarist, lead singer and primary songwriter, had to be talked into even including “Smells Like Teen Spirit” on Nevermind by his bandmates bassist Krist Novoselic and drummer Dave Grohl. He was self-conscious about a song he’d written as a conscious rip-off of the Pixies’ hard-and-loud, then soft-and-quiet style. But most of the millions who would soon become Nirvana fans had probably never heard of The Pixies or the other punk, hardcore and alternative bands that had inspired and influenced Kurt Cobain. He was the product of an underground scene far outside the pop-music mainstream, but his gift for channeling the noise and anger of that scene into brilliantly accessible songs like “Smells Like Teen Spirit” ended up redefining the mainstream itself.