-By Megan Bradley
While the ’90s saw many cultural conclusions -Ginger Spice, the Cold War, Hammer pants- one of the most important beginnings came out of Seattle. Out of the excesses of the previous decade, grunge found its way to the mainstream with the newfound popularity of alternative rock. Nirvana soon found themselves at the forefront of the movement, with many Generation X-ers finding an antihero in their singer and guiding spirit, Kurt Cobain.
The band releasing their debut album Bleach in 1989, but they reached mainstream success two years later with the release of “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” the first single off their sophomore album Nevermind. The track, now legendary and ubiquitous, is undoubtedly the most recognizable one to come out of the ’90s grunge scene. “Teen Spirit” seemed to perfectly encapsulate the general teenage malaise of the age, and eventually came to be the iconic anthem known worldwide today.
The track is more than two decades old, yet it continues to inspire artists of every genre. Give a listen to some of the most unique and innovative covers ever recorded.
Kathleen Hanna (2010)
Arguably the most compelling cover of Smells Like Teen Spirit comes from Cobain’s friend, Bikini Kill frontwoman –and “Teen Spirit” inspiration— Kathleen Hanna. Hanna’s cover begins with a personal anecdote of a drunken night with Kurt, beginning with the defacement of a right wing anti-abortion clinic, and climaxing with her scrawling the words “Kurt Smells Like Teen Spirit” on a bedroom wall.
Meant to be a joke about girlish deodorant, Cobain was drawn to the revolutionary implications of the phrase, and soon penned the iconic song. Hanna’s cover, weaving through her monologue, starts as a bare bones piano ballad, then morphs into her own legendary single “Rebel Girl.”
Joan Jett at the Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame (2014)
If performing in Kurt Cobain’s place with the surviving Nirvana members is a large burden to bear, Joan Jett doesn’t seem fazed in this 2014 performance. The punk legend’s rendition of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” at Nirvana’s Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction concert channels Cobain’s grittiness and power, while adding her own trademark energy.
Vic Mensa ft. A$AP Rocky at Lollapalooza (2015)
During a standout performance at this year’s Lollapalooza, the rapper incorporated “Teen Spirit” during A$AP Rocky’s set. Mensa, a self-professed Nirvana superfan, also used the famous track to rile up his fans at Made in America 2015.
Metallica at the VMAs (2003)
Though possibly overshadowed by Madonna’s infamous wedding-themed performance with Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera, Metallica’s cover medley at the 2003 VMA’s deserves to be as remembered just as fondly. The performance also includes the White Stripes’ “Seven Nation Army” and Michael Jackson’s “Beat It,” ending with the band’s own “Frantic.”
Patti Smith on Twelve (2007)
Smith’s banjo-tinged interpretation of “Teen Spirit” is unexpected, yet oddly refreshing. Released on the singer-songwriter’s 2007 cover album Twelve, the track might seem abstract to Nirvana fundamentalists, but Smith’s singing evokes a contemporary, softer reading of the classic.
Arcade Fire (2014)
During a 2014 tour stop in Washington, Arcade Fire incorporated “Teen Spirit” into opposite ends of their own “Rococo.” The result is a seamless, low tempo tribute that dismisses the need for any head banging.
Imagine Dragons (2013)
Indie rockers Imagine Dragons sent up their lighter, yet still powerful, take on the track in Leeds, UK.
Scala & Kolacny Brothers’ Choral Version (2015)
Brett Morgen’s Cobain documentary Montage of Heck offers up an unbelievably moving cover of “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” Performed by Scala & Kolacny Brothers, an all-women’s choir, the song becomes a moving tribute to and reflection on the life of Kurt Cobain.
Pearl Jam (1991)
Pearl Jam, in the midst of a Cobain-provoked feud with Nirvana, ironically covered the newly released single in 1991. It’s only a few verses long, but Eddie Vedder’s vintage shade-throwing is the stuff of grunge dreams.