“Weird Al” Yankovic – Smells Like Nirvana
Label: Scotti Bros. Records 866 957-2
Format: CD, Single
Genre: Pop, Rock, Grunge Parody
1 Smells Like Nirvana 3:42 ………..parody of Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit”.
Lyrics By Al Yankovic* Written-By K. Cobain*, Nirvana
2 Waffle King 4:26
Written-By Al Yankovic*
3 Trigger Happy 3:46
Written-By Al Yankovic*
“Smells Like Nirvana” is a parody of Nirvanas “Smells Like Teen Spirit” written and performed by “Weird Al” Yankovic; it was released both as a single and as part of Yankovic’s Off the Deep End album in April 1992. “Smells Like Nirvana” was written during a three-year career low for Yankovic after the financial failure of his film UHF, but captured the quickly-rising popularity of the grunge style and Nirvanas success. The song was written to poke fun at the fact that many people had a hard time understanding Nirvana singer Kurt Cobain’s lyrics in the original song. After being unable to contact Nirvana by conventional means, Yankovic called Cobain while the band was on the set of Saturday Night Live, where Cobain quickly gave permission to record the parody.
Recording the song was a change for Yankovic and his band. Usually, the group were forced to record several overdubs. However, “Smells Like Nirvana” was relatively straightforward in terms of the musical composition. To promote the single, Yankovic created an associated video for the song that parodied the “Smells like Teen Spirit” video. The parody video closely mirrored the original; Yankovic even went so far as to hire several of the same actors and use the same set.
“Smells Like Nirvana” was met with critical praise and helped to re-energize Yankovic’s career. Cobain considered the parody as a sign that they had “made it” as a band. The song is one of Yankovic’s most successful singles, reaching number 35 on both the Billboard Hot 100 and the US Mainstream Rock Tracks. The songs video was nominated for a 1992 MTV Video Award for “Best Male Video”.
Prior to writing “Smells Like Nirvana”, Yankovics music career had suffered from the poor financial performance of his 1989 feature film, UHF and the associated soundtrack. Yankovic called that “the beginning of three years where it was kind of hard for me to recover”. He started work on a new studio album around 1990. To revitalize his career, he considered creating a parody of a Michael Jackson song, which had proven successful twice before with “Eat It” and “Fat”. He had composed a parody of Jacksons “Black or White”, entitled “Snack All Night”, but Jackson said he was uncomfortable with the parody, given that the original song was intended to be a political statement. Yankovic would later believe that Jacksons refusal was, in the long run, a blessing; he felt that “Snack All Night” was not one of his better works. While he had compiled other original songs for a new album, he feared the lack of a good parody song would doom the album to failure, and held off from releasing anything until an idea presented itself.
At that time, the band Nirvana started to become a name in the music scene, creating “big, seismic shifts in pop culture” according to Yankovic. Yankovic considered that the bands 1991 album Nevermind, which featured “Smells Like Teen Spirit”, was “really great”, but feared that at its release, the band wasn’t popular enough to make a parody. By early 1992, Nevermind had reached platinum certification and led the Billboard charts. With Nirvanas success, Yankovic began to seek permission to create a parody, but his manager claimed he was unable to get through to the group numerous times.When Yankovic learned that Nirvana would be performing on the January 11, 1992 show of Saturday Night Live, he called his UHF co-star, Victoria Jackson, at the time a regular cast member of the show. Jackson got Cobain on the phone so that Yankovic could make his request. Cobain agreed, though initially he inquired if the song would be about food, one of Yankovics trademark themes at the time.Yankovic instead explained that the song would be about Cobains incomprehensible lyrics, to which Cobain replied, according to Yankovic, “Oh, sure, of course, thats funny”.
Recording and lyrics:
“Smells Like Nirvana”, from Yankovics 1992 album Off the Deep End. The sample illustrates the verse, pre-chorus, and chorus of Yankovics parody which is a musical re-creation of the original Nirvana song.
The song was recorded around January 27, 1992 at at Santa Monica Sound Records, in Santa Monica, California.As normal for Yankovics band, they generally recorded the songs that they thought would be released as singles last; in this case, they knew that “Smells Like Nirvana” would be the lead-off single for the new album. Recording took between three and four days. The band worked at trying to match the same tempos that were in the original “Smells Like Teen Spirit” song; Jon Schwartz, Yankovics drummer, noted that “the [drum] part was pretty loose. […] Tempos were up and down. We adjusted the tempos on our song to meet the Nirvana version. Its by no means steady.”Compared to previous parodies, where upwards of 20-some instruments had to be mixed together, the simpler composition of “Teen Spirit” made it much easier for the band to complete the song.
Yankovic later expressed the fact that recording the vocals for the song was particularly difficult, because he was singing “for eight to 12 hours a day”, which caused strain on his vocal chords. For the verse where Yankovic mumbles the lyrics to the song, he placed several cookies in his mouth to achieve the garbled effect. During the parodys musical interlude, Yankovic gargled water to the tune of the originals guitar solo. The solo also features a tuba, courtesy of Tommy Johnson, and kazoos
Lyrically, “Smells Like Nirvana” was written to poke fun at the difficult-to-understand words as sung by Cobain for many of his songs. One verse begins “What is this song/All about?/Can’t figure any lyrics out”. At one point, Yankovic purposely garbles the lyrics: “Its hard to bargle nawdle zouss [sic]/With all these marbles in my mouth”. He admitted in an interview that he woke up “in the middle of the night” and wrote down the phrase “bargle nawdle zous”, thinking that it would “be important someday.”
The music video, directed by Yankovics manager Jay Levey, is a near shot-for-shot parody of the original video for “Smells Like Teen Spirit”, which depicts the band playing at a high school concert while it descends into riot. Yankovic is present on guitar and vocals as Kurt Cobain with Steve Jay on bass as Krist Novoselic and Jon “Bermuda” Schwartz on drums as Dave Grohl. All three wear clothing and long-haired wigs to imitate the look of Nirvana in “Smells Like Teen Spirit”. Yankovics video uses many of the same props, actors and camera angles; in particular, the video was shot in the same Culver City, California sound stage as Nirvanas video, several of the cheerleaders and audience members were from the original video, and Rudy Larosa reprises his role as the janitor. Levey stated that they were able to recreate much of the same setting with help of the producers of the original Nirvana video once they were aware that the song had Cobains blessing. The video also includes actor Dick Van Patten in a guest role in the video; Van Patten was a last-minute addition by the band, recognizing they wanted a random celebrity in the video, with the actor being one of the few they could get through immediate contacts.Professional skateboarder Tony Hawk also appears as one of the many extras on the set as part of a request for the Birdhouse Skateboards team to provide “skater/punks” for the video, though Yankovic was not aware of this fact until 2009 when Hawk revealed this via Twitter. Schwartz attempted to recreate Grohls wild headbanging during the film, leaving him with a stiff neck several days after filming. Yankovic had a brief conversation with Samuel Bayer, the original director of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” in preparation for the video shoot. Although Yankovic noted that “he was certainly going along with it”, he felt that Bayer was “the least enthused” because “he was a true artiste [sic]” and was reluctant to see his work parodied.
The single for “Smells Like Nirvana” was released on April 2, 1992,while the album containing it, Off the Deep End, saw its release on April 14, 1992. The single charted on several Billboard charts, making it Yankovics most successful single since his single “Eat It”, which charted in 1984. The song debuted on the Billboard Hot 100 on April 25, 1992. It peaked at number 35 and remained on the chart for two weeks. The single also charted on the Hot Mainstream Rock Tracks, also peaking at number 35 and remaining for two weeks. The single was also popular in the other countries. In Canada, the single charted at number 48. In the United Kingdom, the single entered the charts on April 7, 1992, and peaked at number 58, spending only one week on the charts.In Australia, “Smells Like Nirvana” was released on June 14, 1992, and spent six weeks on the charts. It peaked at number 24.
After its release, “Smells Like Nirvana” was considered, at the time, the largest comeback in Yankovics career. The song was well-received by the media. AllMusic reviewer Barry Weber wrote that the song illustrated “the kind of brilliant writing Yankovic was still capable of doing”. Anthony Violanti, a reporter for The Buffalo News, called the song “the high point” of one of Yankovics concerts. Nirvana itself was also pleased with the parody. Cobain is claimed to have considered that Nirvana had “made it” with the success of Yankovics parody. In his personal journals that were later published, he calls Yankovic “Americas modern pop-rock genious [sic]”.Grohl is also reported to have realized his band was truly successful when Yankovic asked for permission to record the parody. The video was nominated for the 1992 MTV Video Awards for “Best Male Video”, although it did not win. At the awards ceremony, Nirvana was initially asked to perform, but they declined. The offer was then extended to Yankovic, before Nirvana relented. Yankovic later joked that “I might’ve been a bargaining chip”.
“Weird Al” Yankovic performing “Smells Like Nirvana” in concert, dressed as Kurt Cobain.
During live performances, Yankovic dons clothing similar to what Cobain wore in the video for “Smells Like Teen Spirit”. This includes an electric left-handed guitar, a similar shirt, and a blonde wig. The costuming for the performance is critical; Schwartz explained that “if anythings missing, Al won’t do it”. The rest of Als band also participates. Steve Jay, who plays bass, uses two bass straps to emulate and exaggerate “Novoselics low-hanging bass”. He explained that he positions his instrument “to where I can just barely touch the strings”.The members of the band also mock-mosh. Jim West, the bands guitarist, noted that moshing is usually tame, but that there “were a few collisions where people got hurt, but not the audience, just the band.”
Immediately after Cobains death, Yankovic and his band were hesitant to play the extremely popular “Smells Like Nirvana” during live shows. This was the first case where the original artist of one of Yankovics parody songs had died. For several months after Cobains death, Yankovic would first perform a somber tribute to Cobain prior to playing the song. In one case for a live show shortly after Cobains demise, Yankovic worried how the crowds would react to the parody in Seattle, the town where Nirvana became famous in. He was told by journalists that the song would be “cathartic” for the area. Yankovic noted that the subsequent performance “went over extremely well”. Yankovic continues to play “Smells Like Nirvana” at tours stating that “Kurt was a fan of the song” and “he would have wanted it that way.”
In The Simpsons episode “That ’90s Show”, Homer Simpson is shown creating one of the first grunge bands while trying to cope with Marges infidelity; the band, called “Sadgasm”, becomes highly popular. At one point, Homer writes a new song called “Shave Me” itself a loose parody of Nirvanas real single “Rape Me”which is later parodied as “Brainfreeze” in both song and video by “Weird Al” Yankovic, who voiced himself. Homer takes Yankovics parody as a sign that his band has become successful, but his depressed state after breaking up with Marge leaves him unable to enjoy the songs humor and he gloomily notes “He who is tired of Weird Al, is tired of life”. The situation in the short is said to mirror much of the history of “Smells Like Nirvana”, including Kurt Cobains reaction to the parody.
Chart (1992) Peak position
Australia ARIA Singles Chart 24
Canada RPM Top Singles 48
UK Singles Chart 58
US Billboard Hot 100 35
US Billboard Hot Mainstream Rock Tracks 35
“Weird” Al Yankovic vocals, background vocals, production, arrangement
Jim West guitar
Steve Jay bass guitar
Jon “Bermuda” Schwartz drums
Tommy Johnson tuba
Tony Papa engineering