The Day Nirvana Filmed the ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ Video
Nirvana assembled a group of fans on Aug. 17, 1991, at a sound stage in Culver City, Calif. What they shot that day would go in to become one of rock’s most iconic music videos.
The band had built out the beginnings of a fanbase beyond Seattle. Their debut LP, 1989’s Bleach, sold poorly but generated positive reviews and a strong word of mouth. That led to an underground following across the country, largely made up of college students.
As the follow up, Nevermind, was nearing release, Nirvana booked a show on Aug. 15, 1991 at the Roxy on West Hollywood’s famed Sunset Strip. “Smells Like Teen Spirit” was the third song in the set that night, and during the performance fans were handed flyers inviting them to be extras in the music video shoot.
"Nirvana needs YOU to appear in their upcoming music video, 'Smells Like Teen Spirit,'" the flyers proclaimed. “You should be 18 to 25 years old and adapt a high school persona, i.e. preppy, punk, nerd, jock …”
As the casting call insinuated, the video was set in a high school. The idea was the brainchild of Kurt Cobain, taking inspiration from the films Over the Edge and the Ramones’ Rock ‘n’ Roll High School. Its basic concept was a “pep rally from hell,” with an apathetic student body eventually worked into a frenzy by Nirvana’s music.
First-time director Samuel Bayer was helming the project, and his personality conflicted with the band. “He’s got a little Napoleon complex,” Cobain said in Come as You Are: The Story of Nirvana. “He was just so hyper, such a rocker guy. I couldn’t believe it. I couldn’t believe we actually submitted to that.”
Bayer was a disciplinarian on set, chiding extras, attempting to keep Nirvana in check and generally coming across as overbearing. “It was just like we were in school,” Cobain added. “He was the mean teacher.”
Several aspects of the video would change due to Bayer’s input. For example, Cobain wanted “really ugly overweight cheerleaders” because he was “sickened by the stereotypical prom queen.” Instead, Bayer went with attractive women, recruited from local strip clubs.
“Kurt hated Sam Bayer,” Courtney Love told New York Magazine in 2011. “For ‘Teen Spirit,’ Kurt wanted fat cheerleaders, he wanted black kids, he wanted to tell the world how fucked up high school was – but Sam put hot girls in the video. The crazy thing is, it still worked.”
Drummer Dave Grohl said “there were certain things we found to be really funny about videos — tits and ass and pyrotechnics, shit like that – and when we showed up at the shoot, we were like, ‘Wait a minute, those cheerleaders look like strippers.’”
For his part, Bayer “couldn’t understand why [Cobain] wanted to put unattractive women in the video.” He surmised that “Kurt looked at me and saw himself selling out,” Bayer told New York Magazine in a separate interview. “But to me, these were nasty girls. They had rug burns on their knees. In my eyes, the whole video was dirty.”
Watch Nirvana's 'Smells Like Teen Spirit' Video
The day of the shoot would be grueling for the band, crew and extras. Still, having the crowd made up of actual Nirvana fans – rather than actors playing the part – proved imperative. “We did a couple of takes, and the audience just started destroying the stage,” Grohl recalled. “The director’s on a bullhorn screaming, ‘Stop! Cut!’ – and that’s when it started to make sense to me: This is like a Nirvana concert.”
Cobain convinced Bayer that the video needed to end with anarchy, the student body overtaking the school’s gym and running wild. It would be the final scene shot, and after a long day on the set – not to mention getting yelled at by the director – the crowd was anxious to let loose. Given the green light, they exploded into a massive mosh pit, breaking equipment and even taking some of Nirvana’s instruments.
“Once the kids came out dancing they just said ‘fuck you,’ because they were so tired of [Bayer’s] shit throughout the day," Cobain said in Come as You Are.
Ultimately, that explosion of energy helped make “Smells Like Teen Spirit” the legendary video it became. Cobain re-edited Bayer’s original cut, removing footage that focused on some of the school teachers. Cobain also added closeups of himself at the video’s end, giving viewers a clear image of his intensity.
The “Smells Like Teen Spirit” music video premiered on Sept. 29, 1991 on MTV's 120 Minutes. By October, it had been added to the network’s “Buzz Bin,” a showcase for acts MTV viewed as up-and-coming stars. Soon, Nirvana would find themselves among the biggest bands in the world, and reluctant poster boys for the grunge revolution.
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