On Aug. 17, 1991, Nirvana assembled a group of fans to 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.
By this point, the band had built a fanbase beyond Seattle. Nirvana’s debut LP, 1989’s Bleach, sold poorly but generated positive reviews and a strong word of mouth. As such, the group enjoyed an underground following across the country, largely made up of college students.
With their sophomore album, Nevermind, prepped for release, Nirvana played a show on Aug. 15, 1991, at the Roxy on West Hollywood’s famed Sunset Strip. “Smells Like Teen Spirit” was the third song on 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 would helm the project, and his personality bristled with the band. “He’s got a little Napoleon complex,” Cobain explained of Bayer in the book 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 the band in check and generally coming across as overbearing. “It was just like we were in school,” Cobain recalled. “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 recalled to 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.”
“There were certain things we found to be really funny about videos—tits and ass and pyrotechnics, shit like that,” added drummer Dave Grohl, “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.” “I think Kurt looked at me and saw himself selling out,” the director admitted. “But to me, these were nasty girls. They had rug burns on their knees. In my eyes, the whole video was dirty.”
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.”
Watch Nirvana’s Music Video for ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’
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 — including getting yelled at by the director — the fans were anxious to let loose. Given the green light, the mob exploded into a massive mosh pit, breaking equipment and even taking some of the band’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 noted.
Ultimately, that explosion of energy helped make “Smells Like Teen Spirit” the legendary video it became. Cobain would edit Bayer’s original cut, removing footage that had focussed on some of the school teachers. He also added closeups of himself at the video’s end, giving viewers a clear image of the frontman’s intensity.
The “Smells Like Teen Spirit” music video would premiere on MTV’s 120 Minutes on September 29, 1991. In October, it was added to the network’s “Buzz Bin,” a showcase for acts the network viewed as up-and-coming stars. Soon, Nirvana would find itself among the biggest bands in the world, and reluctant poster boys for the grunge revolution. Meanwhile, “Smells Like Teen Spirit” cemented its place as the defining music video of Generation X.
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