Choral Crowd-Pleaser: “Smells Like Teen Spirit”

By Jaime Babbitt and Harvey Rachlin

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Welcome to “Choral Crowd-Pleasers,” a new column of Choral Director that we hope you will enjoy!

Choral directors know that if they want to engage their audiences in fun and feel-good songfests, they only need to program compositions that electrify audiences.  Rock and roll songs from the 1950s, ‘60s and ‘70s, for example, are often audience favorites that titillate listeners and get them singing along with the choir to songs they love.  Elvis, the Beatles, the Beach Boys, the Supremes—their songs are cherished by many people, young and old, who know the words and melodies to their tunes and are delighted to find them in choir programs.  But with the vast catalog of choir music, there are many crowd-pleasers that are all but guaranteed to energize audiences.  In this new column we will present different choir works for schools and weigh in on their history and why they may be crowd-pleasers for your concerts.  In the course of these articles, compositions of all genres and for all levels of school will be presented.  We hope you will enjoy these articles and we welcome your comments as well as suggestions for pieces you have found from your own concerts to be choral crowd-pleasers.   We’ll write about many compositions that will get audiences singing or tapping their feet and leaving your program in an upbeat mood, and no doubt looking forward to your next concert of crowd-pleasers!

Choral Crowd-Pleaser: “Smells Like Teen Spirit”

Words by Kurt Cobain; music by Nirvana (Kurt Cobain, Dave Grohl, Krist Novoselic)

When Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” soared onto the top ten of the American singles pop chart in early December 1991, the peak positions were occupied by artists such as Michael Jackson, Mariah Carey, Amy Grant, Richard Marx, Genesis and Salt-N-Pepa.   Grunge hadn’t made too much of a dent into the mainstream yet, although Guns N’ Roses, a heavy metal group, broke through the pop mainstream in the late ‘80s with songs like “Paradise City” and “Patience,” and landed on the charts with “Don’t Cry” about the same time as Nirvana did with “Smells Like Teen Spirit.”  Now, in the early 1990s, the times were changing, and the pop mainstream was becoming, well, less “poppy.”  Nirvana, with their charismatic leader Kurt Cobain, would be at the forefront of ushering in grunge, a genre characterized by screeching vocals, screaming guitars, and catchy melodies.  Grunge was a different kind of sound than the classical pop and rock and roll songs that dominated the charts in previous decades, and it would find a large audience around the world and become one of the dominant music forms of the ‘90s.  By December 1991 grunge had spread across the pond as “Smells Like Teen Spirit” landed high on the British singles pop chart.  Nirvana would repeat its singles pop chart success with “Come As You Are” in 1992 and “Heart-Shaped Box” in 1993, reaching the top 15 on the UK singles pop chart, but “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” with its buoyant “teen spirit,” more or less became the group’s signature song that caught on with the masses.  And today, like back then, it is a hit with young audiences and is a perennial audience favorite.

“Smells Like Teen Spirit” can certainly be considered the definitive ode to (and ballad of) Generation X, those born between 1965-1979. Yet, it’s clear that this song is well-loved by many different age groups. (Hi, boomers and millennials, we’re looking at you both!)  We believe it shows–as great songs from every era do–that a song that stands the test of time speaks its truth to far more diverse audiences than we first imagine.

Great songs come in many colors, shapes and sizes, and sometimes we (the choral community) can rule out popular songs as not being substantial enough to arrange for a choir. However, there are so many elements here that draw in the listener, the vocalist and the choral director. The lyrics convey the angst, hope, apathy, dreams, and anxiousness of that generation like no other. They are poetic, rhythmic, evocative, and dark, enhancing the minor melody perfectly:

“Hello, hello, hello, how low,” a mixed message droning on the root, 2nd and minor 3rd of an F minor chord.

Another element that makes “Smells Like Teen Spirit” such a wonderfully expressive performance piece is its use of dynamics: quiet verses, rising pre-choruses and explosive choruses. “With the lights out, it’s less dangerous, here we are now, entertain us…”—here we have a powerfully haunting idea and chorus melody, soaring over a strong rhythm section.  (Many alt-rock and grunge groups utilize this particular dynamic pattern so don’t be surprised if we discuss Green Day or Radiohead down the road as well!)

Cinematic Pop, a classical crossover group from Phoenix, Arizona, (they made it to America’s Got Talent) performed a wonderful version with orchestra and choir. Listen to the lead vocalist, 16-year old McKenna Breinholt convey a world-weary intensity that belies her years: www.youtube.com/watch?v=t4VfaxeYOt8

But if a smaller ensemble wishes to cover it, it can work beautifully there, too. Here’s Scala and Kolacny Brothers utilizing an all-female choir, with just piano accompaniment: www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ui2a2KTx60s

Notice the slower tempo and more somber, ethereal delivery; again, great songs can take listeners to many different places!

We’ll sum up our articles with ratings (by Jaime) of different crowd-pleasing characteristics of the compositions that are the subject of our articles that may be a handy guide to evaluating the compositions for performance in your choir programs.  Here’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit:”

Here’s to many more articles about many great songs; please let us know how you’ve enjoyed our series, and remember, we take requests!

harveyrachlin8@gmail.com

jaimebabbitt@gmail.com

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