How Nirvana Got Revenge Against a Rude Audience For Booing Their Opener

Wes Candela Photography, Creative Commons
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For those of a certain age, it’s nearly impossible to imagine a world before Nirvana. Much like The Beatles in the 1960s, when the Seattle band broke into the mainstream in 1991 it brought about an immediate gravitational shift in the pop culture zeitgeist. 

At 1am on September 29th of 1991, the lead video for Nirvana’s sophomore album, Nevermind, was given its world premiere to little fanfare on MTV’s late-night alternative music program, 120 Minutes.

In a 2011 interview with MTV News, host Dave Kendall explained: “At that time, most of the music ‘120‘ was playing was quite separate from the rest of MTV. Some stuff had crossed over — like, we played Midnight Oil, we played Sinead O’Connor, we played Depeche Mode, the Cure — but a lot of our stuff was really closeted. It was still in this ‘alternative’ genre.

“So the mood in the building at that point was ‘Some alternative acts might cross over, the others wouldn’t.’ Like, if MTV had known that Nirvana was going to be as huge as they [were], they would’ve world-premiered the video in prime time, not late-night Sunday on ‘120 Minutes.’ But then, I didn’t know either!

To say that “Smells Like Teen Spirit” crossed over would be the musical understatement of the century. The song was nothing short of a phenomenon and became the singular anthem for disaffected Generation X nihilism. As its popularity grew, so did the band’s frustration with the track. “Everyone has fo​​cused on that song so much,” frontman Kurt Cobain told Rolling Stone in 1994. “The reason it gets a big reaction is people have seen it on MTV a million times. It’s been pounded into their brains.” 

Although the song almost continuously remained in their setlist, the way Nirvana approached “Smells Like Teen Spirit” in a live setting would change at the drop of a dime depending on their level of irritation at a given moment. For instance, after support band Calamity Jane were booed off the stage at a Buenos Aires concert in 1992, Cobain was so angered by the disrespectful mainstream crowd that he decided their set would be more about antagonism than entertainment.

Opening the set with an impromptu jam that fans have come to refer to as “Nobody Knows I’m New Wave” (which featured some of Cobain’s finest lyrics in lines such as ‘I promise to shit on your head’ / ’I’m new wave/ I’m old school’), Nirvana eventually launched into “Aneurysm” once they got bored. As for the next two songs, ‘Breed’ and ‘Drain You’, Cobain baited the audience with a few bars from “Teen Spirit” before pulling the rug out by continuing with entirely different songs. 

In the 2004 book, Nirvana: The Chosen Rejects, Cobain was quoted as saying of the evening: “We ended up having fun, laughing at them (the audience). Before every song, I’d play the intro to ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ and then stop. They didn’t realize that we were protesting against what they’d done. We played for about forty minutes, and most of the songs were off Incesticide, so they didn’t recognize anything. We wound up playing the secret noise song (‘Endless, Nameless’) that’s at the end of Nevermind, and because we were so in a rage and were just so pissed off about this whole situation, that song and whole set were one of the greatest experiences I’ve ever had.”

Nirvana never did play “Smells Like Teen Spirit” that night. Instead, they stuck up for their friends and made a powerful statement against the mainstream. You can watch the full notorious set down below.