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ROBERT SMITH, host:

Finally today, we take a look back 15 years to the day Kurt Cobain became one of the 27s. We produced a series back in 2000 called The NPR 100. It was a list of the most significant works of American music of the 20th century.

And for that series, NPR's Guy Raz explored the song that defined a genre and a generation, "Smells Like Teen Spirit."

(Soundbite of song, "Smells Like Teen Spirit")

GUY RAZ: Nirvana performed a version of "Smells Like Teen Spirit" in front of a small crowd at the OK Hotel in Seattle. Jonathan Poneman, co-founder of Sub Pop Records, was there.

Mr. JONATHAN PONEMAN (Co-founder, Sub Pop Records): It started off with that chord progression, and it went into a really beautiful, almost dreamy verse.

(Soundbite of song, "Smells Like Teen Spirit")

Mr. KURT COBAIN (Singer): (Singing).

Mr. PONEMAN: And then they went into the bridge, which seemed to be leading to something. I mean, there was this tension in the bridge. It's hard to explain. But then it erupted into this chorus, and it was really a jaw-dropping experience.

(Soundbite of song, "Smells Like Teen Spirit")

Mr. COBAIN: (Singing) With the lights out, it's less dangerous. Here we are now, entertain us. I feel stupid and contagious. Here we are now, entertain us.

Mr. PONEMAN: I believe that everybody in the room knew that they were listening to something that was truly magnificent.

RAZ: "Smells Like Teen Spirit" became an unlikely hit. It wasn't a track designed to be marketable or even accessible. Check out the pop charts in 1991, and you'll find artists like Paula Abdul, Color me Badd, Mariah Carey, all dominating the Top 20.

It's the kind of music that parents could listen to with their kids, but "Smells Like Teen Spirit" was a song that parents were going to hate. It didn't make sense, you couldn't understand the words and the chorus sounded like shouting.

(Soundbite of song, "Smells Like Teen Spirit")

Mr. COBAIN: (Singing) With the lights out, it's less dangerous. Here we are now, entertain us. I feel stupid and contagious. Here we are now, entertain us. A mulatto, an albino. A mosquito, my libido. Yeah, hey, yay.

RAZ: Never mind that the album that included this song reached the top of the charts. Most ironic is that the very demographic "Smells Like Teen Spirit" appeals to, the so-called slacker generation, is the subject of ridicule in the song.

Singer Kurt Cobain observes his generation as over-bored and self-assured. The refrain shouts: Here we are now, entertain us. Nirvana crafted a cynical video to accompany the track that showed the band playing background music for a truly spirited high school cheerleading squad.

(Soundbite of song, "Smells Like Teen Spirit")

Mr. COBAIN: (Singing) And I forget just why I taste. Oh yeah, I guess it makes me smile. I found it hard, it's hard to find. Oh well, whatever, nevermind. Hello, hello, hello, how low? Hello, hello, hello, how low? Hello, hello, hello, how low? Hello, hello, hello.

RAZ: Almost instantly, the song was embraced as a crossover anthem. It appealed to the football players and cheerleaders just as much as it did to the angst-ridden teenage punks. You could interpret it as a generation's call to arms or a simple loud rock song. And despite massive commercial success, Nirvana managed to maintain its credibility by posing as anti-rock stars.

The first time the band was featured on the cover of Rolling Stone magazine, Kurt Cobain wore a shirt that read: Corporate rock mags still suck. Again, Sub Pop's Jonathan Poneman.

Mr. PONEMAN: There has been a lot of great and popular guitar-rock bands, but there was always a feeling or a suspicion that their careers were somehow manufactured. Nirvana was the real deal.

SMITH: That was NPR's Guy Raz. You can hear the entire NPR 100 on our Web site, npr.org.

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