The Smell in Teen Spirit

Fragrances have the power to touch us in a profound way. For many people, the scents of “Christmas spices” such as cinnamon or baked cookies evoke thoughts of idyllic, homely Christmas situations (regardless of any possible fights that may occur in reality…). How come? We usually actively notice scents only for a brief, fleeting moment, and then adapt to them – with the scent descending to our subconscious while we actively start becoming aware of other sensations. However, curiously, we seem to be able to remember fragrances really well. The moment we smell the same scent again, even in a different context, all associated memories rush to our minds again. These memories are often of an all-encompassing, atmospheric nature – precisely because scents linger for such a long time and are processed by us subconsciously. Memories connected with, say, a pop song, however often are restricted to certain moods and events that occured whenever the pop-song played. A scent on the otherhand often unconsciously accompanies a string of various events that occured with the same person, or at the same place or during the same time of the year.

Thanks to the commercialization and globalizaton of perfumes, you now can find a limited number of perfumes worn by people everywhere in the world. That means that if you have especially pleasant memories connected with a person who wears such a commercially available perfume, you will find yourself in the fortunate situation of often being reminded of these events by all of those people, who chose to purchase the exact same perfume (presumably because they felt that it fit especially well to their unique individuality).

Despite all of their benefits, we seem to have difficulties to actively indulge in fragrances. As a matter of fact, we restrict ourselves to smelling flowers and to testing and using perfumes and perfumed products for fractions of a second at a time. We also rarely talk about any emotions connected to smelling sensations. One of the rare occasions that we do talk about our fragrances is when we wear the pullover of a loved person and are overjoyed at the scent that it carries – we often tell the loved person, or we annoy our friends and colleagues with our delight.

This reluctance to admit to the deep sensations that odors can evoke in us is also evident in its treatment in pop and rock music. Many artists have no problems sharing their deepest emotions of love and despair with millions of strangers, giving precise details of events that led to their emotional turmoil (and despite the uniqueness of these events, they often seem to find millions of listeners who feel “exactly” the same way due to totally different events). Yet most artists remain strangely silent about the scents accompanying the events and emotions.

Perhaps the only mainstream song that has a fragrance as a topic is the groundbreaking song “Smells Like Teen Spirit” by Nirvana (1991), a song that arguably changed popular music forever. And even in this song, the notion of a fragrance does not appear anywhere in the lyrics – only in the title:

Thus, you hear the title, in a similar way as you notice a new smell for the first time. The time-span until the lyrics kick in is roughly the time-span that you take to forget about both the smell and the title of the song.

It turns out that the notion of a smell is a surprisingly elegant way to give a common theme to all the disparate situations jumbled together in the lyrics:

“With the lights out – it's less dangerous”;

“Here we are now – Entertain us!”;

“Hello, Hello, Hello – How low!”

All of these lines are perfectly plausible vignettes of “Teen Spirit” – which would have been a pathetic title, just as the title “The Smell of Teen Spirit” would have been.

And yet, the title selection of Nirvana was not without risks. For it may be that we avoid speaking of smells, because we are so afraid of unpleasant odors. Probably Weird Al Yancovich was playing on our distaste for bad smells when he wrote his breathtakingly brilliant parody “Smells Like Nirvana”:

It was the lead singer of the Band “Bikini Kill”, Kathleen Hanna, who spray painted the line “Kurt smells like Teen Spirit” on the lead singer of Nirvana Kurt Cobain's wall. (At that time, facebook did not exist, so “walls” actually really still were walls made of concrete that required real spray paint to convey messages).

Given the philosophic underpinning of Bikini Kill, Kurt Cobain believed that the graffiti on his wall contained some sort of revolutionary message – even though all she meant was that he smelled like the commercially available deodorant “Teen Spirit”.

Of course, the most popular song by Bikini Kill – “Rebel Girl” – does not contain a particularly in-depth approach to the ideals that the band is known for, so he should have been more wary:

The ingenuity of Bikini Kill's graffiti tags and song lyrics lies in the fact that they meld the personal with the political – they link the topics of their revolutionary discussions with individuals via their smell or via their rebel-girl qualities. The ingenuity of the Colgate-Palmolive company lies in the fact that they had a brilliant product-naming division for their deodorant. The ingenuity of Kurt Cobain was how he completely understood that the smell is the perfect vehicle to paint a subconscious-evoking vivid picture of teen angst.

Have a fragrant week,

Eric

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2 thoughts on “The Smell in Teen Spirit”

  1. There’s another interesting (geeky neuroscientific) thing to point out if you’re talking about scents and feelings: smell is the only sensual quality directly transmitted into our cerebrum, and more exactly spoken, the frontobasis, where it is processed in vicinity of structures involved in emotional control, e.g., the amygdala. Another region in near vicinity is the entorhinal cortex involved in learning processes. Even if vicinity doesn’t mean functional linking in our brains, it’s at least possible that fragrances and scents do have a more direct impact on emotions than other input qualities have.
    These other forms of perceptions (touch, vibration, localisation of joints and limbs (proprioception), temperature, pain, taste, hearing, view, balance and acceleration) are all filtered and modulated by different structures in the thalamus, which itself is influenced by the ascending reticular activating system. Thus, when sleeping or being extremely stressed, input signals will be filtered out in the thalamus, whereas smell is, according to the current functional theories, unaffected by this, or at least differently regulated.

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