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Smells Like Teen Spirit ... and Tater Tots

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This past Labor Day weekend, L.A. radio station KROQ aired their Top 500 Songs of the 90s (twice), which meant that they played essentially 85% of their normal playlist. For a child who came of age in the 90s, however, this countdown was no ordinary countdown; this was a high school reunion, especially since I listened to music a whole lot more than I hung out with people during those years. It only took two or three songs for this broadcast to take the form of a Proustian madeleine, to the point that I was no longer sitting in traffic, I was sitting back in the cafeteria where my life changed.

It was 1991, and I was in seventh grade, which meant that life totally sucked. One of the few bright spots came when Cathedral-Carmel Elementary decided to put a radio in the cafeteria and let us listen to KSMB, the KROQ of Lafayette, LA, at the time. Being a Catholic school, Cathedral didn't want us to enjoy ourselves too much, so they installed a decibel meter to monitor our volume. I am not kidding. It came in the form of a stoplight. Green meant we were talking at a reasonable volume (which a seventh grader cannot do), yellow meant we were in very close to being in deep trouble, and red meant the radio got turned off and we lost our recess. This was supposed to remind us that we needed to enjoy our privileges responsibly, but really it just told us that we were being watched ... by God.

This seemed to work out okay ... until this little band from Seattle finally made it to Cajun country. Sure, there was music on the radio I identified with, but there was nothing like "Smells Like Teen Spirit." This was a song that sounded like what was happening to my body: it was oily, messy, loud, and totally out of control. The lyrics didn't matter; I didn't even bother to learn them. It was better to think of it as pre-verbal noise, something primal, something true. After hearing something like Nirvana, nothing else seemed to cut it anymore. The world as this seventh grader knew it was dismantled.

This song started a near-revolution in the lunchroom. One moment, we'd be staring at the cafeteria's interpretation of shepherd's pie, trying to find the courage to eat it because they wouldn't let you make an entire meal out of tater tots and bread rolls. But then that immortal riff stormed into the cafeteria, and we'd all sit perfectly still like someone was about to sing the national anthem or lead us in a prayer. If we were allowed to wear hats, we would have taken them off.

That sense of reverence would crumble the second the drums kicked in. That's when every boy in the room started banging on the table and smacking things with his fork, easily taking the stoplight up to yellow. The teachers watching us tried to silence us by turning down the radio, but we didn't need to hear the song to know what was going on, because the song wasn't coming out of the radio; it was coming out of us. By the end of the chorus, the stoplight was in the red, and the assistant principal brought in a megaphone and blasted its alarm to let us know that not only were we not going to have recess tomorrow, but we were so going to Hell. At least there they'd play Nirvana without a stupid stoplight.

The next day, we tried to keep it together, but it's impossible to maintain any sort of decorum during a Nirvana song. So, again we got the red light, and again we stayed inside for recess. By the end of the week, the radio was gone, and the stoplight was too. It got replaced by the megaphone and a "silent" lunch. If you talked, you paid the price. Now and forever, Amen. Looks like Teen Spirit was no match for the Holy Spirit. So much for rebellion.

This is all I could think about Labor Day Weekend as song after song transported me back to that cafeteria, then to that old Pontiac Grand Prix where I blasted all these tunes at maximum volume from mixtapes I made every week on my Panasonic stereo. Even though so much of the music is embarrassing (Live, Candlebox, 4 Non Blondes, The Offspring), I wouldn't trade it for any other era of music. The era really captured what it was like being a teenager. The music was shifting, confused, teetering between original and derivative, but filled with the desire to define itself. And while the music may have only succeeded in defining a new, "alternative" market, it reached for more, which is more than can be said for most popular music.