Smells Like Teen Spirit & Indian Culture

What does this have to do with Indian cultures?  Good questions…let’s talk about it….

The year was 1991; September 24, 1991 proved to be an unexpected turning-point in pop culture.  Seattle had become the underground hot bed for new, second wave of post-punk in America.  A little band named “Nirvana” was to release an album which, on that proverbial date, would change the course of American pop culture for years to come – and remains as such.  Nevermind was released on September 24, 1991 and the aesthetic, culture of the world has never been the same since.

The lead singer, Kurt Cobain, was to help push the sounds of grunge forward, from the shadows of teenage bedrooms and back alley run-down pubs and theatres, into the eyes and ears of America and the unexpected world.  If you could understand what Cobain was saying, you were “in the know.”  If you didn’t you were not alone.  Still, despite this aesthetical divide, both halves of these once cultural wars found a common ground; they had to face the fact that teenage angst does – indeed – exist, change over the years, and helps establish the foundations for the coming generations.  No longer could one simply state, “I just don’t get it.”  Now, each generation had to comply with the, “what to get” from these (not new) sounds.  Jimmy Hendrix was not rolling in his grave; he was only tuning his guitar so to add to the Seattle sound in a reunion of sonic please, discourse, and critical evaluation of the American popular culture.

Fast forward – if you will – to the early 21st century.  In applying a critical Indian review of the anthem, “Smells Like Teen Spirit” (as provided in the video above), there in-lies three points which are consistent in an effort to challenge Indian stereotypes, and help align Native identity within the currency of our time.  Let’s see how this unfolds.

At the a critical point within this song, “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” the words, “Hello, hello, hello, How Low?” are repeated.  This invitation, by Cobain, when reviewed through an Indian critique, initiates the large non-Native population into a conversation with the (sub)cultural Native communities.  However, the tagline to this echoed invitation – “…How Low?” – justifies the limits of knowledge which the non-Native population has about and toward Native Peoples.  In other words, just “how low?” is the knowledge base of the non-Native population about the realities of Native tribes and cultures?  Just “how low?” is the socio-political bar for equity in representation, identity formation and sovereignty for Native Peoples, within these contemporary times?  Cobain, then, places the onus of equity, socio-political justice and sovereign identity recognition upon the large non-Native population, if we read this chorus through an Indian perspective and critique.

The following phrase, “…with the lights out…” establishes that – again, applying an Indian critique to these lyrics – that the “lights,” as it were, is the knowledgable reference points, cultural understanding, and socio-political equity about Native Peoples, and the limits maintained, as well as accepted, by the non-Native population.  The “lights out” is the proverbial turning-of-the-back upon the issues of sovereignty and identity representation for Native Peoples within the current climate.

It is the next line which establishes the importance and necessity for an Indian critique and response to/from this pop cultural anthem.  “…Here we are now…imitators…”  (my emphasis added).  This phrase point is the lynchpin for the chorus and should be noted – through an Indian reading of this song – as the recognition of how Indian culture has become stereotyped, in repetition, without cultural, equitable concern, and turned into an appropriated misguided economic structure.  Cobain notes – again, taking an Indian reading of this song – that “we,” as a dominant society have limited the Indian icon/image to a repeatable figure, stereotyped and projected as a liminal individual character – male (warrior), female (treasure) – which can be sold as a commodity to anyone (read: non-Native) willing to spend money on the factor of “owning the Indian.”  The “imitators,” then, which Cobain notes are those who misrepresent, judge by socio-political status, and stereotype through an American colonial rhetoric the figure, the meaning, the sovereign rights of Native Peoples.  The “imitators” are – dare it be stated – are those who absorb, repeat, codify, and accept the singular Indian man, Indian woman stereotypes and reference these as accurate, even within, and from a post-modern dominant society view.

The lyrics of the song continue into the second verse where Cobain recites, “…it always [has] been, and always will until the end… (my emphasis added).”  Cobain takes a step further in utilizing the term which one should steer clear from when making an argument, “always.”  Yet, placing this overarching, and reductive term here, in alignment with the Indian critique which we are applying to the lyrics/song, Cobain is afforded an accurate escape from essentialism.  Advancing the Indian critique, Cobain is calling for accurate, contemporary attention to the Indian issues.  Cobain is recognizing the limitations of Indian cultures in a post-modern global-local society.  Cobain is marking the necessary turning-point for the large non-Native community in order to remove the limited image/icon of the Indian from the vacant structures of a colonial American history and give an updated, accurate place for the Native Voice(s) to be heard.  Cobain, here, is not speaking toward the Native communities.  Rather, Cobain is speaking – or yelling as it were – to the non-Native local-global audiences; listen, see, understand, witness what has, and continues to be done “always” to the Indian identity, sovereignty, and tribal communities.  Cobain is at the whisper of a breath begging – or, demanding if we take his yelling at face value – for Native representation from, through, and by Native Peoples.

The closing lyrics of the song remind the non-Native population – again, continuing to apply an Indian critique – that it is “hard,” when Cobain states, “…I found it hard,…it’s hard to find the will…whatever…never mind…” (my emphasis added); Cobain recognizes that it’s difficult to move the lines of racism against Indian Peoples from the boundaries of the cultural and physical reservation.  If Cobain left this point out, he would have, in-just, limited the value and possibility that fair, equitable conversations and contemporary references between Native and non-Native Peoples is possible.  If Cobain did not point to how difficult, or, “hard” it is to move beyond the borders of the metaphorical and physical reservation (please note that a line divides one sphere into two halves.  Therefore, in all fairness, Native Peoples need to equally reference and update themselves as noted by this critique – it’s equally “hard” for Native Peoples to allow for their own equitability through these necessary actions) he would have left the valuable, educational agency of this reading, and Indian reading, to fall upon silent ears.  Yet, the discarded, “never mind,” which Cobain articulates is not proverbial throw-in-the-towel perspective.  Rather, this is a generous nudge for one and all, Indian and non-Native alike, to work, in collaboration, in tandem, in kind, in socio-political equity and justice for the better of the local-global communities at large.

So, “Smells Like Teen Spirit” certainly does embrace the Native spirit of community, activism, shared ideas, collaboration, and fairness, with a voice for one and all.  It’s just up to us, those in the audience, to listen to the words as they spoken, or, in the case of Kurt Cobain, yelled out loud…gently.


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