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Smells Like Teen Spirit

by Matthew Webber

I used to love rock 'n' roll. I loved it like the wiffleball bat with the missing handle and the crack that runs from the top of the bat to halfway down the barrel that formed from smacking brown wiffleballs that were held together by two or three wiffles over my backyard fence. I loved it like a tall glass of lemonade that glistens in the sunlight as droplets condense and it tries to slip from my hand. I loved it like a girl with curly red hair and freckles who sighs and says she loves me when the two of us lie like spoons.

I used to love rock 'n' roll. Now, I don't hate it, but it angers, saddens, and confuses me like the freckled curly redhead girl who recently broke my heart.

I wish I could find something about the music to love again.

I wish I could remember the moment I fell in love.

I wish I could remember the first time I heard the Nirvana song, "Smells Like Teen Spirit," because that was song that gently kissed my lips and didn't yet know that slipping someone the tongue was possible. That was the song that lay in my dewy arms and invented the names of the blinking constellations we watched. That was the song that sweetly took my rock 'n' roll virginity and made a lover instead of a boy. Sadly, I've forgotten the first time I heard it, the clothes I was wearing, where I was, what the air smelled like; and whether or not I turned my stereo's volume dial as counterclockwise as it could go, risking blown speakers and bleeding eardrums, in order to give my arms and neck goosepimples like the song has done ever since.

If I had known then what I know now, I would have closed my eyes and listened and smelled my own teen spirit, because of all the five senses, smell most easily triggers memories and I would really, really, really like to remember losing this virginity.

Instead, I sniff the air and smell nothing but stale potpourri. There's no Teen Spirit to be smelled anymore.

*

I counted them today. I own 354 "individually marketed pieces of music." I could have said "albums," but my total includes singles and boxed sets. I could have said "CDs," but my total includes cassettes. Also, I own quite a few double CDs, so if I were to say CDs, would I mean CDs in the physical, 4.75" diameter sense, or compact discs in the albums sense? I didn't include my dubbed albums and mix tapes in my total; although I do own them in some form, the forms in which I own them were never individually marketed. For the same reason, I didn't include my MP3s; but because I have less than ten of those I often forget I even have them.

I never pay the suggested retail price for CDs anymore. The most money I will spend on a CD is $14.95 plus tax, which is Best Buy's most expensive price. Typically, I spend much less than that, a fact that probably angers the Recording Industry Association of America. I buy CDs with coupons online. I buy CDs from music clubs, often with a 70 percent discount or as part of a buy one get three free promotion. I buy used CDs for no more than $8.00. Friends and I have traded our unwanted CDs with each other on more than one occasion. One time, I even received a free CD from a record label because I would write a review in the college newspaper.

Despite my thrift, I've still spent too much money. By "too much," I mean "much more than I should have." By "spent," I mean "wasted." I think I'm addicted. (As I write this essay, I'm waiting for a shipments of one and seven CDs. So I'll continue to waste even more than I should.) There's no "I think" about it; I know I'm addicted.

It's impossible to figure how much money I've wasted. Even if I had paid the same price for every CD I've bought (which I haven't) and I could multiply that amount by 354 (by which I couldn't multiply anyway because my total includes cassettes, boxed sets, and singles, remember?), I still wouldn't derive an exact monetary total because it wouldn't include the CDs I used to own but have since sold or traded to the aforementioned used CD stores.

But let me just pretend I paid the suggested retail price of $17.98 for every individually marketed piece of music I own. Let me pretend this suggested retail price didn't inflate to $18.98 in the past year. Let me pretend all of my individually marketed pieces of music are single-CD albums and not cassettes, boxed sets, or singles. I'll pretend because it makes computation much easier.

If we pretend, then I've spent

$17.98 X 354 = $6,364.92

on music in my lifetime. Contrast that total with these current facts: I currently have less than $1000 in my checking account and I have never bought a car.

My name is Matthew Webber, and I'm a musicholic.

Granted, owning 354 individually marketed pieces of music doesn't necessarily make me a music fan, in the same way that drawing 354 individually conceived pieces of artwork doesn't necessarily make someone an artist or having sex 354 times doesn't necessarily make someone a good lover. It might just make me someone who's obsessive-compulsive. It might just make me someone who tries to be cool.

Maybe I like to show off my collection. Maybe I like to name-drop song and album titles. Maybe I'm chasing my missing childhood. Maybe I'm a rock critic. Maybe I forget I used to be a music fan and am struggling to remember what it's like to be one. Maybe some albums make me remember. Maybe I buy them in the hopes they will do so. Maybe the ones that don't do this disappoint me. Maybe these albums break my heart. Maybe I wish I weren't such a critic. Maybe I wish I were a pre-teen again. Maybe I wish the rock 'n' roll meant something. Maybe I'm chasing the ghost of Kurt Cobain.

Maybe I am and do all these things. Maybe. Sometimes I'm not sure why I own so much music. Especially when I love so little of it. Especially when I see an album I've forgotten I own. Especially when a new Metallica covers album just doesn't hit me like their midlife classics, Master of Puppets and And Justice For All, used to do. Especially when I write a music review.

The music review killed the music-loving star.

With each album I buy, I'm trying to revive him. With most albums I buy, the lover lies dead.

*

Deep, deep inside me, there's a little boy listening to his first Nirvana record. Nevermind hits him so hard it makes him hurt. But if this hurt is pain, it's a good kind of pain. A pain that's cathartic, that cleanses, rejuvenates. A pain he never before knew existed, but now that he's knows, he's known his whole life. The pain of aggression. Of hormones. Adrenaline. Of sadness. Depression. And even worse: heartbreak. Of missing and longing and wanting and loving. Of America the not-so-beautiful. Of skyscraper skies and amber waves of uncut grass.

Oh, this boy feels it. His heart hits his ribcage. Oh, this boy loves it. His hands hit the steering wheel. When Kurt Cobain screams the "denial" over and over and over again, this boy denies everything. His ears hurt, his throat hurts, but his body feels good. He's discovered rock 'n' roll. It moves him like religion.

The song gives way to silence gives way to the next song, "In Bloom." And the little boy knows this song just like he knew "Smells Like Teen Spirit." The song gives him goosepimples. The hair on the back of his neck salutes. And even though he can't understand what Kurt Cobain is singing, he does his best to scream along, shredding his vocal chords to sound like his hero. He believes in Nirvana. He believes in rock 'n' roll.

The little boy blows out his parents' speakers. He headbangs at a stoplight and doesn't give a damn. Old ladies stare and call him a "whippersnapper." Families complain they can't hear their thoughts. Yes, the boy's in love.

He listens to the radio. He watches MTV. He begins his collection. He reads about music. He buys his first parental advisory album. He's scared his dad will catch him listening to profanity. He's scared his dad will burn his collection. He's scared he'll go to hell. But he blasts the Red Hot Chili Pepper's Blood Sugar Sex Magik from his room anyway. At least he closes his door.

He knows Led Zeppelin's "Kashmir" sounds the best when the volume's so loud his ears ring afterwards. He knows he wants to play every Stone Temple Pilots song he's ever heard on guitar. He knows Eddie Van Halen is the greatest guitarist in the world, of course. He knows Axl Rose actually understands his broken heart because he rewound and fast-forwarded his Use Your Illusion I cassette to listen to "Don't Cry" and then "November Rain" over and over and over again after the first girl who ever meant anything to him dumped him. He knows what Pearl Jam's "Jeremy" means. He knows Kurt Cobain will make music forever.

The little boy knows. And sometimes, I meet him. He lets me reminisce, and if I'm lucky, I become him. The music is louder. Kurt Cobain never died.

And the little boy who loved rock 'n' roll never died either.

*

If the little boy's alive at all (and sometimes I hope and believe he is), he spends his days sleeping, ignoring pop music. I try to revive him but he very rarely stirs. I watch MTV and the Backstreet Boys bore him. I listen to the radio and Creed sings him lullabies. Destiny's Child puts him to sleep in a humane society way. He hates the new music so he lets the critic speak. The critic denounces. He belittles. He criticizes. He can't find bands he likes so he rips their songs apart. Even though he himself has never made an album, he happily calls these albums crap. He calls them uninspired. He calls them dirty names.

While the little boy naps and dreams of Nirvana.

And the music critic, me, prays for something to move him. A singer who testifies. A band who spreads the faith. He wants to blindly worship. He wants to be led. He wants his little boy to wake up and stay awake. He wants to be a music fan. To be born again. To live. Instead, the music kills him. He sleeps away the pain.

Is the new music crap? Are his standards too high?

He flaunts his own critiques. He hates their pomposity.

He bashes Limp Bizkit in his music reviews and conversations, although he secretly, guilitily likes one or two of their songs.

He wishes the music could move him as much as it moves those thirteen-year-old screaming girls he always criticizes. He wishes he had some singer to scream for. He wishes for magic. For a resurrected Lennon. For the new Jimi Hendrix . For the way the music sounded when he was thirteen himself. For an unjaded love of the sound of a voice. For na´ve hero worship. For the tape deck in his car. For a stairway to heaven that smells like teen spirit at the hotel California in a dry Chevy levee. For Axl Rose to choose new bandmates and complete a new Guns N' Roses album because it's been nine fucking years since the Use Your Illusion project. For Bryan Adams' "The Summer of '69" to please be playing on the radio because he hasn't heard it in months and it's the best song he doesn't own.

For simple joy. He misses that.

I really miss being that Nirvana-loving boy. I know I'm still he, that the little boy's inside me. But I'm seldom he, and I seldom find him. He's sleeping or he's dead. My cynicism killed him. I read too many music publications. I bought too many CDs because someone told me they were influential or important. I compared every band to my growing list of favorites. I actually differentiated between my "favorites" and those bands I just liked. I made too many year-end top ten albums lists. I wrote too many music reviews.

Yes, I still love music. But something is missing. Something is wrong. And I think (I'm sure) it's me. I grew up. I grew cynical. And I quit allowing the music to move me.

So now I'm searching. I'm waiting. I'm listening. I'm allowing the music to move me again. I'm daring it to move me. I'm cussing it out. I want my Messiah. I want to find that thirteen-year-old's promised land again. I want to scream like N' Sync's pretend girlfriends. I want to hear a new band and forget I'm a critic for once. Or I want to write a music review in which I gush about the album and lose all credibility I might have had because I sound like the little boy who first heard "Smells Like Teen Spirit." I want to write words like "wow" and "holy shit." I want to write sentences like "This is the best album of all time."

Because I love rock 'n' roll. Tonight, I remember. Sometimes I forget when I write a review. But tonight I remember. Tonight I miss Kurt Cobain.

*

I remember when he died like I wish I remember the first time I heard him. I came home from school and did homework in my room. Soon, my sister knocked on the door. She asked if had I heard about Kurt Cobain. I told her no I hadn't. She told me he killed himself.

No! I thought. I don't know what I actually said. I stared at a blank space on the dusty, fake-wood paneling of my room where I had never bought and hung a Nirvana poster. I remembered when he sang the lyric, "No I don't have gun," and hated him for his irony. I hummed and stared and let myself be numbed. My sister resumed doing something more important to her.

*

After he died, I couldn't name my feelings. All I knew was they hurt me. And not in the good way his songs had hurt me. I felt betrayed. Angry. Depressed. Unwanted. I was too numb to cry, but I wanted to cry too much to be truly considered numb.

I wouldn't feel these feelings again until the first girl I ever cared about dumped me.

Then, I could name them as what they were:

Kurt Cobain had broken my heart.

*

The critic in me hates to write about Nirvana. He's scared of repeating what better critics have said. He's frightened of writing in platitudes. He's terrified the little boy will steal his pen and write.

Tonight, I'll let him say whatever he wants.

*

Fuck your 354 individually marketed pieces of music. Over 200 of them are meaningless to you.

*

Don't be so cynical all the time.

*

You liked New Kids on the Block when you were eleven years old. Quit criticizing eleven year olds for liking N'Sync and the Backstreet Boys. You woke up. They will too.

*

Listen to the C & C Music Factory when you feel like listening to the C & C Music Factory. You used to like them; you know you did. You probably still know all the words to "Things that Make You Go Hmmm," as well as dozens of similarly dorky songs by artists such as MC Hammer and Young MC. There's nothing wrong with listening to the "disposable pop superstars" of your pre-Nirvana days. (If you've never used that term before, "disposable pop superstars," I know you've at least thought it.) So what if Freedom Williams was a tool of his producers? Pop him in your stereo and CRANK UP THE VOLUME!

*

If anybody laughs at you, crank it up louder. Nobody has the right to laugh at that group. You know, and they know, they used to like them, too.

*

Don't be afraid to love that Elliot Smith song, "XO," you like so much. Unlike your curly redhead, it will never break your heart.

*

Let Kurt Cobain rest in peace, for Christ's sake. He killed himself because of people like you. You ask for too much. He's just a songwriter. Quit comparing every new band to Nirvana. Quit worshipping him like the God he never wanted to be.

*

Drive to Vintage Vinyl to browse for used CDs. Don't bring any money. You're browsing, not buying. Play your Nevermind tape, one of the first individually marketed pieces of music you owned. Turn the volume knob as counterclockwise as it will go. Blow out your speakers. Headbang. Shred your vocal chords. Let those arms and neck goosepimple. Let the hairs on the back of your neck salute. Let everyone stare at you and curse your loud volume. Stop and smell your Little Boy Spirit, because he's still you but you've ignored him for years. Remember when you became a fan. Forget when you became a critic. Remember to mispronounce the real lyrics to "In Bloom" to sound like the lyrics you hear. Remember how much you love rock 'n' roll. Just remember, Matt.

Just remember.

Issue 5, April 2001 | next article


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