Pop Culture

Al Yankovic, Rock Critic

My unlikely introduction to a certain alt-rock classic.

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Nevermind turns 20 this month, a fact that makes a lot of people feel old. Luckily for me, I'm not among them—because I didn't actually hear the record when it first arrived. I was nine years old in September 1991, entering fourth grade, and mostly unaware of new music other than what was played on my mom’s car radio. (Most often, that was the adult-contemporary hits of Mix 106.5; I remember being fond of Matthew Wilder's “Break My Stride” and the Spin Doctors' “Two Princes,” the latter from an album that, like Nevermind, is receiving a deluxe 20th anniversary reissue this year, though to considerably less fanfare).

I’m pretty sure, in fact, that my first conscious exposure to Nirvana came not from hearing the band itself, but rather from my older sister's copy of Off the Deep End, the 1992 Weird Al Yankovic album whose opening track was a “Smells Like Teen Spirit” parody called “Smells Like Nirvana.” Yankovic, doing a credible, if nasal, Kurt Cobain impersonation, skewered his target's vocal and lyrical incoherence by spending the entire song attempting to figure out what words he was supposed to be singing. The music, though, remained mostly faithful to the original, and sounded pretty exciting to my young ears. I’m not sure if I was any more than dimly aware of the Nirvana version for quite a while; to me, that classic opening riff was the start to a Weird Al record.

I wasn't alone: I have a strong memory of sitting in the cafeteria at Atholton Elementary some time the following school year, listening to my classmate Ryan gleefully sing the chorus of Weird Al’s version—Sing distinctly? We don't wanna/Buy our album, we're Nirvana/A garage band from Seattle/Well, it sure beats raisin’ cattle—sparking an argument with another classmate over whether those were “the real words.” Things got heated. By that point I knew enough to know Ryan was wrong, but in my heart I was on his side.

Of course, because we hadn't heard the original first, we were at a bit of a disadvantage in understanding that, yes, this was satire. Yankovic himself, in a recent interview, called it “one of the more satirical songs I had done up to that point because... prior to that I had never done a song parody which reflected back on the original song or songwriter.” Unlike his previous parody hits—the two most famous of which turned Michael Jackson smashes into songs about food—“Smells Like Nirvana” made fun of its source material directly.

And while Nirvana fans may have been loath to admit it, it was an easy target. “Teen Spirit” was arguably the first major hit of the era that made no pretense toward making sense or offering any discernible message. Yankovic's songs, on the other hand, tend to rely on well-crafted, understandable lyrics above all else, and his dedication to that craft—telling a relatable story with economy, within the firm constraints of rhyme and meter—has more in common with Tin Pan Alley than with anything Kurt Cobain was listening to. So it's not hard to imagine him bristling at “Teen Spirit”’s lyrics, or even laughing at them; as my schoolmates discovered, the real words and the fake ones, genuine ennui and its comedy equivalent, weren't so far apart. The original was nearly a parody to begin with.

Though it took me another couple of years, I did eventually become a Nirvana fan. The first album I ever bought with my own money was MTV Unplugged in New York in the fall of '94, and by that time, Cobain was already gone. Weird Al, meanwhile, was very much with us—but gone from my musical consciousness. His music was one of the childish things that I had put away in my attempt to transition to teenhood. (The stuff I'd graduated to, like Green Day and Weezer, was of course very serious, grown-up music.) I hadn't thought much about him in the nearly two decades since, until I started thinking about my introduction to Nevermind. Had I been just a couple years older in 1991, I surely would have fallen for the real thing directly; had I been a couple years younger, I might not have been introduced to that sound until later, by way of its many earnest, not-intentionally-comedic imitators. As it happened, though, the way I heard the most important band of the 1990s was through the lens of a comedian: as something momentous enough to be worth sending up, yes, but also as something faintly ridiculous. Maybe that's why, as a Nirvana fan, I bought into the music but not the hero worship. It's hard to deify a guy who, somewhere in the back of your mind, is singing in Weird Al's voice.

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