Hey there, this is Teacher Ola Podcast episode 55: Learn English With Nirvana ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’.
My name’s Ola and I am an online English teacher, I teach through one to one classes. This podcast is for you if you’re an English learner who wants to speak English with more confidence and get rid of speaking barriers. You’ll boost your vocabulary, brush up your grammar, improve your pronunciation. Go to my website for full transcripts and worksheets to each episode. Happy learning!
Hello again, thank you for showing up. Today’re talking about one of the most important songs in history. We pay special attention to the lyrics and the meaning. We’re expanding our vocabulary, learn other uses of the words and expressions we come across in the song. That’s the general idea for this series. The keay though is you my friend. I want you to repeat out loud, no shame. First the lines of the song and then additional example sentences, ok? Ok! But us always, let’s start with a few song facts.
‘Smells like Teen Spirit’ is the opening track and lead single from the band’s second album, Nevermind released in 1991. ‘’Smells Like Teen Spirit” was Nirvana’s biggest hit, reaching number six on the Billboard Hot 100 and the album hit number one on the same chart. It appears on many different charts as one of the best singles of all time or the best lyrics of all time.
“I was trying to write the ultimate pop song. I was basically trying to rip off The Pixies.” That’s exactly what Kurt Cobain said after he’d played the song for the band.
Cobain came up with the song’s title when his friend Kathleen Hanna wrote “Kurt Smells Like Teen Spirit” on his wall. What Cobain hadn’t known when he wrote the song, was that ‘Teen Spirit’ was a brand of deodorant. Kurt thought that it’s about rebellious spirit. When the song became a hit sales of Teen Spirit deodorant soared even though it is never mentioned in the lyrics.
‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ was the first alternative song to become a huge hit, and it was embraced by the mainstream. With this piece, Nirvana helped to start a new chapter in history of music. Loud guitars and anger. Grunge. Cobain said “I’m disgusted with my generation’s apathy, and with my own apathy and spinelessness.” You can see this in the lyrics when they go: whatever, nevermind. The song was dubbed an “anthem for apathetic kids” of Generation X. People born in the late sixties, had not lived through a World War or fought in Vietnam. The Cold War, cultural repression, loneliness, unemployment and alienation. This is what shaped Generation X. Spontaneous howl of anger. This is Generation X rebellion. Sarcasm and apathy, failure, indifference. This is the core of the song.
Have you seen the video? The video was a huge hit on MTV. Those were the days. MTV was completely different. The video got two MTV Video Awards. And one more fact. In the video you see young people demolishing the room and it wasn’t planned. It was their natural spontaneous reaction. They had spent 12 hours in the studio and were extremely tired and angry. The same for the band. Ok. I guess I should let you practice now. Let’s look at the first verse:
Load up on guns, bring your friends
It’s fun to lose and to pretend
She’s over-bored and self-assured
Oh no, I know a dirty word
Hello, hello, hello, how low
Load up on guns – to load on something means to get a lot of something so that you are sure you will have enough. Synonym to load up on something is to stock up on something. Repeat sentences:
Cheap money has encouraged households to load up on debt.
We need to load up on canned foods and bottled water.
At the beginning of the pandemic people used to load up on toilet paper.
It’s fun to lose and to pretend – pay attention to the verb ‘lose’, it’s pronounced by the /z/ sound. It’s an irregular verb. Lose, lost, lost. A noun that derives from this verb is ‘a loss’. Don’t confuse ‘lose’ with an adjective ‘loose’ (not tight) or a verb ‘loose’ spelled with a double ‘o’ and the /s/ sound at the end of the word. Let’s practice in sentences:
This community has lost confidence in the government.
I must lose weight.
She usually wears her hair loose.
Over-bored – To be overbored means to be terminally bored with your life.
Self-assured – calm and confident. It comes from ‘assured’ that is ‘guaranteed’. There’s obviously a verb as well, the verb is to assure and it means to tell somebody that something is true. Especially if they have doubts. Let’s have a look at examples, shall we?
I grew more self-assured as i got older.
It’s perfectly safe, I can assure you.
Success seemed assured.
A dirty word – is a word connected with sex or considered offensive by many people. It’s also a word many people don’t approve of. For instance ‘lose’ might be a dirty word for you if you always focus on winning. It means you don’t tolerate losing. This word is vulgar for you. Well, I’m curious what’s your dirty word? Think about it! Let’s practice together:
Work is a dirty word to him.
Money is not a dirty word for this nation.
He abused us with foul language and dirty words.
Hello hello hello how low – this can be summed up as “incomprehensible” or “a stream of consciousness”. The lyrics have several versions. That said, “Hello, hello, hello,” seems to be a simple repetition of “hello” in time to the beat of the music. “How low” is also meaningless – it is simply a variant of the “lo” sound in “Hello. We don’t really know and will never find out whether it’s ‘how low’ or just ‘hello’.
Time to go through the chorus. Listen and repeat. Line by line.
With the lights out, it’s less dangerous
Here we are now, entertain us
I feel stupid and contagious
Here we are now, entertain us
A mulatto, an albino, a mosquito, my libido
With the lights out – in the darkness. It works also as a noun lights-out. Written with a hyphen. At a school where children live or in the army it’s the time when the lights are switched off and it’s not allowed to talk, go out of the room and so on. Let’s practice. Let’s speak.
No talking is allowed after lights-out.
Let’s meet after light-out.
After lights-out normally we would get out of beds and play board games.
To entertain – to make somebody laugh, have fun. An entertainer is someone whose job is to sing, dance or perform for people so that they enjoy themselves. If something is entertaining you enjoy watching, listening to, doing it. It’s fun. It makes you feel relaxed and happy. Let’s practice with all these words in context. Ready?
It was an entertaining speech.
The aim of the show is both to entertain and inform.
Stupid – here, let’s focus on pronunciation. It can be pronunced: /ˈstjuːpɪd/ or /ˈstuːpɪd/. The second option is what you can hear in the song since it’s american English. I’m stupid and contagious. This is an adjective, and it is gradable. It can be graded in two manners: Stupid – stupider – the stupidest or stupid – more stupid – the most stupid. Listen and repeat:
It was a pretty stupid thing to do.
We made some incredibly stupid business mistakes.
The sequel was stupider than the original title.
Contagious – it’s an adjective usually used to describe a disease that spreads by close contact between people. It can be used to describe a person as well, and then it means that the person has a disease and it can be spread, this disease. In less literal meaning ‘contagious’ can be used with other things, which have nothing to do with illnesses or diseases. Like laugh. A laugh can be contagious. Children’s laugh is contagious. Let’s practice out loud, there you go:
Children’s laugh is contagious.
Covid 19 is highly contagious.
Her enthusiasm was contagious.
Mulatto – /mjuˈlætəʊ/ or /məˈlɑːtəʊ/ however it is pronunced I do not recommend using it, ok? It’s offensive, it’s old-fashioned. Just don’t use it. It means a person with one black parent and one white parent. Not a cool word. That’s not appropriate. Black. Or Mixed. Mixed is an ok word, black is ok too but why would you use it? What for? What does it matter? But that’s a way different subject. The word ‘mulatto’ evokes I’d say umm, history. Violent history. Let’s come back to today’s topic.
Albino – means born with no pigment (= colour) in the hair or skin, or eyes. This can affect their colouring and their eyesight. Albinism is caused by faulty genes that a child inherits from their parents. Moving on to…
I was awake all night scratching my mosquito bites.
There are ten natural ingredients that repel mosquitos.
Let’s go line by line through the lines of the next verse:
I’m worse at what I do best
And for this gift I feel blessed
Our little group has always been
And always will until the end
Hello, hello, hello, how low
I’m worse at what I do best – to be god ar bad at something. Not ‘in’ but ‘at’. Listen and repeat:
I’m good at judging people.
I’m terrible at baking.
Hat are you good at?
One more verse, we’re almost done:
And I forget just why I taste
Oh yeah, I guess it makes me smile
I found it hard, it’s hard to find
Oh well, whatever, never mind
Hello, hello, hello, how low
I forget just why I taste – Um, what you might come across is this interpretation that it’s about drugs. Why I taste, oh yeah, I guess it makes me smile. Nothing to repeat here, let’s go on.
It’s hard to find – I’m sure it’s something you should remember and use. If something is hard to find. Listen and repeat.
A good hairdresser is hard to find.
The actors weren’t hard to find.
People like you are hard to find.
A denial – a statement that something is not true or does not exist; the action of denying something. And to deny something means to say that something isn’t true. Or that you don’t believe in it. Let’s practice actively:
The actor issued an official denial of the rumour.
I can’t deny her remarks hurt me.
You can’t deny the fact that we made a mistake.
Ok! That’s it! I hope you enjoyed it! I have one big task for you now. What’s your dirty word? Think of something that you don’t accept don’t want to hear about, it’s not in your dictionary. Write this one example sentence in the comment section at teacherola.com/55. Come on! What’s your dirty word?
While you’re there don’t forget to download the worksheet and practice some more.
If you know someone who likes learning English and enjoys good song lyrics let them know about me.
Thank you for being here, come back next Wednesday. I’ll talk to you about conditionals, again! It’ll be the seventh episode on conditionals. Insane. Till then, take care. See you really soon, happy learning. Bye bye!