When Kurt Cobain of Nirvana fame wrote "Smells Like Teen Spirit," he was unaware of Teen Spirit's standing as a deodorant.
Back when he was dating Tobi Vail of Bikini Kill—the riot grrrl band fronted by Kathleen Hanna that I know, love, and screamed along to with all my teenage angst regularly back in high school—the two bands hung out pretty frequently. During a drunken trip to the grocery store, Hanna and Vail stopped in the deodorant aisle, and thought the name Teen Spirit was downright hilarious. "I mean, who names a deodorant Teen Spirit? What does teen spirit smell like?" Hanna told Double J. "Like a locker room? Like pot mixed with sweat? Like the smell when you throw up in your hair at a party?" In reality, it was probably a tropical mix used in the brand's "Carribbean Cool" scent, a baby powder-based fragrance, or a fruity-floral blend all aimed at the high school crowd. When Hanna hung out with Cobain and Dave Grohl later that night she ended up scrawling "KURT SMELLS LIKE TEEN SPIRIT," on a wall in his room with a Sharpie. Cobain later told Hanna he was writing a song using that title, without knowing anything about the drugstore product.
"He didn't know it was a deodorant. I felt like a bit of an asshole that I didn't tell him, but I kinda thought it was funny," she added. "He just liked the ring of it, smells like Teen Spirit, but he also just had a good knack for picking out interesting phrases." The rest, as they say, is history. A million covers have since been recorded in its wake—it's actually the most-covered song from the band's discography—not to mention two films. There's the 2011 Mean Girls-esque ABC Family movie about a popular girl who gets electrocuted, dies, and is not allowed to enter heaven, and a yet-to-be-released film directed by Max Minghella (a.k.a. your boyfriend Nick with the good brows from The Handmaid's Tale) that will star Elle Fanning. But what was the deal with Teen Spirit in its original form, long before it became a staple in pop culture?
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Teen Spirit was officially hit drugstore shelves in the late '80s after its parent company Mennen wanted to develop a deodorant aimed at teen girls. The brand went heavy on the advertising, with commercials featuring teenagers describing the many scents of Teen Spirit—here's your chance to queue up one of the commercials—and printed ads like the one above were included in just about every teen-focused magazine on the market. Mennen was then acquired by Colgate-Palmolive a year later, and at the time of the acquisition, Teen Spirit was by far the company's most-popular product. Sales outshined even that of Mennen's OG Lady Speed Stick, which launched prior to Teen Spirit.
Of course, Nirvana's hit had a little something to do with this. "Smells Like Teen Spirit" was released in 1991, just before the Colgate-Palmolive takeover, in the midst of the grunge era's "to hell with the rules," "I'm mad at my dad" vibe, where everyone seemed to dress like Jordan Catalano. "Smells Like Teen Spirit" was a song angled around teenage rebellion, and the Teen Spirit range prided itself on fragrances "made for you and your generation," as sung in the ad campaigns. File that under the most effective, yet unintentional, PR placement to date.
High on the Teen Sprit wave, the company later launched hair products, which included shampoos, conditioners, and hairsprays in three different scents—Romantic Rose, Carribbean Cool, and Bahama Breeze. The commercials for that line were just as great, and are definitely worth viewing. In between the glorious late '80s/early '90s graphics and the catchy jingle, the products promised that they wouldn't leave you with the buildup others would usually leave behind. The Teen Spirit hair range did well for a hot minute, but after Nirvana's single peaked, it began to fall off the charts as the rest of the band's songs from the Nevermind album replaced it. The hair products were discontinued, though Colgate-Palmolive held onto the deodorants.
Teen Spirit may have been forgotten by some, but luckily for those of us with nostalgic tendencies, the brand isn't completely gone. The deodorant has been renamed as Teen Spirit Stick by Lady Speed Stick, and out of its extensive 10-scent lineup, two currently survive today—Pink Crush, and Sweet Strawberry. It's pretty unlikely Teen Spirit will make a comeback, but considering that Zima will be having somewhat of a resurgence this summer, we figure just about anything is possible.