Miley Cyrus has been catching some flak for her cover of Nirvana‘s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” Friday night in Ecuador. But the criticisms aren’t really about her rendition—which was not great, but not terrible, and let’s remember that the audio quality is pretty low—but about the difference between what “Smells Like Teen Spirit” means to Miley Cyrus and what it means to those who were alive when the song was recorded. Miley has said that Kurt Cobain is her “dream boyfriend” but there’s no indication that she sees much of a difference between him and, say, Bret Michaels, with whom she recorded an unreleased rendition of “Every Rose Has Its Thorn.”
And so what? News flash, Generation X: Kurt Cobain isn’t ours anymore. He entered the pop imagination almost twenty years ago. Learn to share. (At the same time, that doesn’t mean you have to like the covers.)
In that spirit, here are the ten most notable reimaginings of the classic Nirvana single, in chronological order. Classic? Misguided? Let us know what you think in the comments!
- “WEIRD AL” YANKOVIC
Yankovic’s version of the song was, strictly speaking, a parody (the album Off the Deep End even riffed on the cover of Nevermind) but Al’s musically faithful version was actually about Nirvana, not just a food-themed “Smells Like Fresh Donuts” or what-have-you. Cobain told MTV News that he loved the joke.
- TORI AMOS
The first major cover of the song was the stripped-ballad rendition on Tori Amos’s EP, Crucify. The song, which Cobain himself called “a great breakfast cereal version” (in the April 16, 1992 issue of Rolling Stone) became a live staple for Amos.
- THE MELVINS (FEATURING LEIF GARRETT)
For half a decade following Cobain’s death by suicide, high-profile Nirvana covers were verboten. But in early 2000, Nirvana’s grunge forbears the Melvins broke the embargo. And who better than a band Cobain idolized (one of whose members would later go on to golf recreationally with Fred Durst)? Their cover is pretty similar to the original, with the exception of the vocals, provided by a post-Behind the Music Leif Garrett. The former child star even showed up onstage with the band in Washington, D.C., introducing the song as “Smells Like Teen Idol,” adding expletives, and then after the song, leading the crowd in a chant of “VH1! VH1!”
- MOULIN ROUGE! (COMPOSER/ARRANGER: MARIUS DE VRIES)
If the Melvins reopened the door to Nirvana covers, “Zidler’s Rap Medley” from Baz Luhrmann‘s Moulin Rouge! tore the hinges off. Mashing the song between “Lady Marmalade” and a new Fatboy Slim song called “Because We Can,” the medley gleefully recast Nirvana as pop detritus, right around the time that mashups began to emerge as a form.
- THE BAD PLUS
- PAUL ANKA
Speaking of unlikely covers, Rod Stewart was at that time releasing a number of massively successful “Great American Songbook” albums. So what’s a crooner like Paul Anka to do when faced with that encroachment? Cover rock music right back, obviously! His 2005 album Rock Swings, and its live DVD counterpart Rock Swings: Live at the Montreal Jazz Festival, featured covers of fourteen big rock hits of the 1980s and 1990s, including, yes, “Smells Like Teen Spirit.”
- PATTI SMITH
In 2007 no less a critical darling than Patti Smith released Twelve, an album of covers, including…you guessed it.
- SCALA AND KOLACNY BROTHERS
The Belgian girls’ choir Scala (arranged and accompanied by Steven Kolacny and conducted by his brother Stijn) gained international renown when their version of Radiohead‘s “Creep” scored a widely-seen trailer for The Social Network, but they’d long been performing choral renditions of modern rock.
- CASEY ABRAMS
Before being eliminated from this season’s American Idol last week, contestant Casey Abrams impressed Steven Tyler with his bass-and-vocal rendition of the Nirvana single. (Jennifer Lopez was more critical.)
The Bad Plus made waves with a jazz-pop orchestration of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” on their 2003 album These Are the Vistas—one of an increasing number of examples of small jazz groups trying to reach pop audiences with “unlikely” covers.
[Photo Credit: Getty Images]