In 1987, singer Kurt Cobain and bassist Krist Novoselic formed Nirvana and went through several drummers before Dave Grohl joined the band in 1990. Nirvana's first album, Bleach, was released in 1989 and the band found a respected home in the Seattle music scene, but they remained virtually unknown outside the Pacific Northwest. All that changed in 1991 with the inception of "Smells Like Teen Spirit." Although they recently signed with a major record label and were in the process of establishing themselves as professionals, "Smells Like Teen Spirit" shot them into stardom faster than anyone expected. Due to a catchy pop hook, a message that reverberated with many listeners, and MTV airing the "Smells Like Teen Spirit" music video multiple times a day, Nirvana suddenly found themselves one of the most popular bands in the world.
It also helped that "Teen Spirit" was released at just the right moment. Nirvana was influenced by punk music, which was created in the 1970s in response to the mainstream and still held an important place in the underground. In the late 1980s, mainstream music included popular hair-metal acts who celebrated excess, such as Guns N' Roses and Poison, and alternative bands rebelled against them. Nirvana used "Teen Spirit" to communicate this rebel sentiment, and their message struck a cord with members of Generation X; young people who didn't identify with their baby boomer parents and felt alienated.
With "Teen Spirit," Nirvana became the first alternative band to break through the mainstream, which fueled the grunge movement and elevated Cobain as an icon. It is one of the best-selling singles of all time and often considered the anthem of a generation; the story behind "Smells Like Teen Spirit" is a legend in itself.