The electric guitar played by Kurt Cobain in the Smells Like Teen Spirit music video will be put up for sale this weekend by Julien’s Auctions.
Speaking about the 1969 Fender Mustang during his final interview with Guitar World, Cobain said: “I’m left-handed, and it’s not very easy to find reasonably priced, high-quality left-handed guitars. But out of all the guitars in the whole world, the Fender Mustang is my favorite. I’ve only owned two of them.”
The starting estimate is $600,000 to $800,000. It is currently on display in Seattle’s Museum of Pop Culture where it has been for the past 12 years.
Smells Like Teen Spirit is considered the seminal Generation X song – as NPR’s Joel Rose wrote, “an anthem for a generation that didn’t want one” .
Released in 1991, its instantly recognizable guitar riff served as a bridge that transitioned mainstream pop music from the “hairband” era of the 1980s into the “alternative” grunge era of the early 1990s.
“Smells Like Teen Spirit is an unusual anthem because it refuses the role of the anthem,” said NPR music critic Ann Powers. “It’s perfect for the generation it represented because this was a cohort that was so ambivalent about any traditional values [or] conventional success.”
It got its name after Cobain’s girlfriend Tobi Vail’s bandmate in Bikini Kill, Kathleen Hanna, who had been laughing together at the deodorant brand Teen Spirit (“I mean, who names a deodorant Teen Spirit? What does teen spirit smell like? Like a locker room? Like pot mixed with sweat? Like the smell when you throw up in your hair at a party?” she told Double J) was drunkenly wrecking Cobain’s apartment for fun and wrote “Kurt smells like Teen Spirit” in Sharpie on the wall. “I took that as a compliment,” he said.
After Cobain and Vail broke up, he told Rolling Stone, he set out to write “the ultimate pop song”, reportedly hoping to call it Anthem, though Vail pointed out that Bikini Kill already had a song with that name. The result, he said, was a riff that was deliberately “cliched” and, he felt, too similar to Boston’s More Than a Feeling: the band did not want it to be the album’s first single but were overruled.
The video, shot on a soundstage in Culver City, California, features bored and distraught students sitting on bleachers, cheerleaders wearing the anarchy symbol and head-banging teenagers that eventually end up “tearing the place to shreds,” as Nirvana drummer Dave Grohl described it.
The band had handed out flyers to their audience at the Roxy in West Hollywood two days before the shoot, asking everyone to show up for the video. The destruction at the end of the video, following a 12-hour day, was reportedly real.
Cobain himself hated the attention the song received. “Everyone has focused on that song so much,” he told Rolling Stone. “The reason it gets a big reaction is people have seen it on MTV a million times. It’s been pounded into their brains.”
Other items that will be on auction this weekend include Cobain’s 1965 Dodge Dart 170 four-door sedan. According to Julien’s Auctions, it is the “only known surviving car that was owned and driven” by Cobain.
The car, nicknamed Baby Blue, is conservatively estimated at $400,000 to $600,000.
An NFT of the green Fetalini striped short-sleeve sweater that Cobain wore in the video is also up for auction, with an estimated value of $6,000 to $8,000. The auction house said Kurt gave the actual sweater to his mother.
A portion of the proceeds will go to Kicking the Stigma, a national initiative by the American football team Indianapolis Colts and their owner, Jim Irsay. The funds will be used to “raise awareness about mental health disorders and to remove the stigma too often associated with these illnesses”.