The news: One of the writers/executive producers of odious multiple camera sitcom Big Bang Theory has sold a new pilot to CBS. The premise:
The multicamera comedy revolves around an 18-year-old budding entrepreneur who forgoes Harvard and instead opts to launch a multibillion-dollar Internet company from his garage with the assistance of his sister, best friend and his 1990s indie-rock parents.
The title: Smells Like Teen Spirit.
Okay, let that sink in. Now the analysis.
Just in case you're young or very not white, Smells Like Teen Spirit is the name of a huge hit song by the group Nirvana. The song came out in 1991, and it's the smash that opened the last good wave of rock music, the alt-music era of the 90s. It was a short lived triumph, as rap-rock appeared and boy band nonsense staged a big comeback in the late 90s, but for a few glowing years there it was exciting to see smart, interesting ROCK music dominate the culture. While the movement didn't exactly end at the same time Nirvana's leader Kurt Cobain killed himself in 1994, everything sputtered out not long after.
For a certain generation - say the 1990s indie rock parents of the show - this song has meaning, as does Nirvana. Young people these days may be shocked to learn that once upon a time cool bands didn't put songs in commercials, and while other groups since then have happily become commercialized and watered down, Nirvana's catalogue managed to stay largely untouched (Breed ended up in an MLB2K7 video game commercial, which would have infuriated Kurt, but it's one of the few times I can remember such a thing happening).
The hilarious paradox is that Smells Like Teen Spirit is actually named after a product. Kurt was dating Tobi Vail, then the drummer for Bikini Kill, one of the greatest bands you'll ever hear. Tobi's bandmate, Kathleen Hanna, spray painted "Kurt Smells Like Teen Spirit" on his bedroom wall, and Kurt liked the phrase. He later said he had no idea that Hanna's graffiti was referencing Teen Spirit deodorant; the brand saw a surge in popularity when the song hit, and tried to cash in with commercial slogans like "Do You Smell Like Teen Spirit?"
So there's a certain irony that this product name should become a counterculture song that was quickly co-opted by the culture (or that co-opted the culture itself, depending on how you look at it) and that it is now being homogenized into cheap nostalgia. If Big Bang Theory is any indication, Smells Like Teen Spirit's indie rock parents will walk around dropping thudding references to Mudhoney and the time they lived in Seattle. Maybe they'll wear a Lollapalooza shirt.
The alt-rock explosion was a weird thing for my generation because we lived in the shadows of the Boomers, and always expected the larger culture to reflect them. We had our own music and tastes, but we were happy to have it be apart from the mainstream. In the years since we've sort of returned to the shadows, this proto-hipster middle generation that isn't as omnipresent as the Boomers or as chased after as Generation iPod or whatever they're called. I've sort of liked that - I've liked that a lot of our stuff from the late 80s to the mid-90s remains a bit under the radar, rarely getting played on rock radio or showing up in commercials. It's cool to hear Pavement on the Perks of Being A Wallflower soundtrack because that band remains a signifier of cool, all these years later. A lot of our stuff has stayed at the general cool level of The Velvet Underground - known, but not played out. It was a great balance.
I think if there was a sense that Smells Like Teen Spirit were to be a cool show, this would feel different. If there were major talent behind it, or if the concept was cutting edge or interesting, we could stomach it. Nobody bitches because Murakami named a book Norwegian Wood (and to be honest, About A Boy is a pretty good book/movie that takes its name from a Nirvana song and nobody complains). But this show will be mall culture, a part of the slurry of the modern world that is undifferentiated and inoffensive. It'll be part of the lacteal sea of cultural glurge that is for everybody and thus for nobody. It's for the sort of people who don't understand why the best things aren't the most popular things. And that's the antithesis of what Kurt was about; the great irony of his career was that he became wildly successful and suddenly began appealing to the very people he hated. Had he not killed himself at 27 he might have changed - Dave Grohl, who went on to found the Foo Fighters, certainly has never had any problems being semi-anonymously mainstream.
But I can't imagine even Dave Grohl wants that song title on a fucking CBS sitcom.