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Rolling Stone

Explainer: 12 unlikely covers of 'Smells Like Teen Spirit'

  • A video of Miley Cyrus performing Nirvana's breakthrough hit, "Smells Like Teen Spirit," in Ecuador in April was spreading around the Internet in the days that followed — and inevitably, the performance was widely criticized and declared blasphemous by rock fans who have no love for the teen pop icon.

    But Cyrus is hardly the first pop singer to take on the grunge classic. As it turns out, "Teen Spirit" isn't just one of the most frequently covered rock songs of the past 20 years. It's practically become a cornerstone of mainstream pop.

    Here are the 12 most unlikely covers of "Smells Like Teen Spirit" — and as it turns out, Miley's is hardly the most objectionable.

  • Miley Cyrus

    Miley introduces her rendition of "Smells Like Teen Spirit" by telling her fans that it's a song that inspired her to become a performer. This isn't hard to imagine once it gets going. Sure, she might not be perfectly suited to this type of high-intensity rocking, and she seems a bit physically awkward at times, but she looks like she's having a ball up there. Also, it should be noted that she actually has a family connection to Kurt Cobain: Her father, country singer Billy Ray Cyrus, was actually friends with the late Nirvana frontman.

  • Take That

    British boy band Take That have long specialized in syrupy soft pop, but they took to performing a genuinely rocking version of "Smells Like Teen Spirit" as a tribute to Kurt Cobain on their 1995 tour, including this stop at London's Earl's Court arena.

  • Bruno Mars

    Bruno Mars has been featuring this mash-up of "Smells Like Teen Spirit" and Michael Jackson's "Billie Jean" at most of his recent concerts, including this one at the Hard Rock Hotel in Las Vegas last year. As if playing two of the most instantly recognizable and crowd-pleasing hits in the world wasn't enough, Mars tosses in a bit of the White Stripes' "Seven Nation Army" at the end for good measure.

  • Taio Cruz

    Much like Bruno Mars, Cruz is a shameless crowd-pleaser – after a rowdy round of "Smells Like Teen Spirit," he leads the audience into a bit of Justin Timberlake's smash hit "SexyBack." This camera phone footage was shot at London's Shepherd's Bush Empire in November 2008, back before Cruz broke big internationally with "Dynamite."

  • Casey Abrams

    When contestants sing rock songs on "American Idol," it's usually pretty tame. But Casey Abrams' version of "Smells Like Teen Spirit" from a recent episode is genuinely unhinged, with the bearded singer making intense eyes while screaming the words. This may have scared off a lot of voters – he was eliminated only a few weeks later

  • Magni

    "American Idol's" Casey Abrams wasn't the first guy to perform "Smells Like Teen Spirit" on a televised singing competition. In this performance from the "Rock Star: Supernova" contest from 2006 — a show in which a bunch of singers were trying out for a short-lived supergroup including Metallica's Jason Newstead, Mötley Crüe's Tommy Lee and Guns N' Roses' Gilby Clarke — some Icelandic guy called Magni sang the song, and inadvertantly made it sound more like the band Live.

  • Of Montreal with MGMT

    Of Montreal teamed up with members of MGMT for this very well executed cover of "Teen Spirit" during the encore of a show in New York City in October of 2008. If you watch the audience's response, you get a sense of why so many different acts put the song in their show — the song has a primal power that causes people to totally flip out. The crowd at this gig at Manhattan's cavernous Roseland Ballroom respond to the song as if they are actually watching a resurrected Kurt Cobain.

  • Kelis

    R&B queen Kelis' version of "Teen Spirit" from a concert at London's Shepherd's Bush Empire circa 2000 is surprisingly brutal, with her honeyed vocals giving way to full-bodied shouts. This yet more evidence of the song's undeniable power — her fans may have come out to dance, but here they come much closer to moshing.

  • Tori Amos

    Tori Amos' version of "Smells Like Teen Spirit," which appears as the B-side of her 1992 single "Crucify," is one of the earliest known covers of the song. Cobain was a fan – he once described her pretty solo piano cover  as "a great breakfast cereal version." This performance of the song was filmed at the Montreux Jazz Festival in Switzerland in 1992.

  • Paul Anka

    Paul Anka turned "Smells Like Teen Spirit" into a swing jazz tune on his 2005 album "Rock Swings," which he was promoting in this appearance on the "Late Show with David Letterman." Anka takes out some of the most questionable lyrics and sings the "here we are now, entertain us!" line with zero irony, thus making this the most ironic possible version of the song.

  • Justin Timberlake

    Justin Timberlake performed a bit of the Nirvana hit at a number of shows back in 2006. Unfortunately, only crappy camera phone footage from his show at the House of Blues in Los Angeles in August of 2006 is available online. Still, you can get a sense in this clip of the former N'Sync singer's glee in playing the song's iconic riff.

  • Kathleen Hanna

    Le Tigre and Bikini Kill frontwoman Kathleen Hanna brings everything full circle in this cabaret performance at Manhattan's Joe's Pub last year in which she performs a monologue — accompanied by twinkling piano! — about how she inspired "Smells Like Teen Spirit." She also tosses in a bit of her classic Bikini Kill tune "Rebel Girl."

Photos: Nirvana

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  1. Here we are now, entertain us ...

    The members of Nirvana, from left, singer/guitarist Kurt Cobain, bassist Krist Novoselic and drummer Dave Grohl are photographed backstage at England's Reading Festival on Aug. 23, 1991. Originally from Aberdeen, Wash., the band was on the cusp of a worldwide explosion in popularity as part of the grunge explosion out of Seattle. (Everett Collection) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. The almighty dollar

    Nirvana released "Nevermind," its second studio album, on Sept. 24, 1991. Driven by the popularity of the first single, "Smells Like Teen Spirit," the hard-driving album went on to sell over 30 million copies worldwide.

    Spencer Elden, the baby who appeared on the "Nevermind" cover, told MTV as a 17-year-old in 2008, "It's kind of creepy [to think] that that many people have seen me naked." (DGC Records) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Pool of rock

    Grohl, Novoselic and Cobain pose for an underwater portrait during a shoot in a North Hollywood pool. (Kirk Weddle / © Kirk Weddle/Corbis) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Give him a lift

    Cobain surfs the crowd during a show in Frankfurt, Germany, in December 1991. "Nevermind" had entered the Billboard Top 40 and "Smells Like Teen Spirit" was a genuine hit as the band toured Europe. (Paul Bergen via Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Mainstream mindset

    As the grunge wave rippled across the music industry and the cultural landscape, Nirvana appeared on the April 1992 cover of Rolling Stone magazine. Cobain sent his own message about selling out with a T-shirt reading "Corporate magazines still suck." (Rolling Stone) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. An Axl to grind

    Cobain performs on stage with Nirvana at the MTV Video Music Awards on Sept. 10, 1992. MTV wanted the band to play "Smells Like Teen Spirt," but Nirvana wanted to play a newer song -- "Rape Me." The two sides agreed that the band would play "Lithium" but Cobain opened the performance with the first few lines of "Rape Me" before changing gears.

    Also at the event, Cobain got into it with Guns N' Roses frontman Axl Rose, who challenged the Nirvana singer to a fight backstage after exhchanging words with Cobain's wife Courtney Love. (Frank Micelotta / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Baby makes three

    Cobain and Love, with daughter Frances Bean Cobain, attend the MTV Video Music Awards at Universal Ampitheater in Universal City, Calif., on Sept. 2, 1993.

    The night's big winner was another Seattle grunge band. Pearl Jam won four awards, including video of the year, for "Jeremy." (Ron Galella / WireImage) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Where did you sleep last night?

    Nirvana taped an episode of MTV's "Unplugged" series at Sony Studios in New York on Nov. 18, 1993. The band's set included six covers, including David Bowie's "The Man Who Sold the World," as well as an appearance by the Meat Puppets for three songs.

    Cobain died on April 5, 1994, of a self-inflicted shotgun wound. He was 27.

    The album for the session was released in the wake of Cobain's suicide and debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200. (Frank Micelotta / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Always loud

    Cobain and Nirvana perform during the taping of MTV's "Live and Loud" production in Seattle on Dec. 13, 1993.

    The band had by then released its third studio album, "In Utero," and embarked on its first American tour in two years.

    Rolling Stone reviewer David Fricke gave the album four-and-a-half out of five stars and wrote, "In Utero is a lot of things -- brilliant, corrosive, enraged and thoughtful, most of them all at once. But more than anything, it's a triumph of the will." (Robert Sorbo / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. A band of his own

    Former Nirvana drummer Dave Grohl, performing at the MTV Movie Awards on June 5, 2011, has gone on to find success of his own as the frontman for the band Foo Fighters. The band has released seven studio albums since forming in 1994. (Matt Sayles / AP file) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. Bucking the trends

    Novoselic, left, and Grohl, center, pose with Butch Vig, the producer of the Nirvana's "Nevermind," in Los Angeles on Sept. 6, 2011.

    After 20 years, "The album holds up really well. It's timeless," Vig told The Associated Press. "I think part of that is because the songs are really good. The production isn't gimmicky. It's just bass, drums and guitar. There's not any sort of trendy sound." (Chris Pizzello / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Pieces of rock history

    Nirvana artifacts are seen at the opening of "In Bloom: The Nirvana Exhibition," marking the 20th anniversary of the release of "Nevermind," at the Loading Bay Gallery in London on Sept. 13, 2011. (Samir Hussein / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. Come as you are, as you were

    A portrait of Cobain is seen at "In Bloom: The Nirvana Exhibition" at the Loading Bay Gallery in London on Sept. 13, 2011. (Samir Hussein / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
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  1. Everett Collection
    Above: Slideshow (13) Nirvana
  2. Eddie Vedder Singing
    Neal Preston / Corbis
    Slideshow (10) Grunge bands of the '90s

Discuss: Which is your favorite cover of 'Smells Like Teen Spirit'?

Miley Cyrus, Bruno Mars, Justin Timberlake and more have put their own spins on the Nirvana classic

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