Smells Like Teen Spirit was the song that brought Nirvana and grunge music to the attention of teenagers around the world. While melodically and harmonically simple, it featured a minimalistic, moody verse with stream of consciousness lyrics rising to a ferocious chorus, and Kurt Cobain's voice showing its range from tuneful melancholy to primal scream. It is vaguely based around a riff using four power chords (F-Bb-G#-C#) with more than a passing similarity to a section of Boston's AOR classic "More Than a Feeling", as well as Blue Öyster Cult's "Godzilla".

The song reached number 1 for many weeks on singles pop charts around the world in 1991. Sales of the single and album in the United Kingdom were slowed by an appearance on the BBCs Top of the Pops music chart show, during which Cobain sang in a falsetto, emphasizing the non-conformist message of the song and band.

"Teen Spirit" is a U.S. deodorant brand. Cobain got the song name when Kathleen Hanna, of Bikini Kill, spray painted "Kurt Smells Like Teen Spirit" on his wall. Since they had been talking about anarchy, punk rock and similar and other topics, Kurt took it to be a slogan in that vein. Hanna, however, had meant that Kurt smelled like the deodorant - the brand that Tobi Vail, her band mate, and Kurt's then girlfriend, wore. In Heavier Than Heaven (ISBN 0786865059), Charles Cross' biography of Kurt Cobain, an argument is made that the song is a reference to Kurt's break-up with Tobi Vail. Kurt claimed that he did not know it was a brand of deoderant, and in retrospect was unhappy that a commercial product was named in the song.

Nirvana's Nevermind album, on which "Smells Like Teen Spirit" appears, took its title from the name of an album by the Sex Pistols (whom Kurt was very fond of)- "Nevermind the Bullocks, We're the Sex Pistols". The nightmare music video with its surreal high school setting was also notable.

This song was covered by Tori Amos on the Crucify E.P. and parodied by Weird Al Yankovic as "Smells like Nirvana", a song about Nirvana itself.