Smells Like Teen Spirit by
(282 Stories)

Loading Share Buttons...

/ Stories

Props to John Shutkin for suggesting the title of this story, possibly the only song extant with the word “smells” in the title.**  I am not a Nirvana fan, and have actually never heard the song, at least consciously. I may have unknowingly heard it in the car, because for a while Sirius XM’s “90s on 9” was one of the presets on my car radio, but I eventually changed it to something else. Nineties music is my least favorite of any decade. Reading about the song, I learned that Teen Spirit was actually the name of the deodorant used by Kurt Cobain’s girlfriend at the time he wrote it. So it was not a song that celebrated the spirit that teens were exhibiting. It seems unlikely that teens in the ’90s had any spirit worth smelling; they were notoriously apathetic, unlike the generation before, or the one after. So it really is about the smell of a brand of deodorant, and it turns out it is a deodorant that is still sold! If only stores were open, I would be very tempted to buy some and smell it, while listening to the song for the first time.

I smell lots of good scents, but nothing that triggers any memories. My memory triggers are auditory rather than olfactory.

The blurb for this prompt, not written by me, says, “The sense of smell is closely linked with memory, probably more so than any of our other senses.” However, in my case I have concluded that this is simply not true. I have been walking around my house and my neighborhood sniffing, and I smell lots of good scents, but nothing that triggers any memories for me. Fresh-ground coffee, mmmmm, divine. But my parents bought the kind that comes in a can, already ground, didn’t have much smell to it. Bacon sizzling in the pan gets my digestive juices flowing, but nope, no memories. My mother cooked bacon in the oven until it was dry and crunchy and pretty much odorless. Flowers? We had roses growing up the side of our garage, and I remember how beautiful they looked, and how we always posed for pictures in front of them when they were in bloom, but I have no memory of how they smelled. And when my father gave up his 3-pack-a-day cigarette habit in favor of a pipe, I remember loving the smell of his tobacco, but if anyone lit a pipe near me now, I certainly would not savor it, I would run in the other direction!

A friend who was trying to help me come up with fragrance memories said “what was your scent of choice in high school/college?” I had to think about that for a long time. Then I pictured a bottle of Canoe on the dresser in my room in my parents’ house. I think it was intended for men — I may have swiped it from my father — but I used it anyway. It had a high alcohol content, so I liked it as an astringent on my oily teenage skin. I also have vague memories of Jean Nate Friction Pour le Bain, which, as the name suggests if you have even a rudimentary knowledge of French, is for splashing on after you take a bath or shower. However, I have no recollection of how either of these products smelled. I wonder if smelling them now would bring back any memories, but I kind of doubt it.

What triggers memory for me, more than anything else, is music. I guess that means I am auditory rather than olfactory. This may not be surprising to anyone who has been following me on Retrospect for the past four-plus years, since all but a handful of my 167 stories have songs for their titles. It’s not just the rock and roll from the ’60s and ’70s, although hearing those songs certainly takes me back to the specific year of elementary school, high school, or college I was in when they were popular. It’s also classical music, folk music, musical theater, really anything. Hearing Mahler’s Second Symphony or Bernstein’s Chichester Psalms transports me to Tanglewood in 1970. The Great Mandala puts me in Grant Park, Chicago, the week before the 1968 Democratic Convention. If I hear Guantanamera, I am at the Orange County Fair in upstate New York in 1965, on an excursion from summer camp. I could go on and on, but I won’t.

I have written at length about my musical memories in three previous Retrospect stories, Sing, Sing A Song (December 2018), To Sing In Perfect Harmony (October 2016), and Rock and Roll Never Forgets (April 2016). If you are interested, you could read all three in less than half an hour! But alas, fragrance memories are nowhere to be found.

**The other song I considered was “Dead Skunk in the Middle of the Road” but that is more about “odor” than “fragrance,” and definitely not something one would want to flash back to, if one could avoid it.


Profile photo of Suzy Suzy

Characterizations: funny, right on!, well written


  1. Betsy Pfau says:

    Suzy, when I saw the Featured photo, I thought “WOW”, how clever, I didn’t know such a deodorant existed, though I have heard of the song (like you, not a Kurt Cobain fan). But I do appreciate your research into the title; who knew?

    I, too, have stronger associations with music (which we’ve written about, went to bed last night thinking about that prompt, ironically). But we’ve been watching an excellent documentary on Dylan; those early songs really bring back memories. (Also started watching “Never Have I Ever”. Really enjoying it!)

    Interesting exploration into your memories, or lack there of, associated with smell. My mother dabbed on Chanel No. 5 when she got dressed up, but I haven’t smelled it in years and wouldn’t associate it with her. As a little child, I would get an annual case of the flu, be very sick in bed for a long time and the doctor recommended that my mother serve me hot tea with lemon and honey. To this day I can’t stand the smell of black tea. But that isn’t something I wanted to remember or write about. I once spoke to a Brandeis neuroscience professor, doing work on taste aversion, about this. He confirmed that what I had was a true taste aversion, based on a negative childhood experience.

    • Suzy says:

      Betsy, I figured that you, of all the Retrospecters, would relate to my feelings about music. Is your Dylan documentary “Don’t Look Back,” or the Scorsese one, or something else? I’m always interested in learning more about Dylan. And yes, such strong memories associated with his early songs!

      You should have written about black tea in your story, I think that’s a fascinating smell flashback anecdote. Similarly, I have always disliked Coke, Pepsi, any cola, and I’m sure it’s because my father used to make us drink coca-cola syrup for nausea. (It works, but it tastes disgusting!)

      • Betsy Pfau says:

        Yes, Suzy, watching “Don’t Look Back”; long but very interesting, so watching it in chunks.

        I hadn’t thought about the black tea aversion until reading your story. That brought it back for me.

  2. Thanx Suzy, who would have guessed Teen Spirit is the name of a deodorant!
    I’ll never hear that song in the same way again!

    And altho I hadn’t thought about it in years, my dad and my uncle smoked pipes and I loved the smell. Perhaps unconsciously the smell of pipe tobacco reminds me of them.

    And Canoe, I’m sure all us girl Boomers had boyfriends who wore it! And didn’t we all have those big bottles of Jean Nate! I haven’t noticed either of those scents still on the market. Might they be. but we simply don’t see them because they belong to our pasts and that’s where they’ll stay?!?

    • Suzy says:

      You missed my point about Canoe, it wasn’t something a boyfriend wore, but something I wore myself. And apparently Marian did too, as I just read in her story. It looks like you can still get Canoe, but I bet it doesn’t smell the same as it did 50 years ago. Check out Hey, I just realized the company is called Dana, just like you!

      • Yes I remember there was a Dana company, but I have no stock unfortunately!

        And yes I know you used Canoe but you swiped it from your dad! Now that I think about it, I remember my dad used Old Spice, would be nice to smell it again!

  3. John Shutkin says:

    Thanks for the props, Suzy. The Nirvana song is the only one I can think of with “smell” in the title. The only thing that comes close is the title of the (fictional) album “Smell the Glove” in the hilarious mocumentary “This Is Spinal Tip.”

    More to the point, thanks for your delightfully semi-contrarian response to this week’s prompt. To be sure, fragrances can be evocative — that’s the whole point of the prompt, of course — but what is and is not evocative (or provocative, for that matter) is very much a personal choice. And we do have (at least) five senses, after all. And for you, the clear winner is sound or, more specifically, music. You give some terrific examples and, of course, we should have all known this anyway by your choice of story titles.

    I should also note that, based on my “research” for this prompt, I did find that, while Canoe was clearly a men’s/boy’s cologne — indeed, favored by the boys at the local prep school, so we macho types at my public high school never wore it — a lot of girls/women also wore it. I wonder if there was any effort at the time towards unisex marketing of it.

    But I digress. Thanks again, for your terrific memories of both fragrances and music.

    • Suzy says:

      Yes, as I said in my first sentence, it’s possibly the only song extant with the word “smells’ in the title. If you hadn’t reminded me of it, I might have called my story “Dead Skunk in the Middle of the Road.” I will have to re-watch Spinal Tap, which I saw when it came out in 1984, because I had forgotten that they even had an album.

      Glad to know that your “research” uncovered the fact that many girls/women wore Canoe. I think I remember that the same company made Tabu for women, which smelled very much like Canoe, but of course was more expensive, because products for women always are. Funny about the boys at your local prep school favoring Canoe – that wasn’t Hamden Hall, was it? We played them in football.

  4. You crack me up, Suzy! That you (via JS) came up with the perfect song title for a story that works with a scent you’ve never smelled for a prompt you can’t relate to is pure genius, and wonderfully snarky to top it off…kudos, girl! And, okay, even though I wrote the prompt, I now concede that the senses of smell and hearing are in a dead heat as links to our memory. (Clearly I’d never make it on the debate team.) Great story, just great!

    • Suzy says:

      Thanks, Barb. I thought about just skipping this week when I realized I had nothing that directly met the prompt’s suggestions, but of course they are always just suggestions, and one can write on anything that the prompt inspires. So that’s what I did. And nice to figure out that I’m an auditory rather than olfactory person. Think I’ll go throw those words around for a while!

  5. Laurie Levy says:

    For someone who claims to have no fragrance memories, Suzy, you hit the mark for me with Canoe and Jean Nate, both smells from my younger days. And I do remember Teen Spirit — great marketing for teens who both want to prevent bad odors and demonstrate their free spirits.

    • Suzy says:

      Laurie, I can visualize the bottles of Canoe and Jean Nate, and I know I used them, but I can’t remember what they smelled like. That’s what I mean by not having any fragrance memories. What I don’t know is what would happen if I smelled either of them now – would it bring me back to my high school years (and would I want to revisit those years)?

  6. I saw your comment on my story before I read yours, so I was prepared. And I certainly applaud the “rebellion”. Re “Canoe” – yes it was a men’s cologne but I believe there was an equivalent for women. Anyone? Anyone? Orange County Fair? Middletown? Yikes. Remember the tents at the fair? Well for the four summers before each of my college years my summer job was working for the company that provided, installed and struck them. First summer was 1967 but I’m sure it was little different.

    • I think it was Ambush, Tom? And does anyone remember that it was originally pronounced as three syllables, Canoé (can-oh-way), then changed to simply Canoe?

      • Suzy says:

        No, Barb, it couldn’t have been Ambush, since that scent was launched in 1997. I’m pretty sure it was Tabu, as I thought I had already responded to Tom, but my comment seems to have disappeared. I do remember that Canoe was supposed to be pronounced cah-no-way, but I rejected that at the time as impossibly pretentious.

        Tom, I do remember the tents at the Orange County Fair, and I love knowing that you had a job putting them up and taking them down, even if it was a couple of years after I was there.

        • No, Barbara is right. As they say, youcanlookitup. Ambush was launched in 1955.

          • Suzy says:

            Well, I DID look it up, and the site I saw said that it was launched in 1997. Then I looked again after seeing your comment, and found a different site that said 1955. Which just proves that even though youcanlookitup, you shouldn’t believe everything you find when you do!

  7. Marian says:

    So, more Canoe and Jean Nate, Suzy. I am glad we both wore Canoe. Interesting thread about risk aversion aromas. I can deal with black tea but not orange pekoe, because my mother used to give me really weak Lipton tea. Can’t stand it to this day because of the taste and smell. I had the Coke syrup experience as well and have never been a cola fan, but can tolerate it better than Lipton tea.

    • Suzy says:

      Marian, I love that we both used Canoe! Did you use it when you lived in New Jersey, or not until later? I would love to smell it now to see if it triggered any flashbacks for me. It is apparently still sold, but from what I have read the formula is not the same. I guess the key would be to find a vintage bottle, assuming it wouldn’t have changed over the years.

  8. Marian says:

    Yes, I think I used Canoe my senior year in high school in New Jersey, because I didn’t wear fragrance in college and by the time I started working I’d been in California for three years. It would be interesting to find out if the scent has changed at all–no idea if they keep the “vintage” formula, or adjust it to changing “tastes” in scents.

    • Suzy says:

      Marian, from what I’ve read, it sounds like they have changed the formula. Ebay has vintage bottles, but I don’t know how well the scent would survive over a few decades.

  9. Joe Lowry says:

    “Smells Like Teen Spirit”? What will the marketing folks do next. Maybe, in honor of the baby boom generation, a new deodorant named “Smells Like Bengay”!

    • Suzy says:

      Joe, funny comment about BenGay, but that song was not written by marketing folks, it was by grunge rocker Kurt Cobain, lead singer of the band Nirvana, and the lyrics had nothing to do with the deodorant.

Leave a Reply