“American Idol” has taken some bold musical risks already this season, with contestants performing songs by Judas Priest and Ryan Adams for the first time in the show’s history. But on Wednesday’s (March 16) episode, “Idol” truly went somewhere it had never gone before, when 20-year-old Casey Abrams took a trip back to Seattle, circa 1991, and tried Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” on for size.
“Smells Like Teen Spirit,” of course, was not conceived with “American Idol” in mind. The generation-defining anthem marked a sea change for the music industry in the fall of ’91, ushering in a new era of rock music that was worlds away from the plasticity of the hair bands that dominated rock music in the late ’80s. The song and accompanying video marked the birth of the Alternative Nation and turned Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain into the reluctant leader of a new musical movement. He was gone just three years later — before a handful of this season’s contestants were even born — but it’s doubtful, given his stance on the music-industry machine, that he would be a vocal supporter of an enterprise like “Idol.”
That didn’t stop Abrams from taking on “Teen Spirit.” He knew it was a risk, explaining in a pre-taped segment that he understood the weight of the song he was performing. “I don’t care,” he said. “I’m just, I’m gonna try it.”
Abrams — who, in past weeks, has done Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’ “I Put a Spell on You” and Joe Cocker’s “With a Little Help From My Friends” — played electric bass for the performance and put a kind-of demented, crazy-eyed spin on the song. The lighting in the “Idol” studio turned green and yellow, lending the proceedings an almost “Hulk”-like vibe, and Abrams played up the monster role by delivering his lyrics like a grunge version of Gollum. Cobain sang “Teen Spirit” with an indifference and disaffection that morphed into bitter rage by song’s end; Abrams’ take was more surface level, though he did enunciate the words far better than Cobain ever did. (Cobain’s garbled delivery was parodied to great effect in “Weird Al” Yankovic’s “Smells Like Nirvana” in 1992.) Meanwhile, the way Abrams shuffled his feet like Dave Matthews as he plucked his bass made for an odd mixing of ’90s rock styles. The “Idol” backing band’s decision to add in a wailing trumpet near the close of the song upped the ante for what was already a plenty weird performance.
For their part, the judges appreciated Abrams’ bold decision to tackle a classic. Steven Tyler called him crazy and talented, saying mixing those together is “the goop that great stuff is made from.” Jennifer Lopez noted Abrams veered into “screamy-screechy” territory, noting Cobain had intensity “but he didn’t scream,” yet still wound up professing her love for Abrams. And Randy Jackson — after name-checking Radiohead, Lykke Li and Muse (whose frontman, Matthew Bellamy, was in the “Idol” audience with pregnant girlfriend Kate Hudson) — complimented Abrams for “putting art first” and making risky choices. “That’s what we need! Fearlessness! Come on, break the mold!”
Breaking the mold is definitely something “Idol” is doing this season, and it will be interesting to see what mountain the show decides to scale next.
What did you think of Casey Abrams’ performance? Let us know in the comments!
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