The recent spate of articles commemorating the 20th anniversary of Nirvana's Nevermind has reminded me that I was once, inadvertently and without really trying, extremely hip in my musical tastes. See, I went to high school just outside of Seattle in the early 1990s, and although I didn't go to concerts I listened to the local alternative radio station for hours every day. This meant that when I arrived at college I didn't know shit about the Beatles--but I could talk about Mudhoney and Candlebox, Jane's Addiction and The Sundays, and I owned every album by the Smiths. If you'd asked me, I've had said that Nirvana and Pearl Jam were okay, but they so saturated the airwaves that they didn't seem particularly cool. Knowing about them said nothing special about one's musical taste.
In the spring of 1992, my junior year of high school, I toured a liberal arts college in the northeast and stayed overnight in the dorms. The woman who was hosting me had an album playing on her stereo as we chatted. I hadn't really been listening to it, but it struck me as boring and rather square: some woman singing and playing the piano. Then I though I recognized the lyrics: was that--it couldn't be--"Smells Like Teen Spirit"? I exclaimed aloud, and said something like, "Oh! This is a cover. What a crazy version."
"You know this song?" said my host. "Yeah, I didn't know it was a cover until like last month. I hadn't heard the original. I just really like Tori Amos."
It was actually and literally impossible for me to believe that someone hadn't heard "Smells Like Teen Spirit" almost a year after the song had been released--or that some weirdo acoustic version (it would be a few more years before I discovered that Tori Amos was cool) might be someone's first point of contact with Nirvana.
But as I would learn, hipness is a moving target.