The lyrics to "Smells Like Teen Spirit" were often difficult for listeners to decipher, both due to their nonsensicality and because of Cobain's slurred, guttural singing voice. This problem was compounded by the fact that the Nevermind album liner notes did not include any lyrics for the songs aside from selected lyrical fragments.
This incomprehensibility contributed to the early resistance from radio stations towards adding the song to their playlists; one Geffen promoter recalled that people from rock radio told her, "We can't play this. I can't understand what the guy is saying."
MTV went as far as to prepare a version of the video that included the lyrics running across the bottom of the screen, which they aired when the video was added to their heavy rotation schedule. The lyrics for the album—and some from earlier or alternate versions of the songs—were later released with the liner notes of the "Lithium" single in 1992. American rock critic Dave Marsh noted comments by disc jockeys of the time that the song was "the 'Louie Louie' of the nineties" and wrote, "Like 'Louie,' only more so, 'Teen Spirit' reveals its secrets reluctantly and then often incoherently."
Marsh, trying to decipher the lyrics of the song, felt after reading the correct lyrics from the song's sheet music that "what I imagined was quite a bit better (at least, more gratifying) than what Nirvana actually sang," and added, "Worst of all, I'm not sure that I know more about [the meaning of] 'Smells Like Teen Spirit' now than before I plunked down for the official version of the facts."
"Teen Spirit" is widely interpreted to be a teen revolution anthem, an interpretation reinforced by the song's music video. In an interview conducted the day Nevermind was released, Cobain stated the song was about his friends, explaining, "We still feel as if we're teenagers because we don't follow the guidelines of what's expected of us to be adults [. . .] It also has kind of a teen revolutionary theme".
As Cobain did more interviews, he changed his explanation of the song and rarely gave specifics about the song's meaning. When discussing the song in Michael Azerrad's biography Come as You Are: The Story of Nirvana, Cobain revealed that he felt a duty "to describe what I felt about my surroundings and my generation and people my age."
The book Teen Spirit: The Stories Behind Every Nirvana Song describes "Teen Spirit" as "a typically murky Cobain exploration of meaning and meaninglessness." Azerrad plays upon the juxtaposition of Cobain's contradictory lyrics (such as "It's fun to lose and to pretend") and states "the point that emerges isn't just the conflict of two opposing ideas, but the confusion and anger that the conflict produces in the narrator—he's angry that he's confused."
Azerrad's conclusion is that the song is "alternately a sarcastic reaction to the idea of actually having a revolution, yet it also embraces the idea." In Heavier Than Heaven, Charles R. Cross' biography of Kurt Cobain, the author argues that the song is a reference to Cobain's relationship with ex-girlfriend Tobi Vail. Cross cites the line "She's over-bored and self-assured" and states the song "could not have been about anyone else." Cross backs up his argument with lyrics which were present in earlier drafts, such as "Who will be the King & Queen of the outcasted teens."
Cobain has said, "The entire song is made up of contradictory ideas [. . .] It's just making fun of the thought of having a revolution. But it's a nice thought." Drummer Dave Grohl has stated he does not believe the song has any message, and said, "Just seeing Kurt write the lyrics to a song five minutes before he first sings them, you just kind of find it a little bit hard to believe that the song has a lot to say about something. You need syllables to fill up this space or you need something that rhymes."