Artists and bands that revolutionized the nineties music scene.
Grunge is a subgenre of rock with roots in heavy metal, hard rock, and punk or hardcore punk (which where a staple of the seventies and eighties) while also influenced by alternative rock and noise rock. The term grunge is derived from the adjective grungy (American slang to refer to something filthy, grimy, or disheveled).
Grunge emerged in the late eighties and reached its peak in popularity in the early nineties. Many of the bands that defined the scene came out of Washington state, particularly out of Seattle. The first record label that helped promote the grunge scene was SubPop Records, who supported bands that became essential to the movement, such as Green River, Soundgarden or the most prominent, Nirvana. The genre started standing out around 1987 when Soundgarden released Screaming Life. Grunge was also influenced by other bands such as Pixies, Sonic Youth, Pearl Jam, Alice in Chains, Stone Temple Pilots, Mudhoney and Melvin. Since almost all these bands were coming out of the Seattle scene, music journalists started referring to grunge as the Seattle sound. Although every band had its own sound, the music was labeled grunge, giving an identity to a genre that resonated with a new generation of young people (Generation X).
To understand how grunge as a genre and subculture started, we must look at the changes rock was going through at the time. The Seattle grunge scene (or simply Seattle scene) came to be due to several factors; first, the genre was heavily influenced by the Pacific northwest music scene and the local youth culture. The previous decade had seen new genres emerge such as heavy metal (in the early 70s) with bands like Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin, the latter which hugely influenced the sound of Soundgarden. The raw and distorted sound of noise rock was also a big influence in the genre, with bands such as Wisconsin Killdozer and Butthole Surfers, whose style fused punk and heavy metal and can whose influence can be definitely heard in Soundgarden’s eponymous debut album.
Other seminal bands of the genre were influenced by British post-punk bands like Gang of Four and Bauhaus, who were very popular in the early eighties Seattle scene. On the other hand, Pearl Jam’s style was notoriously more laid back, with less heavy metal sounds and resembles an earlier 70s classic rock. The band cited several punk and classic rock bands as The Who, Neil Young and Ramones as influences.
Furthermore, the genre’s success and reception could also be a contrarian reaction towards the mainstream popularity of glam rock or hair metal performed by bands such as Poison, Motley Crüe, Ratt o Bon Jovi, who had remained in the music charts throughout the eighties, especially in the U.S. Many grunge bands rejected the genre due to its mainstream status as well as their sexists’ videos and content. Grunge lyrics delved into social conscious themes, very opposite to the sexist lyrics performed by hair metal bands. For instance, Soundgarden’s Big Dumb Sex makes a social commentary and parodies the wild partying, misogynistic rockstar stereotype and the “Drugs, Sex and Rock and Roll” lifestyle portrayed in glam rock or hair metal videos.
PICTURE 1: From the left: Eddie Vedder (Peral Jam’s vocalist), Kurt Cobain (Nirvana’s vocalist and guitarist), Chris Cornell (Audioslave and Soundgarden’s vocalist) and Courtney Love (Hole’s vocalist and guitarist).
Another reason for the success of grunge was the social context that a whole generation identified with, young people with a hopeless view of the future. All these bands reflected the nonconformist, rebel attitude and disillusionment felt towards society. Unlike other genres, grunge focused on expressing the apathy and indolence felt by an entire generation, unimpressed with the times and rejecting the ever faster and programmed world that started emerging with the rise of new technologies in the early nineties.
Grunge was also a counterculture movement that tried to break down social norms and characterized by a disdain and rejection towards the herd mentality and disinterested by consumerism. All this arose within an underground and independent movement that vouched for anti-consumerism and with little to no importance given to how one is portrayed or perceived by the public; they dressed in whatever they found, from secondhand clothes to thrift shops, running away from the flashy and extravagant fashion that existed in the eighties. The grunge look was disheveled. It wasn’t even an attempt to be anti-fashion; using clothes with no regard to whether it matches or not, like flannel shirts, ragged jeans, worn snickers, long and unkempt hair was a reflection on how little importance they gave to looks, poses or a premeditated aesthetic. However, as it always does, capitalism found its way and made a business out of the grunge look, which is prevalent nowadays with our pre-bleached and pre-ripped jeans. In the same way, grunge would lose its essence as soon as it became a mainstream fashion and consumption product.
PICTURE 2: Pearl Jam in a practice room.
Grunge bands were not there for the money; instead, they focused on experimenting with music, sharing it and expressing through it. The most distinguishable characteristics of the grunge sound came out of using instruments such as electric guitars, creating energetic rhythms and repetitive and distorted sounds, guttural and raspy melodies, reverbed drums, and heavy sounds along with fast and pronounced or slowed and calmed measures.
Their lyrics were characterized by expressing feelings of apathy and disenchantment and were also introspective, reflecting on the general angst felt by the youth, their existential dread, frustration, unease, pessimism, anger, rage, confusion, sadness, etc. Other themes were the quest towards freedom and independence from society, feeling alienated and oppressed, as well as reflection and critique towards social marginalization, loneliness, and prejudices against specific groups; for instance, In Bloom by Nirvana is heavy in sarcasm and mockery as well as Touch Me I’m Sick by Mudhoney, which had a more relaxed and loutish tone.
Grunge spread worldwide in the mid-nineties mainly due to the commercial success of albums such as Nevermind by Nirvana (released in 1991 and reached the top 40) and Ten by Pearl Jam (1991), as well as Badmotorfinger by Soundgarden (1991) and Dirt by Alice in Chains (1992). These records instigated the popularity of alternative rock and made grunge the biggest hard rock subgenre of the time. The genre was also getting more respect as a music genre due to the notoriety given by the media.
Nirvana’s Nevermind was pivotal to rock music and undoubtedly helped grunge in replacing glam metal, which had dominated the rock music scene at the time. But it was the release of Nevermind’s first single Smells Like Teen Spirit in 1991 that propelled the grunge rock phenomenon and marked the start of big changes in the music scene of the time, getting away from glam metal and pop (mainstream popular music that received more radio airplay due to its accessibility), who had dominated the eighties, and helped bring alternative rock and grunge to the forefront of the music scene, making the latter the dominating genre for the first half of the nineties and leaving its influence so that alternative rock continued its popularity for the rest of the decade. In December 1991, due to its heavy marketing and MTV’s constant airplay of the Smells Like Teen Spirit video, Nevermind went on to sell 400 000 copies in a week. In January 1992, Nevermind surpassed Dangerous by Michael Jackson as the number one single in the Billboard music charts.
PICTURE 3: Nirvana’s acoustic concert, MTV Unplugged, New York, 1993.
However, a lot of the bands found themselves at odds with their newfound success and their rockstar status. In an interview with Michael Azerrad, Kurt Cobain stated: “Being famous is the last thing I wanted to become”. Pearl Jam was also struggling with the weight of their fame, particularly Eddie Vedder, since as a lead vocalist, received most of the attention.
Grunge’s rise in popularity started to wane around the middle of the nineties. Several factors led to this event; a lot of bands were disbanding, tour cancellations, the overwhelming drug addiction and alcoholism within band members and, of course, the tragic and untimely death of Kurt Cobain (Nirvana’s singer). After some time, the biggest representatives of the grunge subculture found themselves in the middle of everything they stood against.
Post grunge appeared during the second half of the nineties and went on to replace grunge. Post grunge, with its softer and more accessible style left behind a lot of grunge bands and artists. Bands were becoming more mainstream and with a friendlier sound, like Collective Soul, Silverchair or Bush, known for softening the characteristic grunge distorted guitar sound and using a higher quality production.
Of the most prominent and famous bands that helped create the movement, there are only a few still active such as Pearl Jam, Mudhoney, The Melvins, Hole, Stone Temple Pilots, Alice in Chains y Collective Soul (although many of its original members have been replaced, among other causes, their passing away. In any regards, grunge was very influential in the subsequent evolution of rock and its essence can still be heard and felt today.
PICTURE 4: Nirvana concert for their album In Utero, Live & Loud, 1993.