Grunge is the bastard child of two distinct musical styles. The father is clearly punk, his characteristic traits being a blue-collar ethos and nonconformity, which express themselves in noise, feedback, and incredibly fast guitar work. Grunge's punk roots also show themselves... [more]
Grunge is the bastard child of two distinct musical styles. The father is clearly punk, his characteristic traits being a blue-collar ethos and nonconformity, which express themselves in noise, feedback, and incredibly fast guitar work. Grunge's punk roots also show themselves in its sometimes anarchist leanings and its flat rejection of the "Man." But since grunge originated in the damp, foggy American Northwest, its mother is a little harder to pin down. Most would locate her in the dreary Seattle metal scene, where long-haired metalheads favored sludgy, grinding three-chord guitar riffs. When punk's Black Flag and metal's Black Sabbath climbed into bed together, they spawned a short-lived musical scene that took its role in the anti-mainstream very, very seriously.
During the late 1980s, so-called "alternative music" had lost its bite, as its heroes were seduced into the well-upholstered limos of the mainstream. No longer could college kids and aging new-wavers find solace in their personal relationships with R.E.M, U2, and others who'd long abandoned their cult followings for popular success. As the fringe moved toward the middle of the road, musical cynicism became the flavor of the day.
Into this musical void stepped grunge, which reveled in alienation by pairing dark 70s metal guitars with the independent ideals of 80s hardcore punk. The first wave of grunge bands were truly underground, with groups like Green River, the Melvins, and Soundgarden grinding away in dark corners of Seattle. Their depressing music laid the groundwork for the later acts that would make grunge a household name -- including grunge royalty, Nirvana.
These three young men from Aberdeen, Washington, unintentionally propelled grunge into the spotlight in 1991 with their second album, "Nevermind." While Nirvana's crushing guitars and slow/fast/slow repetitions were more melodic than the metal-heavy work of Soundgarden or the Melvins, their sound was just abrasive enough to awaken an apathetic music-buying public. As their first major hit, "Smells Like Teen Spirit" (itself an attack on conformity), climbed up the charts, people suddenly showed interest in what had previously been a localized phenomenon.
Record companies scrambled to cash in on what they saw as a grassroots movement, snapping up previously unknown Seattle bands and marketing them under the grunge banner. Soundgarden and Alice in Chains were repackaged and soon became stars, and Pearl Jam's soulful album, "Ten" (also released in 1991), eventually outsold Nirvana with its more radio-friendly hooks.
As the movement grew, so did attempts to capitalize on it. Soon grunge wasn't just a sound, it was an attitude and a uniform. It became commodified rebellion, as record companies, fashion designers, and cultural critics all clamored for more, more, more! Unfortunately for the profiteers, they didn't really understand the fundamental principle of the movement: the bands wanted nothing to do with the mainstream.
As MTV made them into pin-ups, many rejected the trappings of mass appeal and instead turned inward. Nirvana followed up with an album that Geffen Records called "unreleasable" because of its more vicious, brutal sound. Pearl Jam stopped making music videos and refused to play traditional arena venues. Soundgarden, its members clashing over the commercialization of the band, broke up. Alice in Chains went in and out of re-hab. Soon, the public grew weary of heroin-chic and tragedy, and threw over its latest darlings in favor of spunkier candy such as No Doubt and Green Day. As the grunge trend washed out to sea by the mid-1990s, Seattle was left wondering "What happened?" [show less]