With roots emerging out of punk, heavy metal and a lower socio-economic youth in the late 1980s, the grunge scene has a foundation set in the American Pacific Northwest city of Seattle.
Before we get to Soundgarden or Nirvana, bands that have become synonymous with the grunge movement, let’s go back a bit further. In 1988, Seattle small record label Sub Pop released a three boxed set of music from some local bands including Nirvana, Soundgarden & Mudhoney. In the accompanying catalogue, they described the guitars sound as “grunge” – a name that stuck like mud.
What does it sound like?
The tone of the guitar, led with power-chords, overdriven and distorted to sound muddy. Simple, drawn-back drums, distinctly different from the double-kick and complex patterns characteristic of metal music . And vocals with dark lyrics, full of self-loathing, angst and irony… if you can work out what the singer is saying.
If you still aren’t sure, turn on one of the following – often considered the ‘big four’, of iconic bands that made grunge a phenomenon across the world in the early 90s: Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Alice in Chains, and Soundgarden.
Alongside the explicit sound of the music, grunge became a movement as its popularity soared with the success of the big four. Not only was the music popular, but the values and the style – being torn jeans, pre-worn flannel shirts and unlaced army surplus boots struck a chord. A slap in the face to the flashy and bright colours that had dominated American pop culture throughout the 80s.
It is important to add that this wasn’t purely a stylistic trend but emerged as an anti-authoritarian counter-culture, like a disillusioned progression from the hippie culture of the 60s and 70s. Grunge record label Sub Pop founder Jonathon Poneman summarises the vibe well “it wasn’t like somebody said ‘let’s all dress like lumberjacks and start Seattle chic!’ …This stuff is cheap, it’s durable, and it’s kind of timeless”. As James Truman, editor in chief of Details continues, “To me the thing about grunge is it’s not anti-fashion, it’s un-fashion. Punk was anti-fashion. It made a statement. Grunge is about not making a statement, which is why it’s crazy for it to become a fashion statement.”
Despite the non-conforming community that it emerged from, capitalism saw the popularity as potential for profit. MTV relentlessly repeated Nirvana’s classic ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’, contradicting the songs own grunge ethos. Kurt Cobain from the band telling Rolling Stone magazine, “The reason it gets a big
reaction is people have seen it on MTV a million times. It’s been pounded into their brains.”
But grunge seemed to disappear in the mid 90s almost as quickly as it emerged. So where did it go?
Partly it appears linked to 1994 with the untimely death of Kurt Cobain, front man of both Nirvana and the grunge movement. But also, in part it was due to the success that it had experienced, and the value system dictating that if it was to be popular, it must disappear due to losing its own authenticity. Still, as with all musical genres, the fall of its time in the limelight was simply its dissemination into other genres of alt-rock and post-punk ideals.
Finally. Here are some words from Nirvana that you probably could have just read instead of the whole article.
What else could I write? I don’t have the right. What else should I be? All apologies.