Grunge Is Dead, Long Live Grunge

Grunge bands were fun and weird, then they got commercial success

Is grunge music dead? The grunge movement was a short-lived, but highly influential music genre. It took place in Seattle in the mid-80s and exploded in the early 1990s.

Up until 1985, Seattle was a cute little rainy place in the Pacific Northwest, too far from anything else. The Puget Sound, a beautiful body of water, was the only known sound in the region.

Thanks to the big four bands: Nirvana, Soundgarden, Pearl Jam, and Alice In Chains, Seattle became synonymous with grunge, alternative rock, and music history. Over the years, the term grunge has been attributed to several people:

  • 1981: Coined by Mark Arm (né Mark McLaughlin) then singer and guitarist of Mr. Epp and the Calculations in a fake letter to the fanzine Desperate Times. Arm eventually became the singer of Green River and Mudhoney.
  • 1986: Some others say that it comes from music journalist Charles R. Cross to describe the sound from a few bands such as Green River, who were from Seattle, or Melvins, who were from Montesano, near Aberdeen.
  • 1987: Lastly, some folks claim it was first used in by Everett True, Melody Maker journalist, to describe the Seattle music scene.

Seattle rock before the grunge movement

In the mid-80s, Seattle was an emerging city. It had already produced a few noteworthy acts such as left-handed guitar player Jimi Hendrix and rock bands such as The Kingsmen, Heart, and The Ventures. 

However, it was not until then, in the early years of the Seattle music scene that a growing movement became known as the birthplace of grunge music. Eventually, it started to find a place in rock music history.

First wave of grunge music

The first wave of grunge bands emerged from the local underground scene and included Green River, TAD, and Skinyard. Shortly after, a few other bands came out of the fertile musical landscape of Seattle: 

  • Soundgarden (1984), 
  • Screaming Trees (1985), 
  • Mudhoney (1986), 
  • Alice in Chains (1987), 
  • Nirvana (1988), and 
  • Mother Love Bone (1989)

Their influences included punk rock, metal, psychedelia, and classic rock bands like Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, and Seattle's own Jimi Hendrix.

Back in 1985, Kurt Cobain — also left-handed — and Krist Novoselic started playing together. Their band was originally called Fecal Matter. They had no idea they would be called a grunge band and part of something so huge. Nirvana was just playing punk rock music for fun.

Later on, follow-up bands like Pearl Jam would become much more popular than their predecessors.

Grunge bands went from underground to mainstream faster than the speed of sound

Grunge was born when a handful of local bands began experimenting with distortion and feedback. They created a harsh sound with an aggressive edge that captured the anger and frustration felt by many young people.

The guitar playing was raw, real, and honest — perhaps a reaction against the polished pop music of the day. Devil advocates such as Jack Endino claimed that:

"Seattle bands just started to play in their basements with their distorted electric guitars as there was nothing else to do because of the heavy rain in the area."

The Seattle scene quickly gained popularity across the country through alternative radio stations like KNDD (The End) and KEXP (then known as KCMU). Eventually, the scene crossed over into mainstream pop culture with Nirvana selling millions of albums worldwide and becoming a household name.

Unfortunately, it did not take long for grunge to become commercialized. Soon after its rise to fame in 1991, allegedly "the year grunge broke", executives at major labels saw dollar signs in Nirvana's flannel shirts and Kurt Cobain's tousled hair. 

Those greedy executives moved from Los Angeles, Athens, and Minneapolis to sign dozens of grunge bands and grunge artists who were influenced by this new sound coming out of Seattle. The media hoped to cash in on an emerging trend in popular culture, rock n roll, and music fans. Similar to all the buzz that the dot com boom did in the late 90s, the crypto bullshit in 2022, and today's artificial intelligence (AI) hype.

The mainstream media promoted grunge but failed to take care of its stars

Although the mainstream media helped promote grunge with music videos, it failed miserably to take mental health and heroin drug abuse seriously enough. The music was also co-opted by advertisers and corporations. They used its popularity to sell products to young people.

Unfortunately, many of their lead singers such as Andrew Wood, Kurt Cobain, Layne Stayley (Alice in Chains), and Chris Cornell committed suicide or succumbed to heavy drug use. Few others have endured the test of time and remained relevant in today's rock such as Dave Grohl (Nirvana drummer and Foo Fighters founder), and Eddie Vedder (Pearl Jam).

Cobain and Staley were geniuses

Kurt Cobain, Nirvana's lead singer, was found dead on April 8, 1994, of a self-inflicted shotgun wound to the head. He had been in his home in Seattle for several days before anyone noticed he was missing. The media circus that followed his death would become a defining moment in the history of grunge — perhaps more than it was the release of Nirvana's Nevermind.

Nirvana's music was a mix of punk rock and pop music, with lyrics that were dark and often sadistic. It spoke to the angst of young people who felt they were being left behind by society. But it wasn't just about anger. There was also hope and beauty in it too, especially in songs like "Lithium" and "Come As You Are." Contrary to popular belief, however, Cobain himself used to joke about people trying to reverse-engineer the meaning of his songs, when he just put whatever lyrics he could to the powerful music. You can read more of Cobain's remarks in his book Journals.

Kurt Cobain's suicide became a symbol of many things wrong with America at the time: 

  • mass consumerism and materialism combined with declining economic opportunity for young people
  • rampant drug use (especially heroin)
  • rising rates of teen suicide
  • an epidemic of domestic violence against women
  • AIDS
  • environmental degradation
  • political corruption
  • corporate control over government agencies regulating business practices (such as food safety)
  • racism
  • sexism
  • militarism 
  • and war-mongering

"The more things change, the more stay the same"? A phrase coined in 1849 in France as "plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose."

Let's not forget Andy Wood

However, many people including Chris Cornell, claimed that the defining moment that became the end of the innocence of the grunge movement was when Andy Wood died. Andrew Wood was one of the founders of Mother Love Bone, one of the first grunge bands. Mother Love Bone released its debut album in 1990 called "Apple". The album never reached its potential because Andy Wood passed away on March 19, 1990 at age 24 from a heroin overdose. It happened just before the band was going to embark on tour.

Andy was an amazing singer and songwriter whose songs were more than just catchy tunes. They were deep and meaningful with stories that would make you think deeply about life itself. His voice was like no other. It was raw emotion that could reach out and touch anyone who heard it like no one had done before. 

According to Mike McCready, Pearl Jam's lead guitarist, Andy Wood would sing in a small auditorium to a minuscule crowd (the cleaning guy) like he was playing in a huge arena.

Grunge was never meant to be mainstream

In fact, it was a reaction to the mainstream — specifically, to the dominance of pop in the late '80s. Contrary to popular belief, it was not a reaction to glam or hair metal.

According to oral history, grunge bands such as Mother Love Bone and Alice in Chains were indeed glam in their early incarnations actually opening for hair bands. However, unlike the excesses of their predecessors, grunge bands emphasized a darker sound and lyrics that reflected their realities. These bands were generally lo-fi. They wrote about subjects like poverty, drug use, and suicide — topics that had been taboo for mainstream rock music for decades.

A turning point was when Nirvana left Sub Pop Records, founded by Jonathan Poneman and Bruce Pavitt. Nirvana went to DGC to produce and release its sophomore album Nevermind.

The success of Nirvana led to an explosion in popularity and commercial success for other Seattle bands — Alice in Chains, Soundgarden, Pearl Jam, and Mudhoney among them. They were influenced by punk rock and metal but had enough of an indie sensibility to be labeled "alternative" instead of "heavy metal." 

Other musicians and new bands outside Seattle such as Stone Temple Pilots and Smashing Pumpkins became a critical part of the grunge scene. From 1996 onwards, future Seattle groups and post-grunge bands were not as successful as those from the previous waves.

The “Seattle scene" was a group of smaller sub-scenes across the Pacific Northwest

The Pacific Northwest had several influencer scenes. Although it was never as connected in any regard as many people thought it would be. Independent scenes were present in Seattle, Portland, and Olympia (along with Bellingham, Tacoma, and others). 

Bands associated with the Olympia riot grrrl movement or the K Records indie scene have very little to do with the SubPop scene. Even less to do with the “big” bands of Seattle except for Kurt Cobain with his connection with Olympia.

Many bands found more success abroad than in America

Cliff Poncier said that their album was not very successful in Seattle, but it did hit big success in Belgium and Italy. He was the vocalist on the fictional Seattle grunge band Citizen Dick featured in the Singles film.

Kidding aside, in many instances, real bands had a much wider foreign audience than the United States crowd had. Walkabouts and Mudhoney might be the best examples. 

Although these bands released critically-awarded albums on Sub Pop and PopLama, their music really didn't find an audience in Seattle or the US. However, they had an important European market.

Grunge fashion was not a style thing in Seattle

A very absurd part of grunge history and its marketing was the idea of "grunge fashion." It originated in Seattle thrift stores. It all goes back to that old flannel shirt, short-johns, ripped jeans, or shorts, it is a stocking headgear. Almost all these articles give you advice on how to achieve the “rugged style.” 

Dressing in such a manner was not cool here in Seattle. Its appearance is very common within the Pacific Northwest, but more utilitarian and stylistically not. Conversely, at some point, there was a $900 flannel shirt (in 1992 dollars) at Nordstrom!

Sonic Youth's Thurston Moore wrote: "This is what they would have been if no one wanted more mainstream visibility." Just ask The New York Times about its infamous interview with Megan Jasper.

Is Grunge dead?

Not quite. Even though Kurt Cobain actually already said that in 1993. The "Seattle sound" should not have been an international phenomenon, but it was. On the one hand, people would claim that the best days of the Seattle scene are gone. On the other hand, a new wave of artists such as Ayron Jones and Shaina Shepherd are still following the path of their predecessors.

I expect to cover that in a future post. In the meantime, I encourage you to listen to Breaking Waves, a four-episode podcast series to hear Seattle today:

  1. Touch Me, I'm Sick
  2. Here We Are Now, Entertain Us
  3. Overblown
  4. Can You Hear Us Now

PS: After writing the first draft of this post, I booked my car rental to spend Thanksgiving in Seattle visiting family, friends, and my old stomping grounds. I visited Kerry Park, Easy Street Records, and MoPop. Oh, and around that time Rock Intersection went viral on Instagram (652,000 views, 64,000 likes, and counting!).

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