Science Fair Project Encyclopedia
Grunge music (sometimes also referred to as the Seattle Sound) is an independent-rooted music genre that became a commercially successful offshoot of hardcore punk, thrash metal, and alternative rock in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Bands from cities in the U.S. Pacific Northwest, such as Seattle, Olympia, Washington, and Portland, were responsible for creating grunge music and later made it popular with mainstream audiences. The genre is closely associated with Generation X, due to its popularization being in tandem with the popularizing of the generation's name. The popularity of grunge was one of the first phenomena that distinguished the popular music of the 1990s from that of the 1980s.
As a style of music, grunge is generally characterized by "dirty" guitar, strong riffs, and heavy drumming. The "dirty" sound resulted from both a stylistic change from the standard method of playing punk rock and from the common use of distortion and feedback to alter the guitar's sound. The lyrics are often considered angst-filled (if not out-and-out dark). Feelings of anger, frustration, ennui, sadness, fear, and depression are often represented in grunge songs. These lyrics may have resulted due to feelings of angst that are common in adolescence (many grunge musicians began their careers as teenagers or young adults). However, other factors, such as poverty, discomfort with existing social prejudices, and an overall disenchantment with the state of society may have also contributed to the state of the lyrics.
Grunge evolved out of the Pacific Northwest's local punk rock scene, inspired by local punk bands such as The Fartz , The U-Men, and the feedback and distortion intensive The Accused ; pop-punksters The Fastbacks; and above all the slow, heavy sound of The Melvins. Besides its punk roots, the grunge movement had strong roots in the Northwest musical culture and the local youth culture. The sonic resemblance to such 1960s Northwest bands as the Wailers and, most particularly, the Sonics, is unmistakable.
Mark Arm , the vocalist for the Seattle band Green River (and later Mudhoney), is widely credited as being the first person to use the term "grunge" to describe the style. However, Arm meant the term in a negative connotation; he called the band's style "pure grunge, pure shit". This was not seen as being negative by the media, and the term was applied to all music that sounded similar to Green River's style. It is likely that the term was seen as appropriate due to the "dirty" guitar sound that grunge is known for (the word grunge itself means "dirt").
Formed in 1983, Green River is believed by most to have created the genre, and were a large inspiration for many grunge bands despite having relatively little commercial success. After the band split up, members of Green River formed Mudhoney and Mother Love Bone, continuing on their style. Green River, who used a harder sound in their performance than many later grunge bands, inspired other early grunge bands such as Soundgarden and Alice in Chains to use a similarly hard style. However, the sound of the genre became a mix of the earlier grunge style and alternative rock shortly before its mainstream success in the 1990s. This is most often credited to Nirvana's style, which combined the sound of earlier grunge bands with that of the Pixies. Their use of the Pixies' "soft verse, hard chorus" style would popularize this stylistic approach in both grunge and other alternative rock genres.
Outside of the Seattle area, other musicians are said to have influenced grunge. Mudhoney's Steve Turner says that Black Flag's 1984 record My War and its supporting tours were major influences on many Seattle bands. The record found the Los Angeles punk rock stalwarts slowing their tempi considerably and injecting a potent dose of heavy metal, though to considerable derision and disgust from some fans. Turner says that "A lot of other people around the country hated the fact that Black Flag slowed down ... but up here it was really great--we were like 'Yay!' They were weird and fucked-up sounding." (Azerrad, p419) After Neil Young played live a few times with Pearl Jam, some members of the media gave Young the questionable title of "Godfather of Grunge" after these events, a claim grounded mainly on his work with his band Crazy Horse. Such northeastern bands as Sonic Youth and Dinosaur Jr. are said to have influenced the grunge sound, and the influence of the Pixies on Nirvana, and through them on other bands, is unquestionable. The Minnesota hardcore punk band Hüsker Dü are also believed by some to be an influence.
Grunge concerts were known for being straightforward, high-energy performances. Grunge bands avoided the complex, high budget presentations that bands from other rock genres such as heavy metal were known for; complex light arrays, pyrotechnics, and other technological visual effects unrelated to playing the music were not part of the concerts. Instead, the bands presented themselves no differently from any local band, using only their instruments and their own presence as visual "effects" (neither being budgeted higher than what was needed). The concerts did have some level of interactivity though, presented in the form of the mosh pit. Fans and musicians alike would participate in stage diving, crowd surfing, headbanging, and pogoing, though the audiences at grunge concerts were best known for their extremely enthusiastic moshing. The mosh pits would be located close to the stage, allowing such interaction between the audience and the band.
Previous to its popularity, grunge was listened to mostly by those who played the music. Bands would play at clubs with very few people in attendence, most of which were from other performing bands. Others who listened to the music in those early days were often people who were "just trying to get out of the rain" as many attendants would claim. As bands began to issue albums, independent labels became the key catalysts in bringing the music to the local public. Many of the more successful bands of the era were associated with Seattle's Sub Pop record label, though several other independent Seattle-area labels gained recognition, including Kill Rock Stars and K Records. Other record labels in the Pacific Northwest that helped promote grunge included EMpTy Records, Estrus Records, C/Z Records, and PopLlama Records. Geffen Records is also said to have played a major role in marketing grunge to a mainstream audience by promoting Nirvana in the 1990s.
Sub Pop's initial step towards popularizing grunge was in the form of the Sub Pop Singles Club, a subscription service that would allow subscribers to receive singles by local bands on a monthly basis by mail. This increased grunge's following locally, and allowed Sub Pop to become a powerful company in the local scene. According to Sub Pop founders Bruce Pavitt and Jonathan Poneman, grunge's popularity began to flourish after a journalist from the British magazine Melody Maker was asked by them to write an article on the local music scene. This helped to make grunge known outside of the local area during the late 1980s, giving the genre its first major spurt of popularity. Pavitt and Poneman were both criticized for their actions; some grunge fans felt that their role in popularizing grunge was done out of greed rather than an actual love for the music. Still, grunge would not become a huge national phenomenon until the 1990s.
Nirvana is generally credited for breaking the genre into the popular consciousness in 1991 (see 1991 in music). The popularity of Nirvana's song "Smells Like Teen Spirit", from the album Nevermind, surprised the entire music industry. The album became a #1 hit around much of the world, and paved the way for more bands, including, most popularly, Pearl Jam. Pearl Jam, in fact, had released their debut album Ten a month earlier in August 1991, but album sales only picked up after the success of Nirvana. For many audiences then and later, grunge came to be almost totally associated with these two bands and their punky, rebellious attitude towards mainstream mores as well as cultural and social institutions. Other popular Seattle-based bands (most notably Alice in Chains and Soundgarden) would also become extremely successful. Some bands from other regions, such as Stone Temple Pilots from San Diego, Australia's Silverchair, and Great Britain's Bush also became popular.
Most grunge fans and music critics believe that grunge emerged as a popular genre and was embraced by mainstream audiences due to a growing disapproval of hair metal. Hair metal bands, such as W.A.S.P., Poison, and Guns n' Roses, had been dominating the charts, especially in the US, during the 1980s despite declining critical viability. Hair metal was known for macho lyrics, anthemic riffs, and a perceived lack of social consciousness, especially in the race to attract mainstream audiences. These aspects were popular during the 1980s, but they began to have the opposite effect on audiences towards the end of the decade. Grunge, however, sharply contrasted to hair metal; its lyrics avoided machismo and used a simpler style similar to punk. With a viable alternative to hair metal realized by the public, the popularity of hair metal began to die off as the popularity of grunge began to rise.
Seattle grunge fans believed that the media gave excessive importance to the clothing worn by grunge musicians and fans, along with other aspects of the local culture. Clothing commonly worn by grunge fans in the Northwest in its early years was a blend of the punk aesthetic with the typical outdoorsy clothing (most notably flannel shirts) of the region. The "fashion" did not evolve out of a conscious attempt to create an appealing fashion, but due to the inexpensiveness of such clothes and the warmth that they provided for the cold climate of the region. The media, rather than focusing on the music, would give this fashion a heavy amount of exposure. In the early 1990s, the fashion industry marketed "grunge fashion" to a widespread audience, charging relatively high prices for clothing that they assumed to be popular in the grunge scene. Similarly, the media would view grunge as a whole culture, assuming it to be Generation X's attempt to create a culture similar to the hippie counterculture of the previous generation. Rather than focus on the music, much of the media focused on other superficial aspects of the musicians and fans. An interesting case of this superficiality backfiring on the media was the grunge speak hoax, which caused The New York Times to print a fake list of slang terms that supposedly were used in the grunge scene. This was later proven to be a prank by Sub Pop's Megan Jasper. The excesses of this media hype would also be documented in the 1996 documentary Hype!.
While such superficiality bothered Seattle grunge fans, most grunge musicians from the area continued to dress in the way that they had prior to popularity. Some musicians from outside the region also began to dress similarly. In the rock world, expensive, designer clothing was shunned in favor of less elaborate clothing; some common items worn included flannel, jeans, boots (often Doc Martens), and Converse sneakers. Many young fans outside of the region embraced this style for its simple defiance of the norms of the era's popular culture, which was seen by many of them as corporate-dominated and superficial. In England, youth who dressed in this fashion were sometimes called grungers, while the term "grungies" was often used in the United States. Traditional rock and roll ostentatiousness became offensive, at least for the time being.
Many notable events happened during the "grunge era" of music that may not have happened had grunge never become popular. Alternative rock, previously heard mostly in local clubs, on college radio, and on independent record labels, became popular in the mainstream as major record labels sought out more previously obscure music styles to sell to the public. The traveling festival Lollapalooza came about as a result of this, with grunge being a major part of the 1992 and 1993 events. In the media's spotlight, grunge became part of the pop culture, most notably being a major part of the 1992 film Singles, which featured several grunge bands. Nirvana and Sonic Youth would star in a documentary film that same year, 1991: The Year Punk Broke. Riot grrrl, another hardcore punk offshot that came into being in Western Washington (and was thus often seen as the feminine equivalent of grunge), became well known from the media coverage of the local scene. With such punk derivative genres becoming popular, punk itself was able to make a revival, as bands such as Green Day and The Offspring became chart-topping successes. Independent record labels, which used to rarely have success on level with major labels, were able to sell albums with equal or similar success as the major labels (most notably in the case of Epitaph Records).
Decline of mainstream popularity
The mass popularity of grunge music was short-lived, however. There were several important factors that contributed to this. Though some of them could have single-handedly ended the genre's mainstream popularity, it is generally believed that more than one factor caused the decline.
Most fans and music historians believe that most grunge bands were too opposed to mainstream stardom to actually achieve long-lasting support from major record labels. Many grunge bands refused to cooperate with major record labels in making radio-friendly hooks, and the labels found new bands that were willing to do so, albeit with a watered-down sound that did not sit well with the genre's long-time fans. A decline in music sales in general in 1996 may also have influenced labels to look for different genres to promote rather than genres such as grunge that were popular up to that point. However, this decline may have been a result of the industry's use of such watered-down groups.
Another factor that may have led to the fall of grunge's mainstream popularity was the advent of the sub-genre of grunge known as post-grunge. Post-grunge was a radio-friendly variation of grunge which lacked the "dirty" sound that most fans of grunge were used to. The sub-genre is generally believed to have come about at the behest of label executives who wanted to sell a variation of grunge that would sell to a larger audience as a result of sounding more like pop music. In the mid 1990s, record labels began signing several bands who used such a sound and gave them wide exposure. While some of these bands, such as Silverchair and Bush, were able to gain widespread success, many fans of grunge denounced post-grunge bands as being sell-outs. This is most notable in the cases of Candlebox and Collective Soul, who were reviled by most grunge fans. Even the commercially successful post-grunge bands would be given such accusations by grunge fans, causing most of them to have shorter spurts of popularity than earlier grunge bands. As grunge began to disappear from the mainstream, later post-grunge bands such as Creed and Days of the New would also receive such negative treatment by fans of the genre.
Heroin use amongst grunge musicians was also a serious problem for the continuation of some grunge bands. Andrew Wood's death from an overdose in 1990 was the first major tragedy for the grunge scene, bringing an end to Mother Love Bone. Kurt Cobain's use of heroin is believed to have contributed to his death (though whether or not it did was never confirmed). The deaths of Kristen Pfaff in 1994 and Layne Staley in 2002 were also caused by heroin overdoses. It is believed by many that grunge effectively began its decline when Cobain died in April of 1994. Interestingly, Cobain had often been photographed wearing t-shirts stating that "Grunge is Dead."
For many fans of the genre, it wasn't until the pioneering band Soundgarden disbanded in 1997 that they finally conceded grunge's time in the mainstream was over. Over the next few years grunge's mainstream popularity quickly came to an end. Many grunge bands have continued recording and touring with more limited success, including, most significantly, Pearl Jam. Bands like Pearl Jam also have adapted their style to the ever-changing music world. Grunge music still has its followers, and many of them conduct heated debates over the Internet about the history of the movement, its current meaning in society, seminal bands and modern day grunge musicians. Still, grunge's mainstream following shows some continuation in the popularity of Nirvana's post-break-up releases; the previously unreleased song "You Know You're Right" became a chart topping hit in 2002, and the box set With the Lights Out has become the best selling box set of all time.
- ComeAsYouAre.ogg of "Come As You Are" by Nirvana
- Daughter.ogg of "Daughter" by Pearl Jam
- Rooster.ogg of "Rooster" by Alice in Chains
- Alice in Chains
- Green River
- Mad Season
- Mother Love Bone
- Pearl Jam
- Screaming Trees
- Skin Yard
- Stone Temple Pilots
- Azerrad, Michael. Our Band Could Be Your Life. Little Brown and Company, 2002. ISBN 0316787531
- Humphrey, Clark. Loser:The Real Seattle Music Story. Harry N. Abrams, October 1999. ISBN 1929069243
- Pray, D., Helvey-Pray Productions (1996). Hype!. Republic Pictures.
- All Music Guide article on grunge
- "Neil Young: Godfather of Grunge?"
- Chuck Ayoub's Grunge Music - History Page
- A short timeline of grunge
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