In the isolated city of Seattle during the mid 1980’s a new sound and attitude was developing. Although it didn’t yet have a coined term it would later become know as Grunge, originally a tounge-in cheek term for the pungent guitar noise propagated by the cultish independent label Sub Pop (Grunge). This mix of 70’s metal and early 80’s punk blasted into mainstream America and brought the hard rock sound of the 70’s back to life, but the sudden, unexpected and to some unwanted, fame and popularity would prove to much for it and like so many pop culture movements before, it would fade away under the pressure(History). Grunge owes it’s start in part to the area in which it was created, Seattle was isolated, untouched by major record labels and looked over by the major touring acts at the time. It’s atmosphere and attitude built up the Grunge sound and allowed it to develop before it was discovered. Then in the early 90’s a small trio who called themselves Nirvana burst into the
mainstream and set the record charts on their ears. The gates were opened but soon the rush proved to much and Grunge was lost in a flood of it’s own stardom, dead to most it slunk back to the isolation it spawned from.
While the isolation of Seattle was vital to the development of Grunge it may have also been the key to it’s downfall. Without the stain of major labels in the city the bands didn’t know what
to expect from them. The freedom of no major record labels allowed musicians to make music to please their friends (Grunge City). The dreary rainy atmosphere of Seattle resulted in grunge, it was the sound of a group of friends going into a basement on a rainy day drinking beer and jamming. (Grunge City) Everyone was friends, It [wasn’t] a cutthroat sort of thing it was a Love Battery put out a cool single! Great, lets go see ’em!…It’s not a competition thing (Grunge City). Grunge wasn’t a produced sound, the independent record labels that started to pop up where usually friends of the band members or the band’s themselves. No one signed contracts, a shake of a hand and the band and label were now in business together. Unlike the large rock bands of the 70’s or the pop bands of today Grunge bands didn’t go seeking major record labels, they played to crowds of drunken friends and locals. They would play in clubs and bars where the crowd would get drunk and thrash about wildly. The Seattle phenomenon wouldn’t have been possible without the network of college radio, fanzines, and indie contributors that sprang up in the wake of punk rock (Grunge City). The bands never expected to get big, most had a tight following of fans who were all that kept them going. The local fans had a lot to do with the development of Grunge. Grunge fans were the first fans to create fanzines. Fanzines were cheaply created magazines used to spread news about their favorite band, where they would be playing next, what their message was or just about the band members themselves. This small following of fans didn’t put any pressure on a band, when they got up to perform it was to have fun and see how wild they could get the crowd. This lack of pressure and knowledge of how corporate America worked was a key factor in the quick downfall of Grunge.
In 1991 Michael Jackson and Paula Abdul were at the top of the record charts but their music had little in common with reality down in the streets (Rock’s Reluctant). There a generation was coming of age in a world of dysfunctional families, diminished dreams, drugs and violence (Rock’s Reluctant). So when Nirvana exploded into mainstream America that generation was quick to accept their message.
Before Nirvana, Soundgarden, Pearl Jam, Tad, Green River or even Mudhoney there was one band that influenced the sound of grunge more then any other. The Pixies, though often overlooked, were the major influence of a lot of grunge bands. They started the grunge sound with the soft slow intro that would blast into crunching guitars and heavy drums. They inspired the future bands and made them what they are. The pulsating sound of grunge made teens go wild and be themselves. Though some of their music had that heavy 80’s sound at times almost like the B-52’s they had put a twist to it that gave it that almost grunge sound. Kurt Cobain himself had stated that ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ was nothing more then a bunch of stolen Pixies riffs changed around a bit. The Pixies themselves broke up before the Grunge movement in the early 90’s. Their bassist Kim Deal and her sister went on to form the band The Breeders, and the lead singer of the Pixies is still playing as Frank Black and the Catholics.
Actually Seattle peaked back in 1989 when there had been some small exposure of the Grunge sound, due in part to Sub Pop’s efforts, but the bands where still in town (Grunge City). That small exposure quickly faded and everyone thought that would be the end of Seattle’s exposure. Sub Pop became the major promoter of grunge and the Seattle scene, they modeled themselves on Motown Records and SST trying to get exposure to a scene they felt was going to be huge. They started by producing a three-EP box set known as Sub Pop 200. The music could have fit onto one record but the two headmen behind Sub Pop, Bruce Pavitt and Jon Poneman wanted to send a message that it was just overkill – sheer overkill and maximum hype(Grunge City).
Then Nirvana blasted their way into mainstream America with their second album Nevermind, more specifically their song Smells Like Teen Spirit. MTV began playing the video and the radio stations picked the song up very quickly. ‘Nevermind’ soon knocked ‘Dangerous’ out of the no. 1 spot suddenly there were teenagers in plaid shirts and ripped jeans around every corner(Rock’s Reluctant). Nirvana appealed to a mass of young fans who were tired of false idols like Madonna and Michael Jackson their fans had never had a dangerous rock-and-roll hero to call their own(The Poet) ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ soon became heralded as the slackers theme song. Though Kurt’s idea for the song came from one of his friends. One night while drinking his friend had told him that he smelled like Teen Spirit. Kurt having never heard of the deodorant Teen Spirit had thought she meant he could inspire a generation, which is what he went on to do.
After that major label record companies began a bidding war over Nirvana before they finally signed with DGC. For major record labels, the gold rush [was] on Northwest bands were getting signed at the rate of one a week(Grunge City).Bands began moving to Seattle in hopes of getting noticed now that all the major labels started scouting there. In the words of the
Supersucker’s lead singer Eddie Spaghetti grunge and punk bands had become like a construction worker looking for a union as they all began moving were there was a chance at work(Grunge City). Seattle act’s, [owed] much of [their] success to Cobain’s groundbreaking trio (Degrees).
At this point corporate America was going grunge crazy. It took every opportunity it could to make money off of the grunge look and sound. Fashion designers put grunge on the runway for their fall lineups, and Grunge clothes became hot items in stores. In an interview with MTV Courtney Love of the band Hole said I have had the sweater for 7 years and now that it’s on the runway you are gonna sell it for $1000? People were buying ripped designer jeans for upwards of a hundred dollars(Hype!). Everyone started trading in their spandex for ripped jeans and flannel shirts.
Everyone went crazy searching for the next Nirvana. Record labels like Warner Bros. were yelling get us the next Nirvana in hopes of being the next label to make millions off the grunge phenomenon(Searching). Everyone wanted to find the next big punk/grunge act. Bands that had never gotten any notice before were being scouted like sports players. Record companies started flying to where ever a hot grunge band was playing, one talent scout said he walked into a club, saw 20 other A;R people and left(Searching). The phone’s of little known punk and grunge acts began ringing constantly always some record-company guy, or maybe a lawyer or a music publisher or any number of other
people trying to cash in on the grunge sound(Searching). Small bands that didn’t even want exposure were being hounded by record labels and media. And right when the Seattle Scene seemed to reach a saturation point the soundtrack to the movie Singles was released, a definitive compilation that justified all the Northern overexposure(Seattle Sound). In 1992 other bands began to grab some of the spotlight, Pearl Jam and Sound Graden soon became the next big thing(Rock’s Reluctant). Eddie Vedder of Pearl Jam identified with the dysfunctional teens he played to. His songs reflected this, often commenting on how society had failed it’s young(Rock’s Reluctant). One song in particular, Jeremy, focused on school shootings and dysfunctional kids. It tried to make the point that more focus was needed on problem children. It was almost a foreshadow of what happened years later at Columbine.
Everyone wanted a piece of the Grunge explosion, except Seattle. The people of Seattle quickly became fed up with Grunge, to say the G word in Seattle got angry stares and labeled you as an out of towner(Hype). All the exposure had disrupted the quiet city and the locals were none to happy about it. The bands even turned that into their music, with bands like Mudhoney singing Everybody loves us/Everybody loves our town/That’s why I’m thinking of leaving it/Don’t believe in it now…/It’s so overblown(Grunge City). The bands knew that the whole Grunge fad was out of control and was a big joke. It didn’t last long though because what happened next shocked Grunge off it’s place at the top of the world.
The ticket prices of grunge concerts of the leading bands such as: Nirvana, Sound Garden, and Pearl Jam became a controversy at this time. Pearl Jam and Nirvana waged a war on ticket vendors. They believed that their fans had already paid the 17 dollars for their albums so why should they pay upwards of 30 dollars for mediocre seats. Most of the money from ticket sales went to the ticket vendors and not the band. These bands thought their fans should come see them with out paying the middle man. Eventually the ticket vendors won this war and the ticket prices remained high. However, the fans still came.
An onlooker of grunge music would have had the totally wrong idea. They would have thought that the grunge followers were just jumping on the bandwagon of people who had no fashion sense and were rebelling against their parents and society. The music was loud and hard to understand. It seemed like everyone was angry and enjoyed the misery of others. Also to an onlooker, the dancing of the grunge followers seemed masochistic; they jumped up and down banged their heads and smashed into one another. For a person to understand grunge music and the message they would have to listen and get a definite feel for the music before they could judge it.
In April of 1994 Kurt Cobain was found dead in an apartment above his garage. Though an alleged suicide there was much evidence that pointed to it being a murder. For example there was no blood at anywhere, seeing as Cobain was shot in the face with shotgun that would have left quite a mess. Secondly Courtney Love had offered the guitarist of another band 500,000 dollars to kill Kurt only a few months before. Then there was the suicide not, the second half of the suicide note, which is the only part of the note that talks about suicide, the first part just talking about leaving Nirvana, was in a different handwriting. The only explanation other then it being someone else’s handwriting was that after Kurt had shot up with heroin he had written the rest of the note. The only problem with that was that he had so much heroin in him that he would have been in a coma with 15 seconds and dead in 30. In that amount of time he also had to clean his drug kit, which was found laying near his body cleaned and nicely put away and roll his sleeves back down, pick up the shot gun and shoot himself. Finally his credit card was used three days after he was dead by a still unknown person and Love’s own father came out and said the he knows she had some part in Kurt’s murder. But no mater how he died, grunge was over. The fans of Nirvana and people around the world were shocked. His fellow band members Krist Novaselic and Dave Grohl refused to comment on the death other then to say that Kurt’s music would be with them and everyone always. Love on the other hand read Kurt’s suicide letter aloud to fans adding her own comments here and there about how much of a stupid idiot Cobain was to kill himself. Cobain was an artist tormented by drugs, guns and the childhood scars of a broken family…and millions of young Americans could identify with [his] problems(Rock’s Reluctant). Cobain had never been able to deal with the fame that came with his music, the more famous nirvana became, the more Cobain wanted none of it(The Poet). At one point Cobain had requested that if his fans in any way hate homosexuals, people of a different color, or women, please do this one favor for us — leave us the f–k alone!(The Poet).
Cobain’s personal life had become a playground for the media. In September of ’92 Vanity Fair reported that Love, [Cobain’s wife] had used heroin while she was pregnant with Frances Bean(The Poet). His wife, Courtney Love, was scrutinized by the media, calling her Yoko Love, comparing her to Yoko Ono, most believing that she only got her bands fame from the fact that she was married to Cobain(For Better).
Cobain’s music on the other hand was being called damning toward the band’s star stature, as if he was trying to lose fans and push his popularity away(Biting). Then his unplugged performance for MTV led to speculation as to where he would have taken his career had he not died, Billy Joel, a musician from the other side of the musical globe from Cobain, acknowledged the latter’s talent in an interview saying I saw him as a very promising writer…what drove Nirvana was composition and song(Plugged in). After his death Cobain was canonized as rock ‘n’ roll’s savior(Degrees). Cobain had picked up the blowtorch dropped by Britain’s Sex Pistols more than a decade earlier to create a raw, passionate, uncompromising music for the 1990s(Degrees).
Kurt Cobain and Nirvana had been the main drive of Grunge, they had ushered in a cultural revolution there was no denying it, and without them Grunge began to quietly fade away(You Call this Nirvana?).
The corporate grunge rush was over, quickly sobered up by the death of Cobain. Grunge bands began losing their popularity and were dropped from the major record labels. To corporate America grunge became taboo, something not to be dealt with. In the days after Kurt Cobains death, the nation again gaped at
Seattle’s grunge music scene horrified, the media began spotlighting the heroin use of Seattle(Seattle Scene). The Seattle police said that the magnifying glass of media attention [had] distorted the reality of heroin in Seattle(Seattle Scene). The media kept it’s attention on Seattle’s rise in heroin use though, while in reality the rise was nationwide and media was only focusing on the current news hotbed(‘Seattle Scene’). Heroin is a bitter, odorless, crystalline compound that is used as a narcotic and is highly addictive. It originates from the drug opium, which has been used throughout history as a
pain killer and narcotic. Overall, it damages the immune system and has led to the deaths of many, including several celebrated social figures. The use of heroin developed into a major drug trend. The numbers of addicts and heroin related deaths increased at an alarming rate throughout the 1990’s. The media also began blaming suicides after Kurt’s death on his music, citing Cobains death as the only reason for the suicides(Blaming Cobain).
Fans stayed faithful to their bands but like before Grunge became underground, bands went back to playing in bars and clubs with a small group of fans. The grunge look was no longer in and the days of designer grunge clothes was over.
The pop culture phenomenon was gone, dead to most. It went back to being the Seattle sound that it had started as. Bands like Sonic Youth and Tad continued playing but were no longer the headliners they once were.
Grunge’s short life in the spotlight was over. It had represented an alternative to rock’s decaying mainstream (Rock’s Reluctant). Now what was left of it in mainstream America became bundled into a new genre, labeled Alternative music, along with many other small musical genres like Industrial, Gothic, Brit-Pop, Heavy Metal, etc (What is Alternative Music). The pressure of fame and popularity had proven to much for the unexacting local boys of Seattle.
Grunge had had a good run but pop culture movements never stay around to long. Though, like the many pop culture phenomenon’s before it have been revived, it may also be revived, in some form or another years down the road and retro grunge will be topping the charts once again. Teenagers will think they have found something new and everyone will be wearing flannel and ripped jeans once again. So while Grunge may seem dead for now, it quietly waits in the basements of bored teens and hearts of the next Kurt Cobain’s of the world. The world may think it has seen the end of grunge, but grunge has not seen the end of the world.
Today Grunge music is still listened to. Many people still own and buy the music of these bands. Grunge will live in the hearts and heads of many people until it is brought out again by another weary tragedy ridden soul such as Kurt Cobain was.