Tuesday, June 12, 2007

The Fictions of Grunge

I am willing to bet that more fictions have arisen surrounding the rock music subgenre known as grunge than any other, save perhaps for emo (My Chemical Romance is emo...yeah, right...). For those of you who are too young or too old to remember, grunge was a music form that experienced a brief, but intense, period of popularity in the early Nineties. Its chief proponent was the Seattle band Nirvana (not to be confused with the Sixties British band of the same name).

Unlike many movements in rock music, grunge evolved primarily in one region of the United States. Although identified with Liverpool, the origins of the British Invasion can be found all over England, from Liverpool to Manchester to London. And while psychedelia is identified today with San Francisco, in actuality it evolved in locations as diverse as southern California to England. On the other hand, grunge is almost purely a product of the American northwest, with its epicentre being Seattle, Washington. The name for the subgenre, grunge, was coined by Mark Arm of the rock group Green River in the Eighties. Arm did not mean the term to be a compliment, the word grunge more or less being synonymous with the word dirt. In fact, he not only described the band's sound as "pure grunge," but "pure s***" as well. That having been said, the term was more or less fitting, as grunge was characterised by what is known as "dirty" guitar. That is, it depended heavily on feedback and distortion.

Grunge evolved out of influences from hardcore punk, heavy metal, indie rock, and garage bands. The punk band Black Flag was pivotal in the creation of grunge in the same way that the blues artists who toured England in the late Fifties and early Sixties were pivotal in the creation of the British Invasion. The band's 1984 tour (supporting the album My War) would have a profound influence on bands in Seattle. Other influences on grunge ranged from MC5 to The Pixies to Sonic Youth. In fact, not only did the lead singer of Green River coin the term grunge, but arguably the band became the first proponent of the subgenre. Even though Green River split up in 1988, before the mainstream popularity of grunge, several bands would follow in their wake.: Alice in Chains in 1987, Mother Love Bone and Nirvana in 1988, and Pearl Jam in 1990. Initially confined to the Northwest, grunge sprang into the mainstream with the success of the Nirvana album Nevermind in 1990.

Grunge became extremely popular in the early Nineties. Bands from places beyond Seattle even adopted the sound. Silverchair sprang not from Seattle, but Australia. The popularity of grunge was even parodied in Todd Snider's "Talkin' Seattle Grunge Rock Blues" about a band that refused to play their instruments ("silence...music's original alternative"). Even though the fictional band was from Athens (I assume they mean Georgia), the "record guy" signs them only after they tell him they are from Seattle! Generally speaking, the more intensely popular a particular fad or cycle is, the sooner it falls out of popularity. Grunge was no exception. While part of this was no doubt due to the suicide of Nirvana leader Kurt Cobain in 1994, I suspect most of it was due to people getting tired of the subgenre. Regardless, by 1996 grunge was passe. Today I suspect most people view grunge as being irreconcilably tied to the period of the early Nineties, much as most people view psychedelia as tied to the late Sixties. While these days power pop bands and even heavy metal bands might sound up to date, a grunge band would just sound anachronistic.

Even though grunge only enjoyed a brief vogue, a number of fictions sprung up surrounding the music form. There can be little doubt that some of these sprung up due to the subgenre's popularity. For that reason one of the most frequent fictions is that certain bands were grunge when, in fact, they were not. This is perhaps most true of the band Soundgarden. When Soundgargen initially came on the music scene in 1989, they were labelled "heavy metal." To me this was and still is entirely accurate. While their sound makes some use of "dirty" guitar, it sounds closer to classic heavy metal bands such as Black Sabbath, Led Zeppelin, and MC5 than grunge bands such as Green River and Pearl Jam. Indeed, the song "Big Dumb Sex" on their debut album for a major label, Louder than Love, is not only a parody of glam metal songs, it is pure heavy metal. Yet, somehow, after Nirvana became popular, Soundgarden retroactively became a "grunge" band, even though their sound had not changed very much at all. Indeed, arguably with each new album Soundgarden became even more of a heavy metal band! I suspect Soundgarden was labelled "grunge" for two simple reasons. First, they were from Seattle. In the early Nineties practically every band from Seattle or the Northwest was labelled "grunge," the exception being power pop band The Posies. I suspect given grunge's popularity, this was more a marketing ploy than anything else. After all, everyone knew that grunge was the "Seattle sound." Second, in the early Nineties heavy metal had largely fallen out of favour. With heavy metal albums failing on the charts in droves, it probably seemed like a good idea on the part of marketers to avoid the label "heavy metal" like the plague. For that reason the heavy metal band Soundgarden suddenly became a "grunge" band.

Another band that was labelled "grunge" when they were not was Stone Temple Pilots (also known simply as STP). In fact, Stone Temple Pilots wasn't even from Seattle, but from San Diego! The reason that Stone Temple Pilots was labelled "grunge" is that many of their early hits ("Sex Type Thing" and "Creep") did indeed sound like grunge. That having been said, even on their first album, Core, it was hard to peg STP into any one subgenre of rock. True, "Sex Type Thing" and "Creep" had a grunge sound, but "Plush" showed heavy influence from ragtime! In truth STP was a band like The Beatles or Queen who played with several different music genres. This became more evident as the band continued. "Interstate Love Song" shows influence from Jim Croce and has a Southern Rock feel. "Big Bang Baby (my favourite Stone Temple Pilots song)" shows influences from British artists ranging from The Rolling Stones to David Bowie. "Down," from their fourth album, is very nearly heavy metal. STP was multifaceted in a way that Nirvana could never be.

Other fictions that were as prevalent as, if not more so than, labelling non-grunge bands "grunge" emerged not from the popularity of grunge but from the mainstream media's effort to fit Generation X into their own preconceived stereotypes. Perhaps the most common of these was that grunge was the chosen music form of Generation X. Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, grunge entered the mainstream just as the oldest members of Generation X were about to enter their thirties and as the youngest members of the generation were entering their teens. In other words, it arrived rather late on the scene where Generation X was concerned. And just as I don't believe that Generation X can be stuck with any one label (most of us only seem to tolerate the label "Generation X"), I don't think it can be said that any one music genre can be identified with us. Members of Generation X listen to music as diverse as power pop to, as loath as I am to admit it, country. If one were to identify a music form as particularly belonging to Generation X, I would think heavy metal or power pop would be better choices than grunge. Heavy metal re-emerged in popularity just as many of us were entering high school and remained popular until the last of us were just about to leave our teens. And, quite frankly, I know more fans of Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin in Generation X than Nirvana. As to power pop, Cheap Trick and The Knack emerged in popularity just as many of us were leaving our teens. Throughout the years power pop artists from Matthew Sweet to the Fountains of Wayne have been popular with Gen Xers. In fact, arguably power pop had a more lasting popularity than grunge ever did. Don't get me wrong. I am not saying that Gen Xers don't like grunge (many of us do) or that grunge wasn't particularly important to Generation X, simply that it is not THE music of Generation X.

Linked to the idea that grunge is the music of Generation X is the idea that Kurt Cobain, the leader of Nirvana who eventually shot himself, was the "voice" of Generation X. Let's make this perfectly clear. Most Gen Xers I know regarded Kurt Cobain as a very talented musician and songwriter. That having been said, we also recognised early that the man had more than his share of problems. Drug addiction, depression, and marrying Courtney Love (which my friends and contemporaries agree that no sane man would do) made him just about the last person in the world we would want for our spokesman. His suicide, not wholly unexpected, did nothing to dissuade us from that. I suspect that it was the media and not Generation X who named Kurt Cobain as our spokesman, largely in their ongoing effort to fit the whole generation into their own preconceived stereotype. Just as Generation X often resents being labelled, I also think that we can all agree that there is not simply one person who was the "voice of our generation." If there was, I rather suspect that person would actually belong to a previous generation. An argument could be made that John Lennon and Jerry Garcia were the voices of the baby boomers, even though they both belonged to the Silent Generation instead (they were born in 1940 and 1942 respectively). I think a better argument could then be made for Doug Fieger of The Knack, technically a baby boomer, as the spokesman of Generation X than Kurt Cobain. Indeed, I suspect "My Sharona" is more of a Gen X anthem than "Smells Like Teen Spirit" ever has been! Actually, if Generation X does have spokesmen, I suspect that they are from the medium of film rather than music. Both Kevin Smith and Richard Linklater have made films that appeal greatly to many Generation Xers and given us a real voice in the media when so many of others wanted to peg us as things we are not.

As I said earlier, I don't want to give the impression that I believe that Gen Xers hate grunge. Indeed, I am a fan of grunge as are many of my contemporaries and friends. I like several songs by Nirvana, Pearl Jam, and Alice in Chains (my favourite grunge band of all time). But I also believe that of all music subgenres more fictions have surrounded it than any other. Some of these were due to its sheer popularity (Hey, let's label this band "grunge" to sell more records!). And some of it was due to the media's effort to peg Generation X into some preconceived stereotypes (We all know that Gen Xers are a bunch of alienated slackers who get body piercings and hang out in coffee houses...). Regardless, these fictions have probably influenced the images many have both of grunge and Gen X ever since. I, for one, would prefer a bit of honesty when it comes to both.

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