Grunge (sometimes referred to as the Seattle Sound) is a subgenre of alternative rock that was created in the mid-1980s by bands from the American state of Washington, particularly in the Seattle area. Inspired by hardcore punk, heavy metal and indie rock, the early grunge movement coalesced around Seattle independent record label Sub Pop. Grunge fuses elements of hardcore punk and heavy metal, and is generally characterized by "dirty" guitar, heavy drumming, and apathetic or angst-filled lyrics. Grunge bands were noted for their indie attitudes and their rejection of theatricals and mainstream success.
Grunge became commercially successful in the first half of the 1990s, due mainly to the release of Nirvana's Nevermind and Pearl Jam's Ten. The success of these bands boosted the popularity of alternative rock and made grunge the most popular form of hard rock music at the time. However, many grunge bands were uncomfortable with this popularity. The genre became closely associated with Generation X in the US, since the awareness of each rose simultaneously. Although most grunge bands had disbanded or faded from view by the late 1990s, their influence continues to impact modern rock music.
Grunge music is generally characterized by "dirty" guitar, strong riffs, and heavy drumming. The "dirty" sound results primarily from the common use of heavy guitar distortion, fuzz and feedback. Grunge fuses elements of hardcore punk and heavy metal into a single sound, although some grunge bands perform with more emphasis on one or the other. Grunge bands were noted for their punk and indie attitudes, and the music shares with punk a raw sound, fast tempos, and often vocal delivery. However, grunge also involves slower tempos, dissonant harmonies, and more complex instrumentation reminiscent of heavy metal. Some individuals associated with the development of grunge, including Sub Pop producer Jack Endino and The Melvins, explained grunge's incorporation of heavy rock influences such as Kiss as "musical provocation".
Lyrics often address subject matters such as social alienation, apathy, entrapment, and a desire for freedom. They are typically angst-filled; themes explored include anger, frustration, ennui, fear, depression, and drug addiction. These themes bear similarities to those addressed in punk rock and the perceptions of Generation X. A number of factors influenced grunge's subject matter. Many grunge musicians and fans displayed a general disenchantment with the state of society, and discomfort at social prejudices. They were often identified as "slackers" and drug use was common. Further, many grunge musicians began their careers when teenagers or young adults, at a time when feelings of angst are typically common.
Nonetheless, not all grunge songs dealt with such issues: Nirvana's satirical "In Bloom" is a notable example of more humorous writing. In fact, several grunge songs are filled with either a dark or fun sense of humor also (for example, Mudhoney's "Touch Me I'm Sick" or Tad's "Stumblin' Man"), though this often went unnoticed by the general public. Humor in grunge often satirized glam metal (for example, Soundgarden's "Big Dumb Sex") and other forms of rock music that were popular during the 1980s.
Grunge concerts were known for being straightforward, high-energy performances. Grunge bands rejected the complex high budget presentations that bands from other musical genres (such as heavy metal) were known for – this includes the use of complex light arrays, pyrotechnics, and other visual effects unrelated to playing the music. Stage acting was generally avoided. Instead the bands presented themselves as no different from a local band, and used only their instruments and their physical presence as visual "effects." Jack Endino said in the 1996 documentary Hype! that Seattle bands were inconsistent live performers, since their primary objective was not to be entertainers, but simply to "rock out." However, concerts did involve a level of interactivity; fans and musicians alike would participate in stage diving, crowd surfing, headbanging, pogoing, and moshing.
Clothing commonly worn by grunge musicians in the Northwest was a blend of thrift store items with the typical outdoor clothing (most notably flannel shirts) of the region, as well as a general unkempt appearance that included long hairstyles. The style did not evolve out of a conscious attempt to create an appealing fashion; music journalist Charles R. Cross said, "Kurt Cobain was just too lazy to shampoo," and Sub Pop's Jonathan Poneman said, "This [clothing] is cheap, it's durable, and it's kind of timeless. It also runs against the grain of the whole flashy aesthetic that existed in the 1980s."
Mark Arm, the vocalist for the Seattle band Green River (and later Mudhoney), is generally credited as being the first to use the term "grunge" to describe the style. However, Arm used the term pejoratively; he called his band's style "Pure grunge! Pure noise! Pure shit!" The media did not see Arm's comment as negative, and the term was subsequently applied to all music that sounded similar to Green River's style. Arm first used the term in 1981, before he had adopted the name under which he became famous. As Mark McLaughlin, he wrote a letter to a Seattle zine, Desperate Times, criticizing his own then-band Mr. Epp and the Calculations as "Pure grunge! Pure noise! Pure shit!" Clark Humphrey, who edited Desperate Times, cites this as the earliest use of the term to refer to a Seattle band, and mentions that Bruce Pavitt of Sub Pop popularized the term as a musical label in 1987–1988, using it on several occasions to describe Arm's band Green River.The word grunge itself means "dirt" or "filth." It is likely that the term was seen as appropriate because of the "dirty" guitar sound that grunge is known for, and the unkempt appearance of most grunge musicians. It was in stark contrast to the relatively polished look and sound of glam metal bands of the late 1980s.
Grunge's unique sound is partly a result of Seattle's isolation from other music scenes. As Sub Pob's Jonathan Poneman noted, "Seattle was a perfect example of a secondary city with an active music scene that was completely ignored by an American media fixated on Los Angeles and New York." Mark Arm claimed that the isolation meant, "this one corner of the map was being really inbred and ripping off each other's ideas". Grunge evolved out of the local punk rock scene, and was inspired by bands such as The Fartz, The U-Men, 10 Minute Warning, The Accused and The Fastbacks. Additionally, the slow, heavy, and sludgy sound of The Melvins was one of the most significant influences on what would become the grunge sound.
The Green River band, generally credited as the first grunge band have proved to have a significant influence on the genre. They became the first grunge band to release a record with 1985's Come on Down. Outside the Pacific Northwest, a number of artists and music scenes influenced grunge. Alternative rock bands from the Northeastern United States, including Sonic Youth, Pixies, and Dinosaur Jr. are important influences on the genre. Through their patronage of Seattle bands, Sonic Youth "inadvertently nurtured" the grunge scene, and reinforced the fiercely independent attitudes of those musicians. The influence of the Pixies on Nirvana was noted by frontman Kurt Cobain, who later commented in an interview to Rolling Stone that "I connected with the band so heavily that I should be in that band." Nirvana's use of the Pixies' "soft verse, hard chorus" popularized this stylistic approach in both grunge and other alternative rock subgenres.
The Los Angeles hardcore punk band Black Flag was an influence on many grunge musicians; their 1984 record My War, where the band combined heavy metal with their traditional sound, made a strong impact in Seattle. Mudhoney's Steve Turner commented 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."
Certain noise rock bands, with their raw, distorted and feedback-intensive sound, had an influence on grunge. Among them are Wisconsin's Killdozer, and most notably San Francisco's Flipper, a band known for its slowed-down and murky "noise punk." The Butthole Surfers' mix of punk, heavy metal and noise rock was also a major influence, particularly on the early work of Soundgarden.
Aside from its punk roots, many grunge bands were equally influenced by heavy metal of the early 1970s. Black Sabbath undeniably played a role in shaping the grunge sound, whether with their own records or the records they inspired. The influence of Led Zeppelin is also evident, particularly in the work of Soundgarden, whom Q magazine noted were "in thrall to '70s rock, but contemptuous of the genre's overt sexism and machismo." While elements of heavy metal made their way into the grunge sound, the genre continued to remain loyal to its punk roots, with many bands adhering to the DIY ethic.
After Neil Young played live a few times with Pearl Jam and recorded the album Mirror Ball with them, some members of the media gave Young the title "Godfather of Grunge." This was grounded on his work with his band Crazy Horse and his regular use of distorted guitar, most notably in the song "Hey Hey My My" from the album Rust Never Sleeps. A similarly influential, yet often overlooked, album is Neurotica by Redd Kross, about which the co-founder of Sub Pop said, "Neurotica was a life changer for me and for a lot of people in the Seattle music community."
Prior to its popularity, grunge was listened to mostly by those who played the music. Bands would play at clubs with very few people in attendance, most of whom 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. Other record labels in the Pacific Northwest that helped promote grunge included C/Z Records, Estrus Records, EMpTy Records and PopLlama Records.
A seminal release in the development of grunge in 1986, Deep Six compilation, was released by C/Z Records (later reissued on A&M). The record featured multiple tracks by six bands: Green River, Soundgarden, the Melvins, Malfunkshun, Skin Yard, and the U-Men; for many of them it was their first appearance on record. The artists had "a mostly heavy, aggressive sound that melded the slower tempos of heavy metal with the intensity of hardcore." As Jack Endino recalled, "People just said, 'Well, what kind of music is this? This isn't metal, it's not punk, What is it? '[…] People went 'Eureka! These bands all have something in common.'" Later in 1986 Bruce Pavitt released the Sub Pop 100 compilation as well as Green River's Dry As a Bone EP as part of his new label Sub Pop. An early Sub Pop catalog described the Green River EP as "ultra-loose GRUNGE that destroyed the morals of a generation."
Sub Pop's Bruce Pavitt and Jonathan Poneman, inspired by other regional music scenes in music history, worked to ensure that their label projected a "Seattle sound," reinforced by a similar style of production and album packaging. While music writer Michael Azerrad noted that early grunge bands like Mudhoney, Soundgarden, and Tad had disparate sounds, he noted "to the objective observer, there were some distinct similarities." Grunge began to attract media attention in the United Kingdom after journalist Everett True from the British magazine Melody Maker was asked by Pavitt and Poneman to write an article on the local music scene. This exposure helped to make grunge known outside of the local area during the late 1980s and drew more people to local shows. Mudhoney is often credited as having been the biggest commercial success for grunge during this time, and was the most successful grunge band until the end of the 1980s, gaining attention with their 1988 single "Touch Me I'm Sick."
Grunge's popularity in the underground scene prior to alternative rock's breakthrough in the early 1990s was such that bands began to move to Seattle and approximate the look and sound of the original grunge bands. Mudhoney's Steve Turner said, "It was really bad. Pretend bands were popping up here, things weren't coming from where we were coming from." As a reaction, many grunge bands diversified their sound, with Nirvana and Tad in particular creating more melodic songs. By 1990 many locals had tired of the hype surrounding the Seattle scene and hoped that media exposure was dying down.
Grunge bands had made inroads to the musical mainstream in the late 1980s. Soundgarden was the first grunge band to sign to a major label when they joined the roster of A&M Records in 1989. Their video for the song "Flower," which was directed by Mark Miremont aired several times on MTV's 120 Minutes and was the first to establish the grunge aesthetic. A little over two years later, the video for Nirvana's "Smells like Teen Spirit," directed by Samuel Bayer, would introduce grunge to the mainstream. Nirvana had been courted by major labels, finally signing with Geffen Records in 1990. The band's major label debut Nevermind was at best hoped to be a minor success on par with Sonic Youth's Goo, which Geffen had released in 1990. Unexpectedly, the album's first single "Smells Like Teen Spirit" went into heavy rotation on radio and MTV. By January 1992, Nevermind replaced pop superstar Michael Jackson's "Dangerous" at number one on the Billboard album charts.
The success of Nevermind surprised the music industry. Nevermind not only popularized grunge, but also established "the cultural and commercial viability of alternative rock in general.
Nirvana's success paved the way for other grunge bands, including, most popularly, Pearl Jam. Pearl Jam, which featured former Green River members Jeff Ament and Stone Gossard, had released their debut album Ten a month earlier in August 1991, but album sales only picked up a year later. By the second half of 1992 Ten became a breakthrough success, being certified gold and reaching number two on the Billboard charts. Other Seattle grunge bands gained mainstream success, most notably Soundgarden with their album Badmotorfinger and Alice in Chains with their album Dirt. These bands are frequently referred to as grunge's Big Four. The popular breakthrough of these bands prompted Rolling Stone to dub Seattle "the new Liverpool."
Most grunge fans and music critics believe that grunge emerged as a popular genre and was embraced by mainstream audiences in reaction to the declining popularity of glam metal. Glam metal bands, such as Mötley Crüe, Poison, and Warrant, had been dominating the charts during the 1980s (especially in the United States) despite being looked down upon by most critics. Glam metal was known for macho (some critics have said misogynist) lyrics, anthemic riffs, gaudy clothing style, 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 glam metal. With a viable alternative to hair metal realized by the public, the popularity of glam metal began to die off as the popularity of grunge began to rise.
The popularity of grunge resulted in large interest in the Seattle music scene's perceived cultural traits. The fashion industry marketed "grunge fashion" to young adult consumers, charging relatively high prices for items like knit ski hats. Critics asserted that advertising was co-opting elements of grunge and turning it into a fad. Entertainment Weekly commented in a 1993 article, "There hasn't been this kind of exploitation of a subculture since the media discovered hippies in the '60s." The New York Times compared the "grunging of America" to the mass-marketing of punk rock, disco, and hip hop in previous years. Ironically the New York Times was tricked into printing a fake list of slang terms that were supposedly used in the grunge scene; referred to as the grunge speak hoax. This media hype surrounding grunge was documented in the 1996 documentary Hype!
A number of factors contributed to grunge's decline. Most fans and music historians believe that many 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.
Another factor that may have led to the fall of grunge's mainstream popularity was the advent of 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 that 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.
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. The death of Kristen Pfaff of Hole in 1994, and Layne Staley of Alice in Chains 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."
The year of 1996 proved to be the last year in which grunge musicians were considerably active. During this year, many "lasts" had occurred. Pearl Jam released their last album that topped the charts, No Code. Alice in Chains gave their final performances with their ailing estranged lead singer, Layne Staley. Soundgarden and The Screaming Trees released their final studio albums, Down on the Upside and Dust, respectively. And Nirvana released the live album From the Muddy Banks of the Wishkah, the only new release from the band until the greatest hits album Nirvana in 2002.
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. Their most recent album, the self-titled Pearl Jam, reached number 2 on the Billboard 200 in 2006, and they continue to sell out arenas around the world. Grunge music still has its followers, and many of them still express their fandom over the Internet. Grunge's mainstream following still 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.
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