Tuesday, October 5, 2010

When Grunge Took Over

I don’t remember any music genre or movement having the profound effect on me that “grunge” had in the early 90s. I mentioned in a previous post my feelings about a photograph of Kurt Cobain I viewed at a recent art exhibit. We’d been through a pretty long stretch in the late 80s and early 90s where mainstream music mostly consisted of regurgitations of what had been successful previously and formulaic reinterpretations (much like a lot of today’s mainstream country). A glance at the charts before and after the grunge movement helps to validate this opinion. While I understand that music trends tend to be cyclical, grunge was the first major music movement of my generation. It completely changed the musical landscape. It didn’t last, but a lot of the doors grunge kicked open are at least still unlocked today.

A lot of grunge’s success is attributable to timing. Grunge didn’t kill hair metal as is so widely reported. Rather, hair metal killed itself, and grunge just moved into the vacant house. With the exception of a handful of bands, the music of this time wasn’t even that great when compared to previous music explosions (see the music of the late 60s for another, much higher quality game changer). What grunge did, however, was bring passion back to music. Most of the early grunge pioneers were just doing it because they couldn’t really see themselves doing anything else. In the beginning, it wasn’t about the money or the success (although it eventually became more focused on these things, and the music suffered).

Music meant something again when Nirvana came around, and for kids like me, it helped to ignite my passion for music. Grunge was the first music to hit the mainstream that truly belonged to my generation and was completely foreign to our parents. I suppose hip-hop could fall right in with grunge, but I didn’t run and pick up a guitar because of Doggystyle or The Chronic. When I heard Nevermind and my cousin taught me to play "Come as You Are," it wasn't long before I bought my first guitar. A lot of other kids did the same thing.

So what made grunge so successful? I only consider a few of the albums “classic.” Dirt, Jar of Flies, Nevermind, In Utero, Superunknown, Temple of the Dog, Purple by STP, Siamese Dream and pretty much any Pearl Jam album (this last one is certainly a personal preference and not the view of most people) instantly come to mind. Of course there were other albums I enjoyed, but these were the big ones. As I mentioned earlier, it was largely because of timing. Most of the best grunge bands were hitting their peak at the perfect time and, for the most part, all at the same time.

Of course, grunge’s stranglehold on the music world didn’t last, and soon we had the often tragic breakups of many grunge bands, a thousand grunge imitators (see Creed), the boy band movement (which actually brought better music than most of the grunge imitators) and generic Hip-Hop (I don't consider all Hip-Hop to be generic, just most of what became popular in the latter half of the 90s into the 2000s). Grunge’s lasting influence is that “fringe” artists that don’t fit the perception of mainstream can be successful. Green Day probably wouldn’t have become mega stars without Nirvana kicking in the doors open. Countless other bands would have never gotten their time in the spotlight either.  Artists like Beck who had little in common with grunge (and probably would have been laughed out of the building had they made a pitch to a record company while the Warrant posters were still on he wall) were given opportunities by the majors.

Today, this movement wouldn’t be so profound. The internet has taken a lot of power away from the people who used to control what we see and hear. In the early 90s, a kid like me from small town Mississippi only had access to the music of MTV and the radio, which were controlled by a lot of people who focused only on how much money they could make from the music. It was the same way for most people back then. Now the internet allows me to get music recommendations from people I don’t even know, quickly go and check out that music, and if I like it, allows me to make an instant purchase. This environment hasn’t really been good for the traditional music industry (especially the large labels), but it has vastly improved the music available to most people.

Here are a few videos of my favorite performaces from the grunge era:

My favorite Soundgarden song, "Fell on Black Days."

And my favorite Nirvana song, "Lithium."

Here's Alice in Chains doing "Rooster" unplugged.

And finally, here's Smashing Pumpkins' video for "Cherub Rock"...I reallize they weren't from Seattle, and neither were STP (mentioned above), but like it or not, they were part of the grunge scene.

What are your impressions of the grunge movement? Do you think its ultimate influence has been good for music? What music movements most influenced you?

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