|Cultural origins||Mid-1980s, Seattle, Washington, United States|
|Typical instruments||Electric guitar, bass guitar, drums, vocals|
|Derivative forms||Post-grunge, nu metal|
Grunge (sometimes referred to as the Seattle sound) is a subgenre of alternative rock that emerged during the mid-1980s in the American state of Washington, particularly in Seattle. The early grunge movement revolved around Seattle's independent record label Sub Pop, but by the early 1990s its popularity had spread, with grunge acts in California and other parts of the U.S. building strong followings and signing major record deals.
Grunge became commercially successful in the first half of the 1990s, due mainly to the release of Nirvana's Nevermind, Pearl Jam's Ten, Soundgarden's Badmotorfinger, Alice in Chains' Dirt, and Stone Temple Pilots' Core. 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. Although most grunge bands had disbanded or faded from view by the late 1990s, their influence continues to affect modern rock music.
Grunge typically fuses elements of punk rock and heavy metal, although some bands performed with more emphasis on one or the other. The music shares with punk a raw sound and similar lyrical concerns. However, it also involves much slower tempos, dissonant harmonies, and more complex instrumentation—which is reminiscent of heavy metal. Lyrics are typically angst-filled, often addressing themes such as social alienation, apathy, confinement, and a desire for freedom.
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. A number of factors contributed to grunge's decline in prominence. During the mid-1990s many grunge bands broke up or became less visible. Nirvana's Kurt Cobain, labeled by Time as "the John Lennon of the swinging Northwest", appeared unusually tortured by success and "struggled with an addiction to heroin before he committed suicide at the age of 27 in 1994".
Origin of the term
Although writer Paul Rambali used "Grunge" in a 1978 NME article to describe mainstream guitar rock, 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 this genre of music. Arm first used the term in 1981, when he wrote a letter under his given name Mark McLaughlin to the Seattle zine Desperate Times, criticizing his own band Mr. Epp and the Calculations as "Pure grunge! Pure noise! Pure shit!". Clark Humphrey, contributor to 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 1987–88, using it on several occasions to describe Green River.
Arm said years later, "Obviously, I didn't make grunge up. I got it from someone else. The term was already being thrown around in Australia in the mid-'80s to describe bands like King Snake Roost, The Scientists, Salamander Jim, and Beasts of Bourbon." Arm used grunge as a descriptive term rather than a genre term, but it eventually came to describe the punk/metal hybrid sound of the Seattle music scene.
Grunge is generally characterized by a sludgy guitar sound that uses a high level of distortion, fuzz, and feedback effects, while it rejects the very concept of the guitar solo (particularly the virtuoso guitar solo). Grunge fuses elements of hardcore punk and heavy metal, although some bands performed with more emphasis on one or the other. The music shares with punk a raw sound and similar lyrical concerns. However, it also involves much slower tempos, dissonant harmonies, and more complex instrumentation—which is 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". Grunge artists considered these bands "cheesy" but nonetheless enjoyed them; Buzz Osborne of the Melvins described it as an attempt to see what ridiculous things bands could do and get away with. In the early 1990s, Nirvana's signature "stop-start" song format became a genre convention. Allmusic calls grunge a "hybrid of heavy metal and punk". Although keyboards are generally not used in grunge, Seattle band Gorrilla created controversy by breaking the "guitars only" approach and using a 1960s-style Vox organ in their group.
Lyrics are typically angst-filled, often addressing themes such as social alienation, apathy, confinement, and a desire for freedom. A number of factors influenced the focus on such subject matter. Many grunge musicians displayed a general disenchantment with the state of society, as well as a discomfort with social prejudices. Such themes bear similarities to those addressed by punk rock musicians. Music critic Simon Reynolds said in 1992 that "there's a feeling of burnout in the culture at large. Kids are depressed about the future". Humor in grunge often satirized glam metal—for example, Soundgarden's "Big Dumb Sex"—and other forms of popular rock music during the 1980s.
Grunge concerts were known for being straightforward, high-energy performances. Grunge bands rejected the complex and high budget presentations of many musical genres, including 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 minor local bands. 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".
Clothing commonly worn by grunge musicians in Washington consisted of thrift store items and the typical outdoor clothing (most notably flannel shirts) of the region, as well as a generally unkempt appearance. The style did not evolve out of a conscious attempt to create an appealing fashion; music journalist Charles R. Cross said, "[Nirvana frontman] 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 80s."
One of the philosophies of the grunge scene was authenticity. Dave Rimmer writes that with the revival of punk ideals of stripped-down music in the early 1990s, with "Cobain, and lots of kids like him, rock & roll...threw down a dare: Can you be pure enough, day after day, year after year, to prove your authenticity, to live up to the music ... And if you can't, can you live with being a poseur, a phony, a sellout?"
Regarding graphic design and image, a common feature of grunge bands was the use of lo-fi and deliberately unconventional album covers, for example presenting intentionally murky or mis-colored photography, collage or distressed lettering. This was already a common feature of punk rock design, but could be extended in the grunge period due to the increasing use of computers for desktop publishing and digital image processing. The style has been called 'grunge typography' for its use outside music.
Roots and influences
Grunge's sound partly results from Seattle's isolation from other music scenes. As Sub Pop'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 from the local punk rock scene, and was inspired by bands such as The Fartz, The U-Men, 10 Minute Warning, The Accüsed, and the Fastbacks. Additionally, the slow, heavy, and sludgy style of the Melvins was a significant influence on the grunge sound.
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 its musicians. The influence of Pixies on Nirvana was noted by Kurt Cobain, who commented in a Rolling Stone interview, "I connected with that band so heavily that I should have been in that band—or at least a Pixies cover band. We used their sense of dynamics, being soft and quiet and then loud and hard." On August 1997, in an interview with Guitar World, Dave Grohl said: "From Kurt, Krist and I liking the Knack, Bay City Rollers, Beatles and Abba just as much as we liked Flipper and Black Flag...You listen to any Pixies record and it's all over there. Or even Black Sabbath's "War Pigs"-it's there: the power of the dynamic. We just sort of abused it with pop songs and got sick with it."
Aside from the genre's punk and alternative rock roots, many grunge bands were equally influenced by heavy metal of the early 1970s. Clinton Heylin, author of Babylon's Burning: From Punk to Grunge, cited Black Sabbath as "perhaps the most ubiquitous pre-punk influence on the northwest scene". Black Sabbath played a role in shaping the grunge sound, through their own records and the records they inspired. Musicologist Bob Gulla asserted that Black Sabbath's sound "shows up in virtually all of grunge's most popular bands, including Nirvana, Soundgarden, and Alice in Chains". 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". Jon Wiederhorn of Guitar World wrote: "So what exactly is grunge?...Picture a supergroup made up of Creedence Clearwater Revival, Black Sabbath and the Stooges, and you're pretty close."
The Los Angeles hardcore punk band Black Flag's 1984 record My War, on which the band combined heavy metal with their traditional sound, made a strong impact in Seattle. Mudhoney's Steve Turner commented, "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." Turner explained grunge's integration of metal influences, noting, "Hard rock and metal was never that much of an enemy of punk like it was for other scenes. Here, it was like, 'There's only twenty people here, you can't really find a group to hate.'" Bands began to mix metal and punk in the Seattle music scene around 1984, with much of the credit for this fusion going to The U-Men.
The raw, distorted and feedback-intensive sound of some noise rock bands 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 a major influence, particularly on the early work of Soundgarden. Several Australian bands, including The Scientists, Cosmic Psychos and feedtime, are cited as precursors to grunge, their music influencing the Seattle scene through the college radio broadcasts of Sub Pop founder Jonathan Poneman and members of Mudhoney.
After Neil Young played a few concerts with Pearl Jam and recorded the album Mirror Ball with them, some members of the media gave him the title "Godfather of Grunge". This was grounded not only in his work with his band Crazy Horse and his regular use of distorted guitar—most notably on the album Rust Never Sleeps—but also his dress and persona. A similarly influential yet often overlooked album is Neurotica by Redd Kross, about which the Jonathan Poneman said, "Neurotica was a life changer for me and for a lot of people in the Seattle music community."
A seminal release in the development of grunge was the Deep Six compilation, released by C/Z Records in 1986. The record featured multiple tracks by six bands: Green River, Soundgarden, 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 that year Bruce Pavitt released the Sub Pop 100 compilation and 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 acknowledged that early grunge bands like Mudhoney, Soundgarden, and Tad had disparate sounds, he noted "to the objective observer, there were some distinct similarities."
Early grunge concerts were sparsely attended (many by fewer than a dozen people) but Sub Pop photographer Charles Peterson's pictures helped create the impression that such concerts were major events. Mudhoney, which was formed by former members of Green River, served as the flagship band of Sub Pop during their entire time with the label and spearheaded the Seattle grunge movement. Other record labels in the Pacific Northwest that helped promote grunge included C/Z Records, Estrus Records, EMpTy Records and PopLlama Records.
Grunge attracted media attention in the United Kingdom after Pavitt and Poneman asked journalist Everett True from the British magazine Melody Maker 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. The appeal of grunge to the music press was that it "promised the return to a notion of a regional, authorial vision for American rock". Grunge's popularity in the underground music scene 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. Dawn Anderson of the Seattle fanzine Backlash recalled that by 1990 many locals had tired of the hype surrounding the Seattle scene and hoped that media exposure had dissipated.
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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. Soundgarden, along with other major label signings Alice in Chains and Screaming Trees, performed "okay" with their initial major label releases, according to Jack Endino. Nirvana, originally from Aberdeen, Washington, was also courted by major labels, while releasing its first album Bleach in 1989. Then finally signing with Geffen Records in 1990. In September 1991, the band released its major label debut, Nevermind. The album was at best hoped to be a minor success on par with Sonic Youth's Goo, which Geffen had released a year earlier. It was the release of the album's first single "Smells Like Teen Spirit" that "marked the instigation of the grunge music phenomenon". Due to constant airplay of the song's music video on MTV, Nevermind was selling 400,000 copies a week by Christmas 1991. In January 1992, Nevermind replaced pop superstar Michael Jackson's Dangerous at number one on the Billboard 200.
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." Michael Azerrad asserted that Nevermind symbolized "a sea-change in rock music" in which the glam metal that had dominated rock music at that time fell out of favor in the face of music that was perceived as authentic and culturally relevant. Grunge made it possible for genres thought to be of a niche audience, no matter how radical, to prove their marketability and be co-opted by the mainstream, cementing the formation of an individualist, fragmented culture. Other grunge bands subsequently replicated Nirvana's success. Pearl Jam, which featured former Mother Love Bone members Jeff Ament and Stone Gossard, had released its debut album Ten in August 1991, a month before Nevermind, but album sales only picked up a year later. By the second half of 1992 Ten had become a breakthrough success, being certified gold and reaching number two on the Billboard charts.
Soundgarden's album Badmotorfinger and Alice in Chains' Dirt, along with the Temple of the Dog album collaboration featuring members of Pearl Jam and Soundgarden, were also among the 100 top selling albums of 1992. The popular breakthrough of these grunge bands prompted Rolling Stone to nickname Seattle "the new Liverpool". Major record labels signed most of the prominent grunge bands in Seattle, while a second influx of bands moved to the city in hopes of success. The grunge scene was the backdrop in the 1992 Cameron Crowe film Singles. There were several small roles, performances, and cameos in the film by popular Seattle grunge bands including Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, and Alice in Chains. Filmed in and around Seattle in 1991, the film was not released until 1992 during the height of grunge popularity.
The popularity of grunge resulted in a large interest in the Seattle music scene's perceived cultural traits. While the Seattle music scene in the late 1980s and early 1990s in actuality consisted of various styles and genres of music, its representation in the media "served to depict Seattle as a music 'community' in which the focus was upon the ongoing exploration of one musical idiom, namely grunge". The fashion industry marketed "grunge fashion" to consumers, charging premium prices for items such as knit ski hats and plaid shirts. 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; often referred to as the grunge speak hoax. This media hype surrounding grunge was documented in the 1996 documentary Hype!
A backlash against grunge began to develop in Seattle; in late 1992 Jonathan Poneman said that in the city, "All things grunge are treated with the utmost cynicism and amusement [. . .] Because the whole thing is a fabricated movement and always has been." Many grunge artists were uncomfortable with their success and the resulting attention it brought. Nirvana's Kurt Cobain told Michael Azerrad, "Famous is the last thing I wanted to be." Pearl Jam also felt the burden of success, with much of the attention falling on frontman Eddie Vedder.
Nirvana's follow-up album In Utero (1993) was an intentionally abrasive album that Nirvana bassist Krist Novoselic described as a "wild aggressive sound, a true alternative record" Nevertheless, upon its release in September 1993 In Utero topped the Billboard charts. Pearl Jam also continued to perform well commercially with its second album, Vs. (1993). The album sold a record 950,378 copies in its first week of release, topped the Billboard charts, and outperformed all other entries in the top ten that week combined.
During this period, acts with a "Grunge sound" that were not from Seattle were often panned by critics, who accused them of being copycat bands. Stone Temple Pilots in particular fell victim to this. In a January 1994 Rolling Stone poll, Stone Temple Pilots was simultaneously voted Best New Band by Rolling Stone's readers and Worst New Band by the magazine's music critics, highlighting the disparity between critics and fans.
Decline of mainstream popularity
A number of factors contributed to grunge's decline in prominence. During the latter half of the 1990s, grunge was supplanted by post-grunge, which remained commercially viable into the start of the 21st century. Post-grunge bands such as Candlebox and Bush emerged soon after grunge's breakthrough. These artists lacked the underground roots of grunge and were largely influenced by what grunge had become, namely "a wildly popular form of inward-looking, serious-minded hard rock". Post-grunge was a more commercially viable genre that tempered the distorted guitars of grunge with polished, radio-ready production.
Conversely, another alternative rock genre, Britpop, emerged in part as a reaction against the dominance of grunge in the United Kingdom. In contrast to the dourness of grunge, Britpop was defined by "youthful exuberance and desire for recognition". Britpop artists were vocal about their disdain for grunge. In a 1993 NME interview, Damon Albarn of Britpop band Blur agreed with interviewer John Harris' assertion that Blur was an "anti-grunge band", and said, "Well, that's good. If punk was about getting rid of hippies, then I'm getting rid of grunge". Noel Gallagher of Oasis, while a fan of Nirvana, wrote music that refuted the pessimistic nature of grunge. Gallagher noted in 2006 that the 1994 Oasis single "Live Forever" "was written in the middle of grunge and all that, and I remember Nirvana had a tune called 'I Hate Myself and I Want to Die,' and I was like...'Well, I'm not fucking having that.' As much as I fucking like him [Cobain] and all that shit, I'm not having that. I can't have people like that coming over here, on smack, fucking saying that they hate themselves and they wanna die. That's fucking rubbish."
During the mid-1990s many grunge bands broke up or became less visible. Kurt Cobain, labeled by Time as "the John Lennon of the swinging Northwest", appeared "unusually tortured by success" and struggled with an addiction to heroin. Rumors surfaced in early 1994 that Cobain suffered a drug overdose and that Nirvana was breaking up. On April 8, 1994, Cobain was found dead in his Seattle home from an apparently self-inflicted gunshot wound; Nirvana summarily disbanded. That same year Pearl Jam canceled its summer tour in protest of what it regarded as ticket vendor Ticketmaster's unfair business practices. Pearl Jam then began a boycott of the company; however, Pearl Jam's initiative to play only at non-Ticketmaster venues effectively, with a few exceptions, prevented the band from playing shows in the United States for the next three years. In 1996 Alice in Chains gave their final performances with their ailing estranged lead singer, Layne Staley, who subsequently died from an overdose of cocaine and heroin in 2002. That same year Soundgarden and Screaming Trees released their final studio albums of the 1990s, Down on the Upside and Dust, respectively.
Some grunge bands have continued recording and touring with success, including, most significantly, Pearl Jam. While in 2006 Rolling Stone writer Brian Hiatt described Pearl Jam as having "spent much of the past decade deliberately tearing apart their own fame", he noted the band developed a loyal concert following akin to that of the Grateful Dead. Despite Nirvana's demise, the band has continued to be successful posthumously. Due to the high sales for Kurt Cobain's Journals and the band's best-of compilation Nirvana upon their releases in 2002, The New York Times argued Nirvana "are having more success now than at any point since Mr. Cobain's suicide in 1994." The Nirvana song "You Know You're Right" reached #1 on the Hot Mainstream Rock Tracks chart. In the middle of the first decade of the 21st century, The Seattle Times made note of grunge-influenced groups emerging in Seattle, including Post Stardom Depression, The Valley, The Vines and The Weapons. Similarly, The Guardian reported of grunge-influenced groups from Yorkshire, including Dinosaur Pile-Up, The Old Romantic Killer Band, The Tempus, Above Them, Pulled Apart by Horses, and Wonderswan. Also, in 2003, the New York Times noted a resurgence in grunge fashion.
Alice In Chains reformed for a handful of reunion dates in 2005 with several different vocalists filing in for the late Layne Staley, eventually aligning with William Duvall and released their first record in 15 years in 2009 Black Gives Way to Blue a return to grunge form with a doom metal sensibility and cementing a new era without their original singer, while releasing another record in 2013 The Devil Put Dinosaurs Here, reaching #2 on the Billboard 200 and displaying more stoner rock and sludge metal influence. Soundgarden re-formed in 2010 and released King Animal two years later which reached the top five of the national albums charts in Denmark, New Zealand, and the United States.
Queens of the Stone Age established themselves as and remained one of the early 21st century's most acclaimed rock acts. The group notably has had major contributions from various grunge musicians. Josh Homme had briefly played in Screaming Trees with off-and-on QOTSA member Mark Lanegan. Nirvana's Dave Grohl and Eleven's Alain Johannes have also provided notable contributions.
The mid-2010s have featured a new generation of bands heavily influenced by Grunge. Unlike their forebears, many of these acts ascribe the label to themselves willingly. Many acts have been noted for affiliating and/or collaborating with prominent figures from the original alternative rock era. Steve Albini has produced for or worked with members of bands such Bully, Vomitface and Shannon Wright, while Emma Ruth Rundle of Marriages has toured with Buzz Osbourne of the Melvins. Other acts that label themselves or have been labelled as grunge, or as being heavily influenced by the music of the grunge era, include Courtney Barnett, Metz, Yuck, Speedy Ortiz, 2:54, Kagoule, The Ghost Ease, Dilly Dally, Torres, and Milk Teeth.
Prominent music acts
See Figure 4.1. (Bands labelled as 'grunge' by respondents).
- Seattle area