Grunge music (sometimes also referred to as the Seattle Sound) is an independent-rooted music genre that became a commercially successful offshoot of hardcore punk, thrash metal, and alternative rock in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Bands from cities in the U.S. Pacific Northwest, such as Seattle, Olympia, Washington, and Portland, Oregon, were responsible for creating grunge music and later made it popular with mainstream audiences. The genre is closely associated with Generation X, due to its popularization being in tandem with the popularizing of the generation's name.
As a style of music, grunge is generally characterised by "dirty" guitar, strong riffs, heavy drumming and angst-filled (if not out-and-out dark) lyrics. Independent labels were key catalysts in bringing this style of music to the public initially. Many of the more successful bands of the era were associated with Seattle's Sub Pop record label, though several other independent Seattle-area labels gained recognition, including Kill Rock Stars and K Records. David Geffen is also said to have played a major role in marketing grunge to a mainstream audience.
Besides its punk roots, the grunge movement had strong roots in the Northwest musical culture and the local youth culture. The sonic resemblance to such 1960s Northwest bands as the Wailers and, most particularly, the Sonics, is unmistakable. Clothing commonly worn by grunge fans in the Northwest in its early years was a blend of the punk aesthetic with the typical outdoorsy clothing (e.g., R.E.I. and Eddie Bauer flannel shirts) of the region. This fashion, along with other aspects of the local culture, would end up being given (in the opinions of Seattle grunge fans) excessive importance by the media. An interesting case of this backfiring on the media was the grunge speak hoax, which caused The New York Times to print a fake list of slang terms that supposedly were used in the grunge scene. This was later proven to be a prank by Sub Pop's Megan Jasper. The excesses of this media hype would also be documented in the 1996 documentary Hype!.
Seattle's Green River is believed by most to have created the genre, and were a large inspiration for many grunge bands despite having relatively little commercial success. After the band split up, members of Green River formed Mudhoney and Mother Love Bone, continuing on their style. Green River, who used a harder sound in their performance than many later grunge bands, would inspire other early grunge bands such as Soundgarden and Alice in Chains to use a similarly hard style. However, the sound of the genre became a mix of the earlier grunge style and alternative rock shortly before its mainstream success. This is most often credited to Nirvana's style, which combined the sound of earlier grunge bands with that of the Pixies. Their use of the Pixies' "soft verse, hard chorus" style would popularize this stylistic approach in both grunge and other alternative rock genres.
The emergence of grunge as a popular genre and its embrace by the mainstream is usually thought of as a reaction against the popular dominance of hair metal. Hair metal bands, such as W.A.S.P., Poison, and Guns n' Roses, had been dominating the charts, especially in the US, for several years in spite of declining critical viability. Grunge music can be sharply contrasted to hair metal's macho lyrics, anthemic riffs, and perceived lack of social consciousness, especially in the race to attract mainstream audiences. However, this began to have the opposite effect on audiences towards the end of the 1980s, and the popularity of hair metal began to die off as the popularity of grunge began to rise.
Grunge was embraced by youth for its simple defiance of the norms of the era's popular culture, which was seen by many as corporate-dominated and superficial. In the rock world, expensive, designer clothing was shunned in favor of flannel, jeans, and Doc Marten boots or Converse sneakers. In England, youth who dressed in this fashion were sometimes called grungers, while the term grungies was often used in the United States. Traditional rock and roll ostentatiousness became offensive, at least for the time being.
Nirvana is generally credited for breaking the genre into the popular consciousness in 1991 (see 1991 in music). The success of Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit" (from the album Nevermind) surprised the entire music industry. The album was a #1 hit around much of the world, and paved the way for more bands, including, most popularly, Pearl Jam. Pearl Jam, in fact, had released their debut album Ten a month earlier in August 1991, but album sales only picked up after the success of Nirvana. For many audiences then and later, grunge came to be almost totally associated with these two bands and their punky, rebellious attitude towards mainstream mores as well as cultural and social institutions. Other popular Seattle-based bands would also be the primary mainstays of the genre, though some bands from other regions, such as Stone Temple Pilots from San Diego, The Smashing Pumpkins from Chicago, Australia's Silverchair, and Great Britain's Bush were also popular.
It has been widely debated as to who deserves the title "Godfather of Grunge". Mark Arm of Mudhoney, Kurt Cobain of Nirvana, Jack Endino of Skin Yard, Andrew Wood of Malfunkshun and Mother Love Bone, Buzz Osborne of The Melvins, and even Neil Young (who himself is not a grunge musician, but is considered an inspiration for the genre) have all been credited at one time or another (see the external link below for more details on this debate). The bands Killdozer, The Wipers, and Sonic Youth are also said to have influenced the grunge sound.
Decline of mainstream popularity
The mass popularity of grunge music was short-lived, however. It is believed by many that grunge effectively began its decline when Kurt Cobain committed suicide in April 1994. Interestingly, Cobain had often been photographed wearing t-shirts stating that "Grunge is Dead."
The consensus of fans and music historians is that the genre was entirely too opposed to mainstream stardom to actually achieve long-lasting popularity. Many grunge bands refused to cooperate with the 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. However, 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 which had been popular up to that point.
Another factor that may have led to the fall of grunge's mainstream popularity was the advent of the sub-genre of grunge known as 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 came 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 who 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. As grunge began to disappear from the mainstream, later post-grunge bands such as Creed and Days of the New would also receive such negative treatment by fans of the genre.
For many fans of the genre, it wasn't until the dissolution of pioneering band Soundgarden in 1997 that they finally conceded grunge's time in the mainstream was over. However, it did last in the mainstream for a few years afterwards, though with less popularity. Many grunge bands have continued recording and touring with more limited success, including, most significantly, Pearl Jam. Bands like Pearl Jam also have adapted their style to the ever-changing music world. Grunge music still has its followers, and many of them conduct heated debates over the Internet about the history of the movement, its current meaning in society, seminal bands and modern day grunge musicians.
- Humphrey, Clark, Loser:The Real Seattle Music Story. Harry N. Abrams, October 1999.