Grunge is not only a type of music genre – it is also a fashion statement, lifestyle, culture, and attitude. What used to be an underground phenomenon took the mainstream by storm due to the unexpected success of the album Nevermind from Seattle threesome Nirvana. Nevermind‘s massive success put grunge and alternative music out of the indie circles and into the international map. And most importantly, it gave a glimmer of hope to several rock bands who had ambitions of making it big in the business.
So, it is worth exploring the origins of grunge, its mainstream popularity, and its legacy.
Origin of the term “grunge”
The word “grunge” is an American slang that is synonymous with “dirt,” “grime,” or “someone or something that is repugnant.” The heavy and distorted nature of the music seemed quite suitable for the name that it also came to be referred to as a “dirty” sound. The music itself, as well as the artists, displayed a disparaging attitude towards the society of the day.
What defines grunge music and style?
Grunge is an alternative rock musical style that was derived from many previous rock genres such as punk, hard rock, heavy metal, thrash metal, and others. It is typically characterized by raw and distorted guitar sound, and gravelly, raspy vocals accompanied by moans, growls, mumbles, and screams. The lyrics in grunge songs are often dark, nihilistic and filled with angst, anguish, and hopelessness. The themes that dominate grunge music usually address social alienation, anger, self-doubt, betrayal, social and emotional isolation, psychological trauma, and an intense desire for freedom.
When grunge became mainstream, the term “grunge” became diluted by most mainstream music press. They chose to label anyone with long hair and playing in a rock band as “grunge.” The failure of the mainstream media to see the nuance led grunge to become ambiguous. This left a big question for other people who still didn’t quite make out what grunge really was.
While the label does apply to bands that indeed feature musicians sporting long hair, grunge is not quite similar to other “big-hair” rock genres. Instead, grunge music had strong punk roots, and grunge musicians also manifested the nihilistic and anarchist attitude of the punk rockers. However, grunge music also adopted some elements of metal, such as heavy riffs and guitar solos. In addition, grunge is typically slower in tempo compared to metal, and features a generally heavier, darker, and more foreboding sound. In other words, grunge music is a hybrid of punk and metal but also forms a sound that is also distinct to other rock genres.
Grunge’s early years
The grunge sound came from the city of Seattle, Washington, USA, during the early 1980s. Many pioneers of grunge music were inspired by hardcore punk bands (such as Black Flag) and early metal bands (like Black Sabbath).
Green River, Soundgarden, The U-Men, Skin Yard, Malfunkshun, and Melvins were the pioneering grunge bands. All of these bands recorded their music under the independent Seattle-based label C/Z Records. In 1986, the label released a compilation album Deep Six, which featured all of these bands mentioned earlier. While Deep Six was not a commercial success, it became vital to the history of grunge. Of all the bands in the roster, it was Green River who best displayed the hybrid sound of punk and metal, creating an unmistakably “grungy” style.
Alongside C/Z Records was another Seattle indie label Sub-Pop, who also played a significant role in developing grunge music. It released albums for several grunge artists, including Green River’s first studio album in 1988 and Soundgarden’s compilation album in 1990. It had also previously released the first single by Mudhoney, which included some members from Green River.
In 1989, Sub-Pop released God’s Balls, the debut album of another grunge outfit TAD; later that year, it issued Nirvana’s first studio album Bleach. Both albums replicated elements of grunge that the label was cultivating. However, Nirvana’s frontman Kurt Cobain expressed dissatisfaction that Sub-Pop did not promote and distribute Bleach as much as the label’s other releases, although it went on to sell a decent number of copies.
Eventually, through the recommendation of Kim Gordon of Sonic Youth, Nirvana inked a record deal with DGC Records in 1990, which was a subsidiary label of Geffen Records at the time. Nirvana was not actually the first grunge band to sign a major-label record deal. But what set Nirvana apart from the other grunge bands was the fact that their first major-label album, Nevermind, helped grunge to break out of the Seattle and indie music circuit and transform it into an international phenomenon.
Success of Nirvana’s Nevermind, and grunge in the mainstream
Nirvana – consisting of guitarist and lead singer Cobain, bassist Krist Novoselic, and drummer Dave Grohl – were now under the wings of DGC Records. Shortly after signing the DGC deal, the Seattle grunge trio went to Los Angeles, California, to record for the new album with producer Butch Vig.
The new album Nevermind was released in September 1991. The album had the typical grunge music combined with additional pop elements. It features shifts in dynamics where the band changes from quiet to loud, and from soft to hard.
Although the expectations for Nevermind were initially low, the album became a surprise critical and commercial success. The album’s lead-off single, “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” became a massive chart hit, peaking at #6 on the Billboard Hot 100. The single enjoyed heavy airplay on the radio, and its accompanying music video received constant rotation on MTV. By the end of 1991, Nevermind had been selling almost half a million copies every week. In January 1992, Nevermind unseated Michael Jackson’s Dangerous at the top spot of Billboard 200 album chart.
All of a sudden, the scruffy Seattle threesome became unlikely global celebrities. Along Nirvana’s newfound fame came with intense tour schedules and other public appearances. These activities took a toll on the band, but especially on Cobain, whose heroin addiction became worse and worse by the day. He also grew disillusioned with fame and the new grunge scene. Cobain even suspected that record companies would sign the old “cock-rock” groups who were pretending to be grunge and claiming to come from Seattle.
Nirvana’s third studio album, In Utero, shot to number one on the Billboard 200. The band went on tour in Europe in 1994, but it was cut short due to Cobain’s escalating drug problems. Two weeks after his return to the US, Cobain was found dead from suicide.
Cobain’s untimely death ultimately led to the end of Nirvana. But it wasn’t yet the end of grunge. Because of Nirvana’s success, several other grunge acts had also enjoyed mainstream success during the 1990s. These bands include Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, and Alice in Chains, although they didn’t reach the level of success and fame that Nirvana achieved.
Riot grrrl and post-grunge
Grunge has been thought of as a male-dominated rock genre, but several girl groups and bands that were fronted by female singers became part of the scene. The most famous and most successful is Hole, who was fronted by singer-songwriter and guitarist Courtney Love, who was also Cobain’s wife. Other prominent riot grrrl groups include Bikini Kill and Bratmobile.
Post-grunge was formed in the mid-1990s. It is a somewhat disparaging term for bands who emulated the grunge sound. Grunge music dwelled on themes about angst, abuse, self-doubt, and hopelessness, in post-grunge themes. Those feelings and emotions were also reflected in the high alcohol and substance abuse that dominated the grunge scene.
Post-grunge bands, such as Bush, Creed, Collective Soul, and Candelbox, sang songs about sincere feelings, which turned them into spectacles for the sake of commercial success. The sound of post-grunge also tends to be more radio-friendly and has a higher and cleaner production quality compared to grunge.
The legacy of grunge
A big part of why grunge became so iconic is that it essentially ended before the turn of the century. Several bands split or stopped making records, which triggered a big wave of nostalgia. After Cobain’s suicide in 1994, the entire movement mourned. Although there are now grunge revivals left and right, they might never trigger a “second wave” of grunge. However, its integration into pop culture triggered the rise of alternative music in the late 90s and gave an impetus to modern rock as we know it.