In stark contrast to an era full of cocksure posturing in glam rock and the sugarcoated vapidity of radio pop, grunge shrugged off its underground gigs in the late 80s to take center stage and define the sound of the 90s. The melodic roar of its thrumming power chords, chugging basslines and navel-gazing lyricism exposed the malcontent spirit of an unimpressed generation. As you’ll see, the bands who dominated the scene were more likely to give widespread popularity the middle finger than they were to embrace it as an answer to their rallying cry for rebellion.
Pacific Northwest: Birthplace of Grunge
Fans of the genre and the bands most closely associated with it frequently take issue with the name itself, considering it a dark mark from an industry machine keen to sort artists into convenient packages for easier marketing and promotion. While modern music historians still debate the finer points of how grunge came to be attached to a variety of bands with arguably different sounds and styles, they all agree that the definitive start of the Seattle scene began in the late 1980s on the progressive radio stations at the University of Washington and nearby Evergreen State College.
Sub Pop, a small, independent music label responsible for promoting dozens of Pacific northwestern bands and their first few albums, laid the groundwork for the scene when founder Bruce Pavitt began publishing his Subterranean Pop fanzine in the early 80s. His efforts to curate singles from a hand-picked collection of underground bands would become a subscription service called the Sub Pop Singles Club. Independent labels such as Pavitt’s and C/Z Records turned into proving grounds for bands like the Screaming Trees and Green River, who wanted to take their underground sound to the mainstream.
What began on the independent circuit as the 80s came to a close would generate an explosive start to the new decade. Three genre-defining major label albums were released in 1991: Nirvana’s third album, Nevermind, Pearl Jam’s debut with Ten and Soundgarden’s hard-hitting Badmotorfinger. Fellow grunge rock idols, Alice in Chains, would follow these releases with Dirt the next year, solidifying the commercial success of an unsettling amalgamation that depended on a punk aesthetic and heavy metal heat with classic rock roots.
Influence on Mainstream Rock and Global Music Trends
Although the earliest harbingers of grunge, the Melvins, Mudhoney and Mother Love Bone achieved fewer accolades than these latter-day patron saints and sinners. Their influence established the trend of mixing muddy guitar licks with a messy, unfocused vocal style. Musicians of the time favored bluesy guitar riffs that were out of tune as often as they were on point, fused together by distortion pedals and the unmistakable thump of a bass-heavy backbeat, and needed little more than a stripped-down drum kit to complete a song.
Even though Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Alice in Chains and Soundgarden became household names, they frequently paid tribute to their peers with covers at live shows and collaborations in the studio. Temple of the Dog, formed by members of both Soundgarden and Pearl Jam for a onetime album in memoriam of Mother Love Bone front man Andrew Wood, became one of the most well-known examples of this camaraderie when their album peaked at #5 on the Billboard 200 in 1992.
Social ills and personal struggles featured heavily in the song lyrics and album themes of the time. Even as the regional sound gathered momentum and spread beyond the Pacific northwest, attracting global bands like Bush and Silverchair beneath its umbrella, the introspective drive to focus on taboo topics remained. With that came unwelcome attention to the intimate lives behind the music, exposing drug habits, bouts with depression and stints in rehab. However, these were realities rarely explored with such open and searing honesty as what Soul Asylum, Stone Temple Pilots and Candlebox wrote and found relatable to their similarly conflicted audiences.
The Rich and Reluctantly Famous
Ask members of the grunge era’s most prominent bands what they would call their music, and they’d likely tell you it’s simply rock-and-roll. The antiestablishment attitude that fueled their work stands in natural opposition to any formal label or tidy categorization. Naming it anything else unnecessarily complicates their straightforward approach to music as a tool for the counterculture masses and a weapon against the banality of assimilation. Seen in this light, grunge is a dirty word used by outsiders looking in.
Still, the need to capture such a distinct period in music history deserves a name that fits its gritty, slacker-warrior vibe. Those at the forefront made their struggle with the limelight well known during their rise and fall from the industry’s grace. Before his death in 1994, Nirvana’s lead singer, Kurt Cobain, frequently railed against the expectations that fame placed on his performance during live shows, often playing out of tune or screaming a song’s lyrics to rebel against the demand for a studio-perfected sound.
Electrifying live performances showcased the true talent of many grunge bands.
Likewise, the impact grunge bands had on fashion at the time was notable for its cognitive dissonance. The mundane clothing and minimal accessories worn by the genre’s most visible bands were, like their music, lacking any flashy appeal and favored for their low-maintenance, low-cost aspect. That these looks would inspire haute couture on the fashion runway was seen as a particularly egregious separation between the message behind the music and the very machinations of mainstream corporate greed it sought to upend.
Despite the push-and-pull between the genre’s popularity and the resistance of those that defined it, the grunge era remains a pivotal point in rock-and-roll history. The unexpected rise of these disinterested and disenfranchised musicians who made up the disparate motley of grunge bands in the 90s continues to inspire budding artists in search of a sound that encapsulates that same strange blend of empowerment juxtaposed with vulnerability. The genre’s demand for authenticity and its willingness to plumb the depths of existential introspection remains a blueprint for making music that not only entertains you, but shoves you into a snarling, fist-pumping, head-banging alternative experience.