Image copyright Charles Peterson
The news of Kurt Cobain’s death broke 21 years ago today. International mourning on the scale of John Lennon flooded media outlets for months. Yet Cobain’s abrupt absence was more jarring than Lennon’s, as it occurred at the height of the Grunge movement and Nirvana’s fame. Thousands of already disillusioned Gen Xers were left to face a directionless, ominous future. His death brought into focus the resounding impact of Grunge.
Yet A.V. Club author Jason Heller contends in his essay “Did grunge really matter?” that it did not. He states that “Grunge no longer remotely matters to anyone or anything. And if it ever did matter, it was only as a brief twinge of conscience in the middle of a stage-dive.”
Where to begin.
Besides Heller’s massive oversimplification of a music revolution, his two-pronged assertion that Grunge isn’t, and never was, relevant is profoundly obtuse. Grunge no longer remotely matters to anyone or anything? High school and college campuses are teeming with kids donning Nirvana tees; the adolescent classic rock discovery process still begins with Led Zeppelin, but now organically ends with Nirvana and Pearl Jam.
HBO is releasing the highly-acclaimed documentary “Montage of Heck”, a deep examination of Cobain’s life, in May. Heller acknowledges that ex-Nirvana drummer Dave Grohl maintains a formidable presence with the Foo Fighters, but fails to give a nod to Grohl’s peers. Mark Lanegan, ex-frontman of the Grunge staple The Screaming Trees, has consistently released solo albums for over 20 years; plays to sold-out venues; and is involved with numerous relevant acts such as Queens of the Stone Age; Greg Dulli of Afghan Whigs; and Isobel Campbell of Belle and Sebastian, to name a few. Sleater-Kinney – not technically Grunge, but part of the ‘90s alt-rock scene that shared the spotlight – released a new album to critical acclaim; L7 has booked a summer festival lineup; Soundgarden just wrapped up a tour; and Smashing Pumpkins embark on their double-header with Marilyn Manson next month.
But above all, Grunge’s relevance is punctuated by its lasting impact on fans. One modest example is how ex-Nirvana bassist Krist Novoselic is still approached daily with, “‘Weren’t you the bassist in Nirvana?’ And I’ll hear a story about how our music changed their life. How their parents were going through a divorce, or how they were in rehab, and the music helped them through . . . The music connected with people in an incredibly personal way.”
All far more than remotely relevant.
The Grunge Ideology
A cursory glance at the precepts of the Grunge movement is enough to discredit Heller’s second claim that Grunge was, even at its peak, immaterial. Grunge was rooted in feminism, self-acceptance, and the rejection of excess. For the first time ever in mainstream music, we experienced a slew of men actively supporting women’s rights. Cobain was a passionate feminist. He posited that men had done everything they could do with rock music, and that women were the future of rock. He repeatedly stated that misogynistic, homophobic, or racist fans weren’t welcome at Nirvana shows. Nirvana’s anti-rape song “Polly” inspired other all-male bands to follow suit: Stone Temple Pilots’ “Sex Type Thing” and Nine Inch Nails’ “Big Man With A Gun” are just two examples.
Cobain’s veneration for women’s rights helped engender the early ’90s Riot Grrrl movement, comprised of all-female punk / alt-rock bands whose locus of concern was breaking down women’s socio cultural barriers. Bikini Kill, Babes in Toyland, Heavens to Betsy, Sleater-Kinney, and L7 all shared the Grunge limelight.
Did these values persist in the mainstream after the fall of Grunge? Of course not. But the fact they were never broadly adopted and failed to germinate in our minds is not Grunge’s shortcoming; it’s society’s. We don’t want populism; we crave hierarchy. We don’t truly want change; it’s easier to plant one’s head firmly in the sand than to possess a distressing thought.
Many critics of Grunge use an age-old argument to deride the movement, which is that punk rock has always done what Grunge did: railed against the establishment, against bullying, and against anything that interferes with one’s freedom from cultural hegemony. No one argues this point, but it’s a tired point all the same. I applaud those who are awe-inspiring enough to cite every obscure punk band under the sun. Insular, judgmental attitudes – while greatly appreciated – still do nothing to disparage Grunge. Perhaps it was a good thing that for once, punk rock values happened to dominate the mainstream and reach people who could never otherwise become familiar with music that offered these messages. We’re fortunate today that the internet has induced the decentralization of music and the death of radio; audience reachability is no longer much of a threat. But in 1992, all that existed were mall record stores.
During the brief Grunge heyday, it was okay to be gay, to be unpopular, to be scrawny, to be a girl, to hate sports, to not be able to get laid, to have zits, to be everything that was “nothing.” To dismiss all of this as a “brief twinge of conscience in between stage dives” is staggering.
If one truly believes Grunge “stood for nothing and was built on nothing,” as Heller claims, I encourage a comparison between Woodstock ’94 and Woodstock ’99, which should be sufficient enough to demonstrate the various ways in which Grunge mattered, once it had been replaced by its antithesis.
Grunge As Revolution
But Grunge’s rise and subsequent descent were caused by something greater than the media’s capriciousness and short attention span. Grunge was a social revolution. And revolutions are, by their very nature, short-lived and tenuous. Grunge wasn’t meant to last, and certainly not in its original form.
No one argues, for example, that the ‘60s revolutionized music. But not necessarily because the music was original. We know that The Beatles, Rolling Stones, and other bands were offshoots of the blues. Rather, such bands were revolutionary because they epitomized the extreme political, cultural, and social unrest of the times. But by the early ‘70s, the peace / love / anti establishment sentiments gave way to cock rock, disco, glam, and eventually culminated in the excess of the ’80s. The ‘60s music revolution was birthed from social unrest, exploded, and then disappeared.
Grunge followed the same revolutionary model. Gen Xers were the second generation of the Post-WWII Golden Age, and were the casualties of divorce, parents more focused on their own ambitions than their childrens’, and cable TV. Xers detested the exorbitance and self-aggrandizement of the baby boomers. Grunge emerged from the disillusionment, anger, and distrust of these new social and cultural standards. When “Smells Like Teen Spirit” innocuously graced the airwaves, it ignited the explosion that already lay in wait just below the surface.
But what’s critical to note here, as with the music revolution of the ‘60s, is that Grunge didn’t “die”; society normalized. We always return to the comfort and ease of the status quo.
Heller argues, however, that Grunge is responsible for its own demise, calling it “an evolutionary dead end” and professing that “far smaller [music] subgenres like post-punk . . . have proven to be endlessly renewable resources of relevance and inspiration.” Grunge is post-punk. As Grohl explains, “Nirvana’s music had snowballed from so many different things – it came from Flipper, it came from Pixies, it came from a lot of different punk bands, bands that were around ten years before [us].” In the same vein, dozens of relevant post-punk bands today have cited Grunge as an influence, which was around ten years before them. Ergo, evolution.
Of course any nostalgic attempt to revive Grunge today as it existed in 1992 will be embarrassingly anachronistic; a revolution can never be duplicated. But that’s not what anyone should be trying to do. Grunge stands on its own for what it was: a cultural signifier of social unrest that spanned a generation worldwide. And one needn’t idolize Cobain or the music to recognize that.