WXTJ Writes! By Lily Egenrieder: A Seattle Scene Gone Mainstream – The Complicated Legacy of Grunge Rock

We’ve all seen those iconic t-shirts. The ones from Target and Urban Outfitters with logos of famous bands such as AC/DC, the Rolling Stones, Nirvana, and even The Smashing Pumpkins on them. But who are those bands, really? Have you listened to their music? Do you know their story when you wear their albums?

Grunge is a style of music out of Seattle, Washington. It developed out of the city post hair metal rock, as a way to encapsulate the angst and, well, grunge, of the late 80s and 90s. The name first originated as an insult to the industry, just like how UVA students are called the Wahoos thanks to some petty fans from Washington & Lee. It was an act of rebellion, a way of breaking the status quo, and it worked. Grunge grew rapidly, and one of the main reasons was due to Seattle’s remoteness from the American media’s focus on the music scenes of Los Angeles and New York City. Seattle was isolated, working class, and poor, and grunge as a genre of music reflected that. 

Grunge was a mix of punk and metal, and was characterized by “slow and heavy” sounds, distortions and feedback and fuzz inspired by “post punk garage bands.” It was untouched and authentic, built through inspirations of the music scenes from the 80s. Refined drum kits and powerful vocals were characteristic of grunge, with Eddie Vedder of Pearl Jam and Kurt Cobain of Nirvana being some of the most well known vocalists of the time. Their lyrics were often dark and depressing, speaking on subjects such as drug use and hopelessness. 

As the industry picked up, the lifestyle followed. The grunge movement became more than just music. A fashion developed surrounding it, characterized by flannel shirts and ripped jeans, any cheap clothing to parallel the lives of the Seattle rockers. The style was that it wasn’t: whatever was cheap and affordable was grunge. It was a way of life. 

Grunge bands had made headway into the mainstream music scene in the late 1980s. Despite their differences in sound, four main bands emerged as the pioneers of the grunge rock movement. Soundgarden, Nirvana, Pearl Jam, and Alice in Chains were the most notable artists of the era. The mainstream media wanted a selling point for these four alternative rock bands; therefore “grunge” as an era was born. Many of those directly involved in this Seattle born time of music, though, hated the term. The four aforementioned bands had already left Seattle by 1989, and as it gained popularity, it lost its original identity. Bands would move to Seattle in hopes of impersonating the originality of the underground music scene. Many of the original artists would refuse to refer to themselves as “grunge” .

As it picked up momentum, though, the grunge style was being used by stores selling expensive flannel shirts and ski hats to cash in on the trend. Ironically, the original look of the underground Seattle music scene suddenly became a mainstream trend. Vogue did a spread called “Grunge & Glory.” Fashion shows appeared with grunge clothing. The media had taken grunge and made it a statement, the very thing it aspired not to be. Labels began to sweep the globe in search of the next big grunge band, finding non-Seattle based Nirvana sound-alikes such as The Stone Temple Pilots and Bush. 

Soundgarden was the first grunge band to sign to a major label when they joined the roster of A&M Records in 1989. Nirvana’s Nevermind album was released in 1991 and gained immense popularity, especially their most popular track “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” As Nirvana’s popularity grew, grunge did too.  Pearl Jam’s Ten was released a month earlier but gained popularity around a year later, Soundgarden released Badmotorfinger, and Alice in Chains released Dirt. Grunge was on the map and spreading throughout the United States, especially thanks to Nirvana.

Kurt Cobain and Nirvana’s success was literally overnight. At the time of Nevermind’s release, he was still living in his car. Cobain can be quoted as saying, “Famous is the last thing I wanted to be.” As an act of defiance, Nirvana released the album Utero in 1993, recorded in two weeks as a raw, anger-induced response to the popularity of Nevermind. It ended up going platinum and reaching #1 on the billboard charts. 

These alternative rock bands-turned-grunge by the media wanted the music, not the fame. Musicians are 3 times more susceptible to depression than the average person, and Kurt Cobain’s suicide in April of 1994 confirmed this. He was found dead in his Seattle home due to a self-inflicted gunshot wound, and many speculate it was due to the notable fame he had received. Also known for his drug usage and attempted suicides through the use of drugs, overdoses ran rampant in the grunge scene. 

The economic imbalance between grunge artists emphasizing their disinterest in external recognition and their desire for success created an internal self-conflict that led to destructive habits for many artists at the time. Rock music artists have a 15% higher suicide rate than matched demographics, and a 170% higher overall mortality rate. The music industry ranks second highest in illicit drug use, and grunge certainly highlighted this. Between media attention, industry demands, and pressure to perform, music careers took a toll on these artists. 

Heroin was especially rampant, and grunge fully embraced it. The media had found another trend to approach. “Heroin chic” popped up as a style during this time, characterized by dark circles under the eyes, pale skin, and stringy hair. A 1996 article in the Los Angeles Times stated that the fashion industry had “a nihilistic vision of beauty” that reflected drug addiction. Nihilism can be defined as “the rejection of all religious and moral principles, in the belief that life is meaningless.”  Grunge lost Chris Cornell of Soundgarden, Layne Staley and Mike Starr of Alice in Chains, and more, all due to some combination of drugs, particularly heroin. 

In a way, rock music died with grunge. It was the last era of “rock n roll,” and as music streaming and widespread media became more accessible, localized eras of sound and style no longer existed. 

Of the big four grunge bands I mentioned earlier, only Pearl Jam has all its members still living. Off of Pearl Jam’s most famous album, the aforementioned 1991 Ten, comes the track “Alive,” whose chorus, “I’m still alive,” has just a little more meaning than it did when created. 

Next time you wear a store bought band t-shirt, take a second and reflect on not only the greatness of the industry, but the effects that the media and economy had on the singers themselves. 

A few of my favorites: “Love Buzz” by Nirvana, “Black” by Pearl Jam, “Would?” by Alice in Chains, the entirety of MTV Unplugged in New York

Works Consulted:

Gilbert, Jeremy. “Capitalism, Creativity and the Crisis in the Music Industry.” OpenDemocracy, 14 Sept. 2012, https://www.opendemocracy.net/en/opendemocracyuk/capitalism-creativity-and-crisis-in-music-industry/.

“Grunge.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., https://www.britannica.com/art/grunge-music.

Kramer, Yotam. “The social life of death: Suicide and self-destruction in the Seattle Grunge Scene.” Central European University, 15 June 2016, file:///Users/lilyegenrieder/Downloads/kramer_yotam.pdf. 

Lily Egenrider is a second year student from Sterling, VA. Despite having none herself, she appreciates a wide variety of musical talent–ranging from rock to rap to indie and even a little country!

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