The Nineties in America
Definition: Alternative rock subgenre inspired by a combination of sounds from heavy metal and punk rock
Grunge music, which originated in the Seattle area, became commercially successful in the early 1990's and quickly became the most popular alternative music of the time. In addition, grunge became the defining music of Generation X, who came of age during this decade.
The term "grunge" was coined by a British journalist to describe the style of music played by a group of bands in the Seattle area in the late 1980's. At the time, the most well-known grunge band was a group called Green River, whose popularity was limited to the Seattle area. Despite the fact that Green River was together for only a few short years, the band released three albums on the record label Sup Pop, a company that would become famous for signing some of the most prominent grunge bands. Green River's style greatly influenced the grunge movement, and, after the band broke up, four of Green River's former members went on to form two other well-known grunge bands. Stone Gossard and Jeff Ament, after a stint in the short-lived but immensely popular Seattle band Mother Love Bone, made up the core of the band Pearl Jam; Steve Turner and Mark Arm formed a group called Mudhoney.
Grunge Goes Mainstream
By the early 1990's, the grunge movement had grown beyond its original geographic boundaries and, seemingly overnight, permeated the popular culture. The band that was largely responsible for propelling grunge music to the forefront of mainstream rock was a group called Nirvana. Led by singer Kurt Cobain, the band formed in 1988 and released its first album, the critically acclaimed Bleach, on Sub Pop a year later. It was the album Nevermind, however, released in 1991, that would enjoy wide commercial success.
Nevermind's first single, "Smells Like Teen Spirit," peaked at number six on the Billboard charts in early 1992 and can be credited with giving grunge music both national and worldwide popularity. More significant than its chart success was the fact that the song and, subsequently, the album, proved to be an anthem to scores of teenagers and young adults, further strengthening grunge music's popularity.
Other Seattle bands would also enjoy mainstream success in the early 1990's. Pearl Jam released its first album, Ten, in 1991. By 1992, the album had reached number two on the Billboard charts. Pearl Jam had three hit singles from Ten: "Alive," "Even Flow," and "Jeremy." Another prominent grunge band was Alice in Chains, whose first album, Facelift, was released in 1990. Other Seattle grunge bands that achieved mainstream success in the early 1990's include longtime Seattle mainstays Soundgarden, Temple of the Dog (consisting of members of Soundgarden and Pearl Jam), and the Screaming Trees.
Grunge music was not limited by one particular sound or convention. While the musical style of most grunge musicians was a combination of punk and heavy metal, there was much variation among bands. For example, Alice in Chains was noted for its driving, distortion-laded heavy metal paired with drug-influenced lyrics, whereas Pearl Jam became famous for its melodic rock and catchy yet cryptic lyrics.
Grunge musicians rejected expensive, highly staged performances; most would not use pyrotechnics or other complicated lighting and visual effects during their shows. Grunge music eventually became so popular that it even influenced the fashion of the time. Many grunge musicians were known for their unkempt appearance, wearing thrift store clothing and most notably flannel shirts, a look copied by grunge followers and marketed by the fashion industry. Grunge seeped further into the mainstream by providing a backdrop for the Seattle-based movie Singles (1992), which featured guest appearances by Soundgarden's Chris Cornell and members of Pearl Jam as bandmates of star Matt Dillon's group Citizen Dick. Consequently, the movie's sound track read like a who's who of the prominent grunge musicians of the day.
Despite their huge success, many grunge musicians were uncomfortable with their mainstream popularity. Accustomed to recording for small, independent record labels and playing to relatively small crowds, they were not used to dealing with the national recording industry or performing in stadium-like atmospheres. Nirvana's front man Kurt Cobain provides the most notable example of the difficulties grunge musicians had with their success. Cobain suffered from serious drug addiction and, as a result of this and complications from the pressures he felt from his status as an icon of the grunge movement, eventually committed suicide. His death on April 5, 1994, is often heralded as the end of the grunge era.
While the popularity of grunge music was primarily limited to the early 1990's, its influence would continue through the rest of the decade and into the next. Bands like Pearl Jam had long been experimenting with different musical styles that moved them beyond the constraints of the subgenre. In addition, Nirvana's drummer, Dave Grohl, following Cobain's death and the subsequent dissolution of the band, formed a group called the Foo Fighters, whose sound, while markedly different than Nirvana's, was significantly influenced by grunge. Other post-grunge bands included Bush and Candlebox.
Anderson, Kyle. Accidental Revolution: The Story of Grunge. New York: St. Martin's Griffin, 2007. Provides a history of grunge music in the 1990's, from its origins in Seattle to its mainstream popularity.
True, Everett. Live Through This: American Rock Music in the Nineties. London: Virgin Books, 2001. Presents a history of grunge music in the 1990's based on interviews from some of the movement's most prominent bands such as Soundgarden, Hole, and Nirvana.
_______. Nirvana: The Biography. Cambridge, Mass.: Da Capo Press, 2007. Describes the history of the band Nirvana while concentrating on the life of Cobain.
Lindsay SchmitzSee Also
Alternative rock; Grunge fashion; Lollapalooza; Love, Courtney; Music; Nirvana; Radio.
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