WHAT THE HELL IS “GRUNGE” ANYWAY?
Ah, our good old friends Grunge and Alternative, those bastions of ’90s rock nostalgia. Are they one in the same? Did they start out meaning different things but over time come to mean the same? At some point in ’92 we started hearing both of these terms bandied about in equal measure to describe the crop of bands emerging from the Seattle scene and their ilk, but over time these words seem to have lost all meaning. What the hell is “grunge” music anyway? And for that matter, what the fuck is “alternative”?
Alternative rock’s roots go back to the late ’80s. In the simplest form, Alternative as a genre described guitar-based rock that didn’t conform to the glitz and glamor of hair metal. At that time there was certainly an “alternative” quality to the music; bands like The Pixies, Sonic Youth and Jane’s Addiction eschewed big production and musical showmanship in favor of a more raw-sounding, emotion-driven performance.
But it’s a little less clear when the term “grunge” came into the picture. In the most literal sense, it seemed that the word was attached to an aesthetic more than anything else — with flannels, ripped jeans, doc martens and messy hair, a look you all know quite well, these bands were literally grungy looking — and it was certainly in stark contrast to the made-up, glamorous appearance of bands like Cinderella and Poison. I think it’s also safe to say that there is a certain sound, though somewhat ambiguous, that is attached to grunge — dirty, fuzzed out guitars, and a much more raw style of production.
As time went on, the terms “grunge” and “alternative” seemed to lose their meaning. By the time 1994 rolled around, a whole second wave of so-called alternative and/or grunge bands emerged that embraced the same song structures, lyrical themes and aesthetic. This second wave, influenced directly by the first wave, didn’t necessarily share the same influences as the first wave and often sounded completely different; some already established bands were even lumped into the grunge and alternative labels. All of a sudden you had Nirvana clones (Bush), hippie jam bands (Blind Melon), industrial goth rock (Nine Inch Nails) and funk rock (Red Hot Chili Peppers) all being classified under the same umbrella. And you had everyone’s favorite alternative ragdoll Candlebox, with soaring vocals, big production and guitar solos that basically spit in the face of everything grunge and alternative purportedly represented. A good band, maybe, but what was alternative about them? I still maintain that had Candlebox come out 5 years earlier with their hair blown out and dressed in leather they would have been equally as successful.
It seems that the only thing all of these bands really had in common was “rock music that came out in the early to mid ’90s that wasn’t metal.” What other explanation is there? The minute mainstream media starts classifying bands as “alternative,” those bands, and the genre as a whole, cease to be alternative. The same thing has happened with indie rock today — what’s so indie about it if everyone I know listens to it? Alternative rock as a genre is kind of a sham, inherently contradictory, a label given to bands so the media can easily describe them. As a genre it never meant much, and really means very little today — just look at the Alternative radio charts. What the fuck do Linkin Park, Paramore, Radiohead and Atreyu have to do with Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Soundgarden and Alice in Chains? For that matter, what the fuck do they even have to do with each other??
So where does that leave or good old friend “grunge”? As Alternative grew bigger and bigger with less and less meaning, the word “grunge” passed out of the common musical lexicon. Maybe that’s for the better. Perhaps Grunge was a real movement with meaning as a genre that got swallowed up by the bastardization of Alternative. While in retrospect it certainly seems that Alternative means nothing at all, its brother Grunge does still seem to embody a certain look, ethos, and feel. Listening to those early Soundgarden records still makes me want to run around and break shit, and those early AIC records hit the spot every fucking time.
So, in short, fuck Alternative. I’m gonna go listen to some Grunge.