“Pure grunge! Pure noise! Pure shit!” is how the lead singer of grunge band Mudhoney, Mark Arm, described his music. Grunge music first came to be during the mid to late 1980’s and stayed a main part of popular music through the 90’s. Grunge music brought a brand new element into the world of music. This new element was brought about due to multiple different reasons. Mainly, with disco bands like ABBA, classic rock bands like Van Halen, and pop musicians like Madonna overpowering the music industry for so long, alongside with the first wave of major political skepticism, grunge music coming about was almost inevitable. Unlike previous popular music genres, grunge music was much more pessimistic, anti-government, dark, and included many internal/individual issues that typically weren’t spoken of in previous times. This type of music was much needed in society and this can be proven by the large amounts of people, even today’s adolescents, that still continue to listen today. Through analyzing how and why grunge music arose during the time that it did, a greater understanding of how music, society, and politics are intertwined will come as well. Grunge music affected society through providing a voice to the newly developed attitude of pessimism and skepticism and bringing more awareness to the inner struggles that everyone can relate to but just were rarely spoken of.
Grunge is a branch of a much wider music genre, rock. Before grunge was even possible, rock ‘n’ roll had to have its own beginning in the 1950’s. The 1950’s are known for being a time of extreme conformity in the U.S.. Everyone was expected to act a certain way. Women were housewives, men worked an eight hour job, kids went to school, and no one felt any emotions that weren’t happy ones. There has been a very common pattern throughout history, that in times like these, there is always temporary peace, but boiling controversy. Since everyone’s emotions were being held captive by the social norms, there was bound to be an explosive reaction against the conformity sometime soon. The reaction was rock ‘n’ roll music. It really all started with the teens of this era. They needed an outlet for their feelings, and so they turned to music. The music mostly consisted of black musicians and white musicians that did covers of black musicians or just their own music. Rock music contained messages that went against the societal norms of the times. Through teenagers listening to it, it became increasingly more popular. And right alongside the revolution of rock was other movements/revolutions like the civil rights movement, women’s rights movements, and LGBT movements. Since this time, rock music has continued to be a sign of new ideals and upcoming revolutions. Grunge is no exception.
Grunge music first started when Generation X was in its teenage years. Grunge definitely became this generation’s most popular music genre. During this time period, the Berlin Wall fell in 1989 and the Cold War finally ended in 1991. Along with these major events, the credibility gap, which was born in 1971 with the pentagon papers incident, had grown quite large. And just like in the 1960’s with a new wave of Rock ‘n’ Roll music taking over the world through teens after a time of great controversy and hardship, the wave of grunge music came crashing into society. Many grunge bands started to form in the 90’s. Some of the most popular ones being Nirvana, Pearl Jam, The Smashing Pumpkins, Stone Temple Pilots, Hole, Soul Asylum, Alice in Chains, Soundgarden, Bush, etc. Nirvana is probably the band that has withstood the test of the time the best out of this list of grunge bands. This band, in particular, is a prime example of how grunge music became so popular and they have many songs that represent grunge on the whole very well as well. Nirvana’s members dressed in clothing that was very similar to what the teenagers of that time were wearing: distressed jeans, oversized t-shirts, oversized fits in general, etc. The way they dressed brought a vibe of nonchalant attitudes and made the bands feel more relatable to everyday young people. The lyrics of many of their songs included messages of depression, anxiety, disappointment, anti-authority, and some even darker issues that all people can relate to. Nirvana’s greatest hit, “Smells Like Teen Spirit” became an anthem for the youth of the 90’s.
One way that grunge music affected society was how it became the voice of the new, pessimistic, anti-government attitude that was being integrated into society. Previous rock genres, like classic rock in the 1980’s, had focused on many political issues, but never really was portrayed in a super pessimistic light. This was different for grunge. This was really one of the first times when music had a truly negative outlook on the world and the government. An example of this is the song “Warchild” by The Cranberries. A lyric from this song states, “War child! Victim of political pride. Plant the seed, territorial greed. Mind, the war child. We should mind, the war child. Who’s the loser now…We’re all the losers now.” This song talks about how war is futile. And even if there is a nation that “wins”, everyone still loses because war is inane and only brings a brief sense of false peace.
Perhaps the greatest way that grunge music affected society was how it brought awareness to the darker inner emotions that everybody feels. Before the 90’s, things like depression and just sad feelings in general were never really spoken of. This left many people feeling lost with nowhere to turn to. Many probably felt alone and like freaks because they believed that no one else was feeling the way they did. Grunge music was able to open a door that led to a greater awareness of mental health and inner struggles. A great example of this is the song “Jeremy” by Pearl Jam. This song is about the true story of a high school student who committed suicide by shooting himself in front of one of his school classes. One part of this song states, “At home drawing pictures of mountain tops with him on top, lemon yellow sun, arms raised in a V. Dead lay in pools of maroon below. Daddy didn’t give attention, to the fact that mommy didn’t care. King Jeremy the wicked ruled his world. Jeremy spoke in class today.” These lyrics describe in detail about the boy’s inner struggles. About the drawings that depicted him being the single living person among many dead. About how his parents neglected him. Jeremy obviously had feelings of extreme loneliness and depression. His awful emotions had been contained for so long, and not knowing what to do with them, he turned to suicide. And while most people don’t have feelings that need to things that are this extreme, Pearl Jam realized that everybody has feelings that are at least similar to these. From feeling lonely, to feeling unloved, and even to thinking thoughts of wanting to take one’s own life. This is an issue that has been around forever and can only be stopped through bringing awareness to and talking about it. Another song that is a good example of this in Stone Temple Pilots’ song, “Creep”. To quote this song, one verse says, “Feeling uninspired think I’ll start a fire. Everybody run Bobby’s got a gun. Think you’re kinda neat then she tells me I’m a creep. Friends don’t mean a thing guess I’ll leave it up to me.” These lyrics emit feelings of being alone, insecure, and different from what’s normal in society.
Grunge music was able to provide a voice for a generation that didn’t have one and it raised awareness and normalized negative feelings that are very common. By continuing to listen to grunge music, society can learn more about themselves and about others around them. History teachers who work in high schools and universities should highly consider including the grunge era in their curriculum. Much can be learned from studying the grunge revolution. How it fits in with the oh so common pattern of turmoil to rebellion. Also, by looking into the lyrics of the songs, we are able to get into the mindset of the people of that time so we can see what they thought the issues with society were.
Article by Lily Altom & Video by Garrett Watkins
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