To Grunge Or Not To Grunge

I hate the word grunge. I detest it. I loathe it. If I never hear it again, it will be too soon. Truthfully, I don’t really hate the actual word. It’s a pretty good word when used in its correct context. The problem is that the word was highjacked by the media and turned into the designation for a genre of music that I suggest doesn’t even exist. We have been conditioned (I say brainwashed) to believe that there was a unified music effort based in Seattle, Washington during the early Nineties that swept down and single-handedly destroyed the reigning rock stars of the day. I admit that there are certain aspects of this myth that are partially true.

The rock music that dominated the landscape in the late Eighties and early Nineties was primarily based (or pretending to be) out of Hollywood, California. It is now commonly referred to as hair metal but I think that is a gross oversimplification of things. For starters, that wasn’t the only type of rock music that was on the air. There were huge bands like U2 and R.E.M. that had been on the scene for a while. There were superstars like Bruce Springsteen, Elton John, and Billy Joel. There were pop stars and rappers. There were legitimate heavy metal bands who had nothing in common with the poofy haired bands on M-TV. The hard rock bands coming from the Sunset Strip were just one small part of the equation.

Revisionist music historians have created a narrative where these bands were struck down in their prime by something they call Grunge. This story claims that rock and roll had become bloated and stale and all of a sudden, a fresh new wind came blowing down out of the Pacific Northwest and swept them all into oblivion. These critics smile at the thought and say, “Good riddance.” Nevermind the fact that many of these bands sold MILLIONS of albums. It was as if these bands never mattered. There were a lot of great songs written during this time and many critics suggested that there was nothing of value to be found. That simply isn’t true.

It is true that there were way too many copycat bands around. Whenever a band had a hit single, the record labels (I repeat…the RECORD LABELS) went out and tried to find another band with a similar sound and a similar look. A lot of bands deliberately changed their image and changed the way they wrote songs in an effort to win the attention of the labels. There were trendsetters who helped create the look but it was the labels and M-TV that blew it out of proportion. Instead of promoting a handful of bands with different styles and letting people pick the ones they liked, they saturated the market with dozens of sound-alike, lookalike knock-offs. It’s no wonder the scene became bloated and stale. The industry set them up to fail from the get go. When Glam no longer raked in the money, the labels looked for the next big thing. That’s when Grunge was invented.

I think it’s interesting that the marquee bands for the Grunge movement really don’t sound anything like each other. There is a certain aesthetic to the way they look but even then, there is still a lot of variety. Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, and Alice In Chains do not play the same style of music yet they are all called Grunge. Their look is called Grunge. Their music is called Grunge. They defined what Grunge was and the truth is that they don’t have much in common except geography.

If you don’t believe me, sit down and honestly listen to their albums. Listen to Nirvana’s Bleach (which came out in 1989) and compare it to Pearl Jam’s 1991 debut album Ten. If you want to argue that Bleach isn’t representative of Nirvana then pop in Nevermind. After that, listen to Soundgarden’s Badmotorfinger and Alice In Chains’s Facelift. They are all dark and brooding and they all have heavy guitars, but they aren’t the same style of music. One could argue that Soundgarden and Alice In Chains might be, but even then, I would suggest that they are actually heavy metal bands.

What DID happen is many of the popular bands altered their sound to fit into this new musical climate. Most of them didn’t win any new fans. In fact, they probably lost fans as a result. The sad thing is that many of them put out better “Grunge” albums than the bands who supposedly created it. They definitely made better music than all of the copycats band that followed the original four.

None of this really matters though. It’s just one of those things that eat at me. Whenever I hear some kid talk about grunge music it sets my teeth on edge. I get the same way when people lump all Eighties hard rock bands into the hair metal category. I have always tried to avoid labels and judge bands on their own merit. It’s not fair to assume they are all the same or that they were all copycats. If you really want to hear copycats, listen to the mess they pass off as country music these days. Some of that stuff makes Poison sound good.

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