Was Grunge the Last American Musical Revolution?

by Dave Whitaker

3 October 2011

This year marks the 20th anniversary of Nirvana's Nevermind and Pearl Jam's Ten. In revisiting the grunge genre which altered the musical landscape two decades ago, the question arises: was this our last musical revolution?
(artist unknown) 

To borrow a phrase from my kids’ favorite cartoon, Phineas and Ferb, “Why, yes. Yes it was.” While music constantly evolves, every generation since the beginning of recorded music has introduced a game-changing genre. Until now.

Ragtime was the popular style of choice at the onset of the 1900s. It eventually gave way to jazz. The Swing Era in the ‘30s transformed into the Sing Era in the ‘40s. Rock ‘n’ roll altered the musical landscape in the ‘50s and punk and grunge emerged in the ‘70s and ‘90s as evidence that rock wasn’t dead.

This month marks the 20th anniversary of what has been called the Year of Grunge. The year 1991 saw the releases of Nirvana’s Nevermind and Pearl Jam’s Ten. Those albums put Seattle on the musical map and flannel and army boots in every sullen American teen’s wardrobe. Adolescent angst was back in vogue and came soundtracked with a brand new anthem, “Smells Like Teen Spirit”.

Of course, Nirvana and Pearl Jam would acknowledge that they no more birthed grunge than any other genre’s tent pole artists invented their respective forms of music. Grunge offered plenty of contemporaries with which to share credit. Soundgarden, Alice in Chains, Mother Love Bone, Mudhoney, and the Screaming Trees are among the most frequently cited.

It isn’t just that multiple artists fell under the grunge banner. There were also a slew of predecessors who laid the groundwork. Analyze the alternative rock and indie scene of the late ‘80s and one can see the seeds of grunge being sown. Rewind another decade and it becomes clear how much grunge was really just recycled punk.

In fact, the flagship grunge and punk groups – Nirvana and the Sex Pistols – share more than a few similarities. Both grew out of eras when disenfranchised youth were tired of pop radio and music journalists were fond of writing articles sounding rock ‘n’ roll’s death knell.

The Sex Pistols emerged from the gloomy rain-soaked London scene in 1975 while Nirvana surfaced from the gloomy rain-soaked Seattle scene from the late ‘80s. Both groups exploded after signing with major labels and releasing hugely successful and rebellious singles – “Anarchy in the U.K.” for the Pistols and “Smells Like Teen Spirit” for Nirvana.

They were also fronted by oversized personalities that aggressively railed against the frustrations of their generations, even if the establishment was less than overjoyed. Then again, joy didn’t enter the picture for the bands, either. Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain and the Pistols’ Johnny Rotten were troubled, angry young men who found no peace with their bands’ phenomenal successes and the greater audience upon which it afforded them opportunities to spew their venom.

Strong, destructive personalities brought about quick demises for both bands which roughly coincided with the lifespans of their respective genres. Cobain and the Pistols’ Sid Vicious suffered from heroin addiction, drug overdoses, and volatile relationships. Sid was charged with murdering girlfriend Nancy Spungen before his own death in 1979 which some call an overdose and others call a suicide. In 1994, Cobain’s suicide had conspiracy theorists insisting that his wife Courtney Love had him killed.

Parallels can also be drawn between the genres’ runner-ups – Pearl Jam and The Clash. These bands also claimed lots of attention in the spotlight, but less than their genre’s flag bearers. Both bands survived beyond their genres’ peaks and gained reputations for political activism within and beyond their music.

Of course, punk and grunge also grew out of similar circumstances. The bands tapped into teen’s frustration with the nation’s political climates which had left them feeling downtrodden. They were also responses to the by-the-numbers dance pop which ruled radio.

Both genres were embraced as back-to-basics rock ‘n’ roll bands which reminded the public that the music was supposed to be raw and raunchy. They were responses to bloated and over-the-top rock which, either took itself too seriously – such as progressive rock in the ‘70s, or not seriously enough – like the hair bands of the ‘80s. Performances were about frontmen who screamed and jumped around on stage and musicians who thrashed wildly on their instruments.

Of course, just as grunge was really just punk mixed with a dose of heavy metal, punk was largely a return to garage rock. In reality, every “new” genre of music is really a reshaping of the previous generation’s music. Every decade’s new batch of teens seeks out a way to distance themselves from the status quo with a new sound – one which the elders don’t understand and turn up their noses at, saying “this isn’t music.”

However, the 20th anniversary of grunge is an uncomfortable reminder that music hasn’t given us anything “new” on such a grand scale since then. This generation still awaits its musical revolution. 

We have, however, experienced one of recorded music’s greatest revolutions in regards to how music is delivered and marketed. The beginning of the 20th century saw sheet music and piano rolls. The phonograph forever changed music in that it now became about hearing actual performances from artists. Over the decades, radio, juke boxes, eight track and cassette tapes, and compact discs all played important roles in letting the music reach the masses.

However, none of those forms had the reach and impact of the Internet. In just over ten years, the way people access music has been permanently altered – for better or worse. A few clicks of the mouse or one’s mobile phone and any song imaginable is there for the listeners’ pleasure. However, much to the chagrin of the record companies, illegal downloads have ravaged their business while also giving consumers more control than ever before.

Perhaps it’s precisely because of the digital revolution that we have not seen a generation-defining genre since grunge. For one genre to so completely saturate the market requires, well, a music industry with immense control over the market. Has downloading destroyed the hope for any new genre domination? I hope not. I’d like to think that in a small club in some metropolitan area there’s a local band slogging it out that’s destined to get music journalists salivating. The magazine headlines will boldly ask “Are they the next big thing?” and hopefully we can respond that, “Yes. Yes they are.”

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See also Nevermind Nostalgia: The Music of 1991… 20 Years Later

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