Nirvana will forever be the most important group to emerge during alternative’s crowning year
Still, Nirvana’s feat underlined for everyone that all bets were off. In panic mode, record labels immediately scrambled to sign all sorts of offbeat underground artists because no one was sure what would sell anymore. Meanwhile the members of Nirvana—especially singer/guitarist Kurt Cobain—became newsworthy figures, grilled in numerous interviews about their newly-bestowed importance in relation to pop music and Generation X. Such inquires would be responded to with solemn disbelief, sarcastic jokes, and generous name-drops of the members’ favorite bands couched between criticisms of “cock rock” musicians—a startling lack of rock star self-importance and pretension that many young fans had never seen before, which would help explain why these unkempt weirdos were enthusiastically adopted as heroes for a new age. While Perry Farrell transparently sought to be a spokesman for a generation, the moody-yet-sensitive Cobain became one without trying (or wanting) to be one.
Nirvana will forever be the most important group to emerge during alternative’s crowning year—but it wasn’t the biggest. That honor goes to its grunge rival Pearl Jam, which stands revealed as the most popular—and populist—alt-rock band to graduate from the class of ‘91. Unlike Nirvana’s out-from-nowhere rocket ride to prominence, Pearl Jam—a group that had only been together since 1990, formed from the ashes of the glammy Mother Love Bone—would have to claw its way gradually into the popular consciousness, meaning that, at the conclusion of ‘91, its maximum impact was still some time away. If 1991 was the year of Nirvana, 1992 belonged to Pearl Jam, as Ten steadily climbed the charts all the way to number two on the Billboard 200, where it lingered for months. By early 1993, American sales of Ten had already outstripped those of Nevermind. Today, Ten is currently certified as 13 times platinum by the Recording Industry Association of America, making it not only the third most-shipped LP to come out that year after Metallica’s “Black Album” and Garth Brooks’ Ropin’ the Wind, but the highest-certified alternative rock album in the United States, ever.
Not that Pearl Jam would get many kudos for its feat, as alt-rock’s pervasive elitism—its most noxious trait—manifested amidst all the good news in ‘91. Nirvana got cheers of approval during its ascent up the charts, but the knives came out for the members of Pearl Jam, who were disparaged (most notably by Kurt Cobain) as brazen careerists, fake grunge, and corporate whores willing to shell watered-down alternative. Much of the discontent stemmed from Ten’s relatively conventional rock leanings, as it audibly bore the influence of Led Zeppelin, Jimi Hendrix, Stevie Ray Vaughn, and other perceived musical dinosaurs. It is this quality, however, that endeared it to millions who could care less if Pearl Jam had never been on an indie label. Rooted so strongly in classic rock, Ten sounded like, well, a classic rock record, one placed firmly in the modern age by Eddie Vedder’s rumbling, frequently rambling vocal stylings and tortured everyguy persona.
With Vedder’s impassioned tales of pain, angst, and anger regarding topics including homelessness and school violence layered on top of those big riffs and oodles of guitar leads, Ten‘s songs were transformed in widely-resonant anthems of despair and triumph. Amidst all the fretting about authenticity that the advent of million-selling alterna-rock conjured, history has proven that Pearl Jam has never been less than sincere in its intentions, as it would go on to challenge Ticketmaster over high ticket prices, stump for social causes like abortion rights at any given opportunity, and overall refuse to adhere to the expectations assumed of rock stars under the media glare. Bearing in mind the virtuous path Pearl Jam has followed in the last 20 years, the sarcastic disses and ironic affection for junk pop culture that became so important to ‘90s alternative iconography betray the truth: that the problem with Pearl Jam was less about authenticity than a snooty us-verses-them mentally that—while giving alt-rock a sense of purpose pre-‘91—resulted in some rather petty attitudes that could at times make the genre’s practitioners more close-minded than the mainstream pop/rock it rallied against.
The rise of alternative rock in 1991 had seismic consequences, as the music industry quickly reconfigured itself to accommodate to the new landscape. According to David Brown’s Sonic Youth bio Goodbye 20th Century, there were about a dozen modern rock stations in the United States in 1990. By 1992, there were over a hundred, all happy to spin the latest singles by Nirvana and Pearl Jam instead of rapidly expiring British post-punk leftovers. The proliferation of such stations was beside the point in a way, as alt-rock succeeded the year before because it infiltrated music television and mainstream rock radio, not by pandering to the then largely inconsequential modern rock format. For years afterward, industry discussions would be focused on finding “the next Nirvana”, the next oddity from the underground that could enrapture the teenagers of the world. Musicians also reinvented themselves in the face of the New Thing.
Mötley Crüe, Poison, and countless other fading glam metal stars tried to overhaul their sounds and images in the vain hopes of remaining relevant. Depeche Mode frontman Dave Gahan became enamored with alt-rock after attending Lollapalooza, and newly decked out in long hair, a beard, and tattoos, insisted to his synth-welding brethren that they become a grunge band. U2’s ahead-the-curve embrace of irony served it well in the post-grunge landscape, but it aimed to shore up its associations with the Alternative Nation by asking Nirvana, Sonic Youth, and the Pixies to open for its media-overload Zoo TV tour; the Pixies ultimately nabbed the opening slot after the others declined, but to their eternal regret they often played to mostly empty and/or indifferent arenas, as unsympathetic U2 diehards stayed away until their heroes took the stage. Meanwhile, high-class grungewear designed by Marc Jacobs stalked New York fashion runways, and Hollywood’s leading men started sporting unwashed hair and patchy facial scruff.
It might be tempting now to veer into a sober recap of how the reign of alt-rock eventually came toppling down for a variety of reasons less than a decade later: death, drug abuse, lackluster follow-ups or overinflated sales expectations, the deluge of unremarkable alterna-clones that flooded the market, the replacement of rock as the preeminent musical voice of the youth by hip-hop. And certainly, there was a lot of crap alternative music released amongst all the fondly remembered ‘90s classics. But what’s inspiring about looking back at alternative rock in 1991 is how even as grunge was just starting to turn a generation of music fans onto flannel shirts and politically-correct angst, there were discernable signs of later advances in the genre to come.
In the year Nirvana began storming up the charts, Pavement and Sebadoh (led by former Dinosaur Jr. bassist Lou Barlow) turned “indie rock” from a mere synonym for alternative into a distinct anti-mainstream strain by spearheading the lo-fi movement. Shoegaze group My Bloody Valentine’s Loveless was a sonic canvas of visionary guitar textures that virtually reinvented the language of the instrument. The first stirrings would was would be termed “post-rock” emerged in the form of LPs by former New Wave synthpop group Talk Talk, which had completely overhauled its sound in by its final album, Laughing Stock, and gnarled math-rock ensemble Slint, with its hipster touchstone Spiderland. And grunge’s conquest of the British baggy hordes would not long after lead to a nationalistic rebuttal in the form of swaggering, tuneful Britpop.
Be it unlikely blockbusters or low-selling gems admired by an ardent few, in the end, the most tangible legacy that alt-rock from 1991 has to offer will forever be the records that were produced. Alternative rock has reached phenomenal heights before and since, but there is a certain heady aura that clings to the year that gave us R.E.M.‘s Michael Stipe pining “I think I though I saw you try” to an audience of millions, Eddie Vedder using that powerhouse voice of his to exorcise his personal demons for the first time, and Kurt Cobain bashing out a deceivingly simple four-chord riff that would become a generation’s equivalent to the Rolling Stones’ “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” or Led Zeppelin’s “Whole Lotta Love”.
In the long run, it was never about an underground genre “winning” against pop aristocracy and rock convention: after all, in spite of all that had indeed genuinely changed, slick mainstream pop never went away post-Nirvana—it just had a more visible counterpoint—and even Guns N’ Roses was finally defeated more by its frontman’s rampant egoism than Nirvana’s scathing rebukes. Instead, it was all about 1991 quite likely being the creative apex of alternative rock music.