Sells Like Teen Spirit: Music, Youth Crisis and Social Culture
(New York University Press)
US: 1 Dec 2009
It’s damn near impossible to believe that the most popular song of the alternative music era – Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” – was inspired, to some degree, by a personal hygiene product. After a bout of spray-painting graffiti around Olympia, Washington, Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain and Bikini Kill’s Kathleen Hanna returned to Cobain’s apartment. There, Hanna scrawled “Kurt smells like teen spirit” on the wall of his apartment, teasing him because he apparently spent so much time with his then girlfriend, Bikini Kill’s drummer Tobi Vail, he had started to smell of her deodorant.
Cobain didn’t know that Teen Spirit was a deodorant and thought that it was a reference to youthful revolution. The rest is history.
Vignettes like this form the most interesting parts of Sells Like Teen Spirit: Music, Youth Culture and Social Crisis, the new book from sociologist Ryan Moore. Written as his doctoral dissertation (or as part of graduate research), Sells Like Teen Spirit attempts to plot the origins of music subcultures in the United States against the economic and political crises and situations that accompanied the time in which the music developed.
Moore sets the tone of the book in the first chapter by contrasting New York City’s economic meltdown of the ‘70s to the state of popular music, which had drifted from the iconoclastic, counter-culture sounds of the Jimi Hendrix Experience to the “easy listening”, soft rock style of REO Speedwagon. NYC’s economic and social death equaled the birth of punk and “the desire to create something different.”
In reaction to the counter-culture’s “implosion”, a new sound began to emerge in the United States, which echoed a return to the minimalism of early rock ‘n’ roll. The first crop of bands included the Stooges, the MC5 and the Velvet Underground. In turn, they influenced the creation of the Sex Pistols, the Damned, the Ramones and Wire, whose 1977 debut, “Pink Flag” is mentioned by Moore as a seminal moment in music history. The sound became known as punk.
Moore’s strength is his obvious admiration for the bands and genres he highlights. He is a first-class music journalist and historian and when he delves into a particular subculture like the “econo” ethos of the Minutemen, the Dickies use of “snotcore” or Minor Threat’s creation of straightedge, the reader is richly rewarded. Moore, for example, describes the riot grrrl sound from Bikini Kill’s first’s EP in 1991 as:
... (P)unk rock in its most fundamental state, the sound of a band who knows they can’t play and doesn’t care, a band who’s taken the stage, whether you want them there or not, because they’ve got something to say and some noise to make. It’s the sound of anger and resistance, but it’s also the sound of joy emanating from young people who’ve just discovered that the rules don’t matter and unlimited opportunities abound.
But befitting his interdisciplinary thesis statement and scope of the book, much of Sells Like Teen Spirit is also devoted to a discussion of American political economy. There are two elements to this side of the debate; the first is the expected analysis of the relationship between changes in local economies and their impact on local music.
The second topic Moore introduces is a fascinating discussion of “subcultural capital”. According to Moore, it is the status of being part of a subcultural sect or movement, which allows those within the subculture to stay aloof and fiercely independent. When subcultural capital is depleted due to overexposure, those who used to feel “in”, feel “out”. As more and more “outsiders” learn about the subculture and try to get in on the action, the capital runs out and eventually the scene implodes.
Moore applies this theory on a macro level to the overall scope of alternative music to skillfully explain why the scene died, but he also picks one city in particular, San Diego, to discuss how the depletion of subcultural capital combined with overexposure killed the local music scene. Once San Diego and its standout bands like Rocket from the Crypt were identified as “the next big thing”, the capital started to run out.
Moore illustrates how 1992 signaled the beginning of the end for grunge at the local and national levels (anyone remember Henry Rollins modeling for The Gap?). In 1993, San Diego’s music scene was written about in Entertainment Weekly, Rolling Stone and Spin; E! did a “History of Style” special on San Diego that was hosted by Luke Perry; and the catchy, grunge-pop of Stone Temple Pilots, became identified with the local music scene even though they were never really part of it. For Moore, all of these factors heavily affected the decline of the San Diego scene and the feeling of insiders that they had been “sold out”.
The biggest challenge for anyone seeking instant gratification from reading this book is that, well, there isn’t any. The reader has to be patient to cut through the academic speak to find gems. Is it worth it in the end? I’m not so sure. Take for example the chapter on heavy metal. I really enjoyed learning about the origins of heavy metal from the pioneering bluesy rock sounds, transformed into the “heavy blues”; and finally refashioned into dozens of subgenres like thrash, grunge and glam.
Then, however, Professor Moore shows up and ruins it for everyone. One minute he’s discussing the unique sound of Green River (which split into Mudhoney, Mother Love Bone and later, Pearl Jam) and the next he is waxing eloquently about political theory and gender identity. Two examples of his pompous writing style include:
Drawing on the Marxist concept of reification I maintain that heavy metal’s iconography has objectified socioeconomic sources of disempowerment in images of evil, chaos and destruction beyond human control.
Any gender anxieties that androgyny might have provoked were repressed by continuous affirmations of heterosexuality and masculinity; however, in which male performers purported to ‘kick ass’ and take female groupies as their conquests.
The tragic irony of Sells Like Teen Spirit is that it is a detailed history of American music subcultures, but written in a pedantic manner that will probably alienate all the bands he’s writing about. I don’t know if the teenager in Spokane, trying to start his own Screaming Trees- or Meat Puppets-inspired group is going to read this book to figure out the direction he needs to take. That would be very much against the spirit of alternative and independent music, that would be selling out.
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