Smells Like MTV: Music Video and the Rise of Grunge
MTV’s central role in delivering grunge to a national audience in the early 1990s demonstrated the network’s power as a creator and definer of culture, and the reaction of many of grunge’s iconic figures against the video medium revealed the gulf between principle and reality.
The first 10 seconds are iconic: an ashen ambiance, dirty Converse canvas high tops bouncing to the beat, white gym socks, sullen cheerleaders, a modest guitar intro that quickly builds into a ripping sonic assault, and then a peek at a rock star out of the pages of Dr. Seuss -- the striped shirt and straggly hair of Kurt Cobain.
In 1991, it seemed as if Nirvana burst onto the scene, changing music forever. Based on the out-of-nowhere success of the single “Smells Like Teen Spirit”, dorm rooms and bedrooms across the United States were covered in posters of the band and blown-up images of the cover of its second release Nevermind (a male baby underwater chasing a fishhook with a dollar bill used as bait). Seemingly overnight, fans and critics hailed Nirvana as one of the most important bands in history. Grunge swept the nation.
In retrospect, the rags-to-riches story holds up pretty well, though there certainly was a straightforward “hidden” message on the Nevermind artwork: the innocent, naked baby contrasted with the lure of money on the end of the hook. This notion of selling versus selling out would haunt Cobain for the rest of his short life, as it would other grunge rockers who shot to fame in the early 1990s.
The independent label ethos that led to regional success and became a kind of guiding influence for groups like Nirvana and Pearl Jam directly conflicted with the major recording label desire to sell millions of CDs. The rubber met the road when it came to music videos.
In this vein of art versus commerce, it is impossible to discount MTV’s role in breaking Nirvana nationally, just as it had been launching bands for the previous decade. Perhaps for the first time in music history, however, hearing Nirvana on the radio or buying Nevermind on CD was much less important (almost nonexistent) in relation to seeing the band on MTV.
The notion that music television established grunge is antithetical to the movement’s basic roots, which were derived from an underground aesthetic. The reaction of many of grunge’s iconic figures against videos -- from Kurt Cobain appearing on MTV dressed in a bright yellow prom dress to Pearl Jam’s refusal to do videos after its debut album Ten -- reveals the gulf between principle and reality.
However, the popularity of music videos and the power of the network forced grunge bands to enter the video world and the broader mainstream culture, even if they may have despised the situation internally. The road to fame led through MTV, and getting music out meant playing the MTV game, even if coerced.
Video Kills the Radio Star
The history of the music industry is fueled by innovation and technology. From Thomas Edison’s invention of the cylinder phonograph in 1877 to the advent of MP3s and digital music in recent years, each subsequent invention builds upon its predecessor, thus revolutionizing music performance and how artists and music are sold, and guides or influences consumer response. The intersection of performance (the music and musician) and audience response (people listening and/or purchasing) defines the business.
As innovation enabled music to become a visual aspect of culture, artists responded by transforming into performers across media channels. Fans not only enjoyed seeing their favorites, but soon were comfortable with the cross-platform approach and even expected to have opportunities to view artists. Seeing the Beatles or Elvis Presley in movies or on The Ed Sullivan Show, for example, became more routine in a culture dominated by film and television.
Throughout most of the 20th century, though, despite the power of the viewing screen, radio and albums still ruled in terms of how people most often accessed music and musicians. Gradually, however, with the proliferation of cable television and more TV options for viewers to choose from, the situation began to change. Then, in 1981, the collective demand rang out from the Police to Pat Benatar hyping the new station: “I want my MTV!” The revolution was on.
In the decade from 1981 to 1991, MTV grew into a creator of youth culture. First, the cable network rode a wave of telegenic British groups and musicians, such as Duran Duran. Then, it put burgeoning pop stars like Madonna and Michael Jackson into heavy rotation. In the mid- to late-1980s, the network then turned to glam metal, promoting the music of Motley Crue, Ratt, and Van Halen to the hearts of mainstream America. MTV grew into the epicenter of the music industry, with its VJs becoming household names (remember the feathered-hair omnipotence of Adam Curry?) and its shows like Buzz Bin and World Premiere Videos driving fans to record stores.
As the 1980s bled into the 1990s, a new vibe bubbled to the surface, as teen Gen Xers grew into more socially-conscious and thoughtful college students and young adults. While hair metal remained popular, MTV shifted gears to a new sound represented by the first alternative, college-radio band to launch into superstardom: R.E.M. In February 1991, the underground favorite released “Losing My Religion”, [video] a pop- and mandolin-infused single quickly placed in heavy rotation on the network. As a result, R.E.M. skyrocketed from breakout band to global domination, which cemented the marriage of MTV and alternative music.
Later in 1991, MTV’s championing of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” showcased darker, more angst-ridden music. While the “grunge” label already existed, soon commentators and others called the whole post-Nirvana alternative movement grunge, packaging it for easy consumption by the Middle America buying public. MTV played an instrumental role in making this music mainstream, since many music fans received their first exposure to Nirvana and other grunge bands from the cable channel rather than conventional or niche radio.
So, while MTV may have supported musicians in the past, it seemed that a new era began with R.E.M. and Nirvana. Into the foreseeable future the “next big thing” would come from MTV, rather than well up from independent or underground sources. MTV executive John Canelli explained to the New York Times in late 1992: “We have a pretty big role in spreading something from underground to the heartland. We’re always looking for whatever the next thing is.”
Ironically, it seemed almost natural for grunge bands to hit the mainstream based on MTV playlists. In some cases, as with Nevermind, fans could not hear the song anywhere else. Jason Pettigrew, editor-in-chief of Alternative Press, recalls the video’s impact, despite little radio airplay and the meager number of CDs and albums shipped, explaining, “The ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ video got traction and radio finally perked up and said, ‘shit, we better program this.’” More important for music at large, Pettigrew says, “Overnight, the vacuity of the hair metal scene was replaced by slackerness and teenage angst.”