Grunge: Straining to Challenge the Status Quo

One night on television in the UK, Nirvana performed a version of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” that must have confused the hell out of many fans, but made perfect sense to some of us. Captured for posterity on Live! Tonight! Sold Out!, Kurt Cobain limply wipes his hand back and forth across his guitar like it’s an old cat and he’s an old man, entirely out of sync with the overdubbed backing tracks to which Krist Novoselic and Dave Grohl are miming. When the time comes to sing, Cobain moans in a parody of swaying Goths—his voice is live—and dips so low in his register that he loses his breath. It’s an enormous “fuck-you” and a giddy bit of fun at the same time.

That was an instance, a moment. As soon as you use it to define grunge, it slips out of your hand. Catherine Strong’s Grunge: Music and Memory, like many other academic and critical texts, tries to keep hold. Not of this moment, but of the entire genre. The author places grunge circa 1990-1994 in a sociological house made of two spare rooms: an original series of interviews conducted by the author, and an analysis of media coverage both contemporary and retrospective. As the title suggests, personal memories are compared with official records in regards to the definition of grunge and the classifications of certain bands and individuals. Most important are memory’s relationships with power through authenticity, collective thought, and gender.

What you must understand about this book is that it’s probably not written for you, not unless you’re pursuing a doctorate somewhere and you enjoy reading sentences like —

[Pierre] Bourdieu’s theories are particularly helpful in trying to undertake sociological analyses of culture because of the way in which he shows that how we relate to culture is a highly social process which is strongly influenced by our position in society.

—for upwards of 150 pages. As elitist and critical as that statement may sound, I mean simply that the book is written for a highly specialized audience of academics using mainly academic sources; Strong is just writing the way the academic profession lamentably demands. You don’t need a doctorate to read the book, but an M.A. wouldn’t hurt. Published by Ashgate, a British independent academic press, Grunge: Music and Memory joins other titles like Cultural Seeds: Essays on the Work of Nick Cave in their Ashgate Popular and Folk Music Series—an interesting distinction, by the way. Most of the titles are priced at $99.95. Ten-dollar discount on their site, though!

Yes, it all speaks of academia’s cloistered interests and, with the possible exception of historians and scientists, the abandonment of its former mission: to engage with the public through understandable texts written for a general audience. Blame Derrida if you want. We don’t need to hold Strong accountable for academic obfuscation, here. As these texts go, Grunge: Music and Memory speaks relatively clearly. Though the theoretics of Bourdieu and others provide the language, Strong supplies the clarity of example and anecdote. Her interview respondents have some interesting things to say about grunge, and what she draws from their memories is often compelling, particularly when she focuses on more specific subject matter like the media, individuals like Kurt Cobain and Courtney Love, gender, and that old warhorse, Generation X.

Grunge: Music and Memory casts grunge as the unsure middle weight stepping into the ring against one pop music brawler after another. It scores a couple knockouts with the element of surprise and good training from its forebears, punk, metal and early indie-rock like the Pixies. Down goes Michael Jackson, down goes Guns ‘n’ Roses, and while Springsteen, God love him, is putting the finishing touches onHuman Touch/Lucky Town, Nirvana and Pearl Jam release the most influential albums of the decade. Straining to challenge the status quo, grunge is Mike Tyson before Tyson underestimated Buster Douglas; before Tokyo, it’s a fusion of violence and speed, muscularity and melody, and there’s room for everyone, even—here’s a shocker for the hair-metal bands—women, who were pretty damn muscular and violent themselves. Grunge is political and personal; the music rarely takes stands, but its performers do and in presciently local and identity-issue ways. Grunge spots the corporate bloat before anyone else does…and then its stomach gets fat, its punches soft, and next thing anyone knows, it’s bloody on a Tokyo mat as Dave Mathews Band releases Under the Table and Dreaming.

Strong claims that her respondents’ memories and her own media analysis suggest that “the challenges that grunge did present have mostly been defused”. The people she interviewed are at least in their mid-30s now, and grunge is not much different from any passing musical trend, or any of those historical uchronias like the Wild West and The 60s (not to be confused with the 1960s). She documents the retrospective backlash against the genre, and against its whipping boy/martyr, Kurt Cobain, by a media eager to make sure Generation X lives up to its sloppy albatrosses, “slacker”, “disaffected”, and “cynical”, even if it—they, we, me—were and are none of those things.

The problem here begins with any attempts to define “grunge”, but Strong admits this from the jump, and if we’re going to talk about it at all, it helps to have some terms. The greater problem, however, is that her study is built on interviews with 43 respondents, all of whom lived and continue to live in Australia (except two, she notes, that lived in Seattle during the grunge’s popular surge), and on articles culled mainly from the rock rag New Musical Express. True, just about every magazine out there is included at least once, from Rolling Stone to Spin, and Strong quotes from a number of books by American rock journalists like Jim DeRogatis and Charles Cross, but…NME, really?

From an American perspective, mine at least, NME has always seemed trite and tabloid-y, a rabid trend-chaser. While that’s perfectly viable for study, and while it makes sense given Strong’s respondents and her interest in overlooked subjects who aren’t subcultural, those qualities seem too flimsy to lean on. Ultimately Strong’s book is very British, very Australian—she herself lives and teaches in Australia—and while its content is interesting, its larger arguments about grunge, which seem to want to come off as worldly and universal, suffer.

To be fair, any claim about how “we” responded to grunge will suffer; that’s the challenge of any sociological study, and the siren’s song for any cultural critic. Strong doesn’t help herself by saying, in her first chapter, “The really incredible thing about Nirvana was that everyone got into them. They created, for however brief a moment and in however insignificant a way, a playground utopia where there was no difference.” Well, not everyone got into them, certainly not right away. Even if by “everyone” Strong means people from a multitude of social groups in 1991—the stoners, the nerds, the jocks, the kids watching Say Anything over and over—there were plenty in those groups who were unconvinced.

NME was one of them. I was one of them. At the time I valued musicianship, chops, and it took me a while to see past the hype and connect with Cobain’s songwriting and the band’s energy. A number of friends, even the one who turned me on to the Melvins, felt the same way. And I don’t remember “a playground utopia” of equality. You carried with you toward the mosh pit everything you brought into the club. As Strong notes frequently, women fared better with grunge than they did with the hair-metal bands, but while grunge endeavored to be accepting of ethnic and cultural difference, it was overwhelmingly white. Jay-Z has had more crossover appeal by leaps and bounds than Nirvana or Pearl Jam or Soundgarden.

Elsewhere in Grunge: Music and Memory, academic theory sounds like common sense. Drawing on Bourdieu, Strong claims that grunge was defined by the “autonomous principle”—essentially the notion of authenticity and unique, individual vision—which fell in conflict, inevitably, with the “heteronomous principle” of commercial success. This becomes important when she turns to her respondents, who identified more with Kurt Cobain as a “regular guy” than as the noxious, tragic saint the media made him out to be. As such, the conflict of his authenticity being challenged by the band’s commercial success is, well, not much of a conflict. While this seems right, it’s not exactly groundbreaking news. And what about the autonomous principle and Eddie Vedder? Layne Staley? Chris Cornell? (Courtney Love is discussed often, Kathleen Hanna once, because she was Riot Grrrl or something.) Likewise, when the author points out that grunge became what it was because of when it arose—in opposition to what came before, to what was going on around it—you can only say, “Yup”.

The book is at its most effective when it’s most specific. The chapter “The Memory of Kurt Cobain” tears apart what Strong calls “anniversary journalism”, and begins to clearly exemplify the sub-topic of the book, power. “…[C]hallenges to dominant accounts”—those in the media—”seem to be most successful when the memories of the less powerful”—the fans—”are important to their identity in some way”. Again, yes. But here at least there’s a tactile figure to discuss rather than an entire genre, even if the definition of power must rely on capitalist outreach. (Maybe I’m just being a cranky leftie.)

More specific and useful are Strong’s observations about “Gender and Grunge”, and the phenomenon of “disappearing women” who vanish from official historical records and, apparently, the memories of her 43 respondents. This is a valuable reminder of a crime that transcends popular music; as we lose any sense of the dominant figures of history, you can be damn sure that the Phillis Wheatleys and Dorothy Thompsons of the world are already ephemeral, if not forgotten. The media, Strong says, contributed to this by pigeonholing women as aberrations in the grunge scene and tying their art solely to their bodies.

Here again, though, the perceptions of grunge seem broad at best, and otherwise contradictory and self-defeating. Setting aside the significance of her respondents, Strong emphasizes the differences between grunge and Riot Grrrl and claims through her sources that certain bands, specifically Hole, L7, and Babes in Toyland, “have been conveniently subsumed into the Riot Grrrl movement, a move that…separates[s] women’s history out from a more mainstream male history…”.

I don’t remember it this way, and I’m a man. (The men in her study do not come off well in this section.) For me, at the time, “grunge” was a marketing term while Riot Grrrl was created by the bands it labeled, an emblem of, as Strong notes, a highly political, feminist movement. The bands falling under both descriptors were part of my sense of a counterculture history, the mainstream of the sidestream. Hole and L7, at least, I’ve always thought of as grunge; remembering Bikini Kill as Riot Grrrl hasn’t kept them any more firmly planted in my mind. Her respondents’ claims and her conclusions make me wonder if there wasn’t a kind of American exoticism at work, in the same way Americans might drive themselves crazy trying to decide if the Stone Roses were Madchesters or shoegazers.

The perceived failure of grunge (and Riot Grrrl?) to live up to its feminist potential is the first concrete evidence the book provides for its ultimate thesis that grunge eventually caved in to the status quo, or at least is perceived that way by the media and the people who listened to it. Strong also arrives at this conclusion based on her respondents’ views of the Generation X label, its distance from any real significance to the ’90s other than as another cultural label, and youth “being remembered in a light that reduces [its] importance to current action by constructing youth as an ‘inauthentic’ period”. The tireless youth culture spawned by this generation’s parents, the Baby Boomers, is more concretely tied to actual age for “Generation X” than it is a lifestyle. Grunge, she says, despite its challenge to authority and commercialism, failed to overcome the typical view that “youth [is] a time that should not really be taken seriously”. That’s a lot to lay at the feet of music, let alone one genre of music.

In honing her thesis that grunge didn’t change the status quo, Strong could use some help from the status quo. If things are as they were, then grunge didn’t change much. There’s more argument to be made here on grunge’s behalf than she allows. A glaring example occurs when Strong writes, after outlining the supposedly ephemeral social and economic problems faced by Generation X, that “the terrible future predicted for Generation X has not come to pass as they have moved into their thirties and forties; rather, they have taken up positions in the existing social structure just as their parents did, albeit with some minor changes”.

One minor change, I suppose, includes being the first generation in modern history that will not be economically better off than the one preceding it after the popping of the Internet bubble and the 2008 economic catastrophe. And yet some of the ideological characteristics in grunge seem to persist in the Ye Olde Generation X: a resistance to corporatism, including the music business; a commitment to politics, especially those emphasizing equality; an embrace of diversity. While there’s some data to back this up, admittedly I may be relying on anecdotal evidence from the community I live in. Still, it seems more agreeable to state that the same subculture which followed grunge continues to live by its beliefs, affecting society-at-large though, okay, more subtly than total anarchic overthrow.

How much to make of these respondents? How much weight to put on one magazine from the UK? This well-crafted study suggests quite a bit, but proves little except that our perceptions of music are entirely contextual. But you probably already knew that.