Grunge Subculture Essay

Borgman, D. (1993). "Grunge subculture." S. Hamilton, MA: Center for Youth Studies.

OVERVIEW

From music to general style, grunge culture or the grunge movement, was a primary pop cultural movement in 1992:

 

 

The music preceded the wheat grass and large glasses of espresso and milk, the laid back, good-coffee cafes, and easy-going sloppy clothes (ripped jeans, long johns, and long greasy hair). "In the past six years, Seattle has gone from a small but vibrant music scene to a rock mecca recently profiled by Time, Entertainment Weekly and USA Today." (Grunge city. [1992, April 16]. Rolling Stone.) The music scene in Seattle probably peaked in 1989; its fame spread nationally and abroad thereafter.

 

 

The Seattle sound first began to be noticed nationally in the late 1980s through bands featured on Seattle’s Sub Pop label. Bands that reflect the grunge sound include Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Alice in Chains, Soundgarden, and Blood Circus.

Other bands have migrated to Seattle. The Supersuckers drifted in from Arizona at the end of the 1980s saying, "There was no work in Tucson. So you move where there’s work...We’re like a construction worker looking for a union."

According to Rolling Stone magazine, "The Supersuckers favor hyperthyroid tempos, scuzzy guitars and titles like ‘I Say F---’ and ‘Retarded Bill.’ Having released four 45s on as many labels, they’ll release an album on Sub Pop, the seminal Seattle label, this summer." (1992, April 16, p. 44)

"Smells Like Teen Spirit" put Nirvana at the top of the pop charts. This is a common path for alternative and punk musicians. They start out decrying the system and doing it their own way. Ultimately, their countercultural rebellion may become so popular as to become in and part of mainline popular culture. To the criticisms of teenagers who complained of Nirvana’s selling out for success (in letters to Rolling Stone), Kurt Cobain responded:

 

 

The 25 year-old guitarist and singer, Cobain, apparently grew up as a happy kid. Divorce changed that, as it has for many American children. Then, he went through high school in a small working-class town where the heavy-metal drinkers called this non-athletic nerd a faggot.

 

 

Cobain’s anger toward working class culture combines with his disgust of business-class Republican conservatism. This philosophy comprises much of grunge music. So music is born, and so fads and subcultures develop.

(Editor’s note: Kurt Cobain died of a drug overdose in April, 1994.)

Not everyone in any particular age group, of course, is jumping on to grunge. Across the continent from Seattle, grunge became prominent in cities like Boston and New York. Two East Coast writers from the "Boomlet Generation" wrote this interesting commentary:

 

 

Certainly somewhere there are 24-32 year-olds who are into grunge and many younger who are not. But from the late 1980s into the early 1990s something significant did come out of Seattle. Its essence seemed to be a loud insistence on unconventional emotional honesty.

Even by the January 21, 1993 issue of Rolling Stone, it was questioned whether Nirvana’s album, "Incesticide" was just a failure or an omen of a group’s (and even a genre’s) demise. They entitled an article on Nirvana and Blood Circus: "The Remains of Grunge."

QUESTIONS FOR REFLECTION AND DISCUSSION

  1. What (and when) have you heard and noticed of grunge? What did you like or dislike about it? What reactions do you have to this article?
  2. What is the significance of grunge and what may it turn into culturally?
  3. What kind of teenagers might be into this music and culture? How might they want to be treated? How would you approach them?

IMPLICATIONS

  1. Grunge can be seen as both a genre of music and a style of life. A style may become a subculture when it binds a significant part of a population in a lifestyle distinct from the mainstream.
  2. Grunge, with many other musical styles, expresses many criticisms and frustrations of American culture and its contemporaries. One becomes sensitive to those complaints as one ponders their musical expressions.
  3. Parents of adolescents into grunge need to determine how deeply engaged their sons and daughters are. It may be a passing fad, or it could be a deeper expression of disengagement from the society.
  4. Teachers, counselors, and youth leaders will be more effective when they properly read this expression of freedom and reaction. The music of these artists can be used as springboards for discussion and speeches.

Dean Borgman cCYS



I’d rather be dead than cool.” – Kurt Cobain.

Lately I’ve been thinking about the music I used to listen to as a teenager in the 1990s. It can sometimes be a sombre practice to think about the version of you that once was. What a chubby-cheeked, rock music-obsessed little punk ass I used to be (although my friends and I didn’t listen to much ‘Punk‘ per se, but rather one of its most impactful offspring, Grunge).

The Wikipedia article on ‘Grunge’ confounds it and the ‘Seattle Sound’, and claims that only a handful of bands (Nirvana, Alice In Chains, Pearl Jam & company), almost all of which are from Seattle, are defined as ‘Grunge.’ Now, I may have been just a little shrimp-terd back then, but things never seemed this way to me at the time. Grunge seemed to be more like an attitude or a philosophy, and it was gaining steam by piggy-backing on the rising popularity of ‘Alternative’ Rock.

Most bands that made their bones from 1987 to 1994 (as ‘College Rock’ exploded into the mainstream) could probably be considered, at least in part, contributors to the ‘Grunge Movement’.

Throughout the 1980s Sonic Youth (left) & R.E.M (middle) were responsible for gradually ushering in the sound of Alternative rock. The Tragically Hip (right) had a similar impact in Canada.

The Grunge “Movement”? You’re Kidding Right?

No way. I’m serious. And I’m not a snot-nosed teenage runt anymore, so I think I’ve earned the right to voice my opinions on the subject of modern subcultures. Here’s what I’m getting at:

Back in the 50s the Beats came to prominence, touting the ideals of a liberal lifestyle. Some kids took these ideas to heart, and as they grew up they became more and more immersed in these ideals. They expanded them and ushered in an era of social change greater than anything the world had ever seen. You’ve heard of Hippies, right?

The image of a rock musician in 1969 was colorful, idealistic, grungy, hairy, carefree, breezy, psychedelic, wild, philosophical, and they seemed rooted only by a belief in social change and unconditional love.

Seattle-born guitarist Jimi Hendrix electrified the vibes of the Love Generation. The album cover of ‘Axis: Bold Of Love‘ (rel. 1967) radiates psychedelia.

What happened to rock music in the 70s and 80s was a stripping down of the various elements of this new creative culture. Sometimes a style was carried forward without including the core beliefs that were associated with its inception. A simple example of this is how ‘Glam rock’, after sprouting out of ‘Psychedelic Rock’, evolved into ‘Hair Metal’. I’m not trying to knock Hair Metal here, I’ll save that for another article. This example was simply meant to illustrate the point that while Hair Metal has stylistic and sonic links pointing back to significant cultural movements, it’s not actually a big part of any social movement—, not like Grunge was.

David Bowie (left) is an artist who also holds a timeless reputation as a cultural revolutionary. Motley Crue (right) well, not so much.

We don’t give a shit. That’s grunge’s amendment to the Beat Constitution. The Beats were about living cheap, being free, and the realization that you could be an intellectual and a vagabond at the same time. The Hippies were about opening new doors, and unconditional love for your fellow human. Punks brought decades-old existentialist ideas into the mainstream and posed the question: “Perhaps nothing fucking matters?”

Finally, the Grunge Generation, completely enamoured after devouring everything that came before, chose Kurt Cobain & company to collectively spit out a newer message: Everything the man is telling you is a total pile of crap. The world can be different, it can be as we design it. We can live in peace. Fuck capitalism. I’m gonna live in a hut, and wear cheap clothes, and dream all day about how incredible things could be if we neglected to keep fattening up the powers that be, and focused on our ideas and our dreams.

Grunge ideals are sparse, but that’s kinda the point. Angst is as prominent as it was with Punk. However their picture of the universe is that of an open door. We’re being offered a chance to soar above hypocrisy if we cling to that same love that was so fundamentally important to the Love Generation. Essentially, what this movement did for us was unify many counter-cultural ideals under one flag. Grunge may be so out, but I couldn’t give less of a good God-damn. I’ll be Grunge forever.

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