Out: 10 years after Cobain, can grunge speak to spirit of a generation?
April 8, 2004 | By Gemma Tarlach
Ten years ago Monday, a shotgun blast in Seattle rang out through the music world.
Kurt Cobain was dead.
The suicide of the Nirvana frontman was more than just an individual tragedy. Cobain’s death heralded the end of the grunge movement.
Cobain and other grunge icons may be gone, but debate about what, if anything, their music meant lives on.
In its simplest definition, grunge was a hard rock genre that came out of the Pacific Northwest in the late ‘80s and peaked commercially in the early ‘90s with the global success primarily of Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Alice in Chains and Soundgarden.
But some armchair analysts say grunge was much more. They see it as the first time members of Generation X made themselves heard, on their own terms and in their own voice.
Critics of that theory—most of them from the very generation grunge allegedly represents—disagree, claiming that grunge has been miscast as the soundtrack for a generation by a baby boomer-dominated media eager to pull the flannel over their eyes.
“Grunge spoke broadly to Generation X; no one can deny that. It was the first authentic Generation-X-produced and consumed music,” said William Strauss, co-author of a number of books on generations, including the GenX analysis “13th Generation: Abort, Retry, Ignore, Fail?” (Vintage, 1993).
But not every Gen Xer—defined by Strauss and co-author Neil Howe as anyone born between 1961 and 1981, though others place the starting marker at 1964—was a fan of grunge. The late Tupac Shakur, for example, was as influential an artist, and as tragic an example of squandered talent, as Cobain—and many Gen Xers identify more with Shakur’s rap than with Cobain’s grunge.
Even some fans of grunge are quick to take issue with the idea that the genre in any way represents a 20-year span of Americans.
“Cultural generations only last four years…(and) I’d question the assertion that when people were buying grunge records they were thinking, ‘I like this because it reflects my reality,’” said Chuck Klosterman, author and senior writer for Spin.
Grunge’s marriage to Generation X may have been one of convenience by a media trying to make sense of both the music and the people listening to it.
Klosterman was a college student in 1991 when Nirvana released “Nevermind,” widely considered to be the quintessential grunge album. He recalls the stir it caused.
“Newsweek or a daily newspaper or some other very conventional form of media said that fans related to the bands because they wore flannel shirts.…I realized as I read it, that was the first time I’d thought about what the bands wore,” Klosterman said.
“The Internet was just beginning to happen, there was a glut of magazines, and cable TV had expanded. All these outlets led to grunge being the first genre of music to be analyzed in the present tense, as it was happening, which led to every element of grunge being reverse-engineered (by the media),” he added.
According to Strauss, however, grunge was a landmark event, part of a cycle that every generation experiences.
“Each generation has a three-decade footprint on popular culture,” Strauss said. “First, as consumers of elder-produced culture. Then, in the second decade, as producers of popular culture for itself. And finally, as creators of popular culture for the generations that follow it.
“In the ‘80s, Gen X was consuming boomer-made culture—Madonna, Michael Jackson and MTV, which was a boomer creation. In the ‘90s, Generation X was making music for itself.”
Sean Elliott, program director for grunge-heavy WLZR-FM in Milwaukee, puts it more succinctly:
“Kids in the country were looking for something new, and the first time we heard ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit,’ it was like nothing we’d heard before,” Elliott said.
Not all grunge bands sounded alike. Nirvana’s ragged stop-start dynamics leaned more toward punk than the activist-oriented roots-rock of Pearl Jam or the sinister vocal harmonies of Alice in Chains, for example.
But the bands were united in their thematic opposition to then-chart toppers such as Bon Jovi and Def Leppard. Instead of declarations of love and lust, grunge bands often sang about heroin, alienation and death.
“In a sense, grunge had an aesthetic distinction more than a musical one,” said Spin’s Klosterman.
It’s telling that what you think of grunge largely depends on your age.
For many boomers, defined by Strauss and Howe as people born between 1943 and 1960, grunge is a lot of sound and fury signifying nothing in the end.
“Grunge was about feeling sorry for yourself, not working, slacking.…I don’t think it’s a music that looks for deep thought: ‘Why ask why?’ ‘Just say no.’ ‘Just do it,’” said Strauss, who was born in 1947.
WLZR’s Elliott, who, at 33, is smack in the middle of Generation X, disagrees.
“Grunge was such a monumental movement.…Grunge was music with real emotion, and it caught on,” he said.
“We really didn’t hear a lot of angst rock before grunge. It was all ‘talk dirty to me,’ you know? Grunge was emotional. It was angry,” Elliott added.
The anger expressed in grunge—and its mainstream success, particularly among record buyers in the Gen X demographic—led many pop culture analysts to believe the music represented the masses listening to it on some deeper level.
Generation X grew up in the shadow of the boomers, but also at a time when negativity dominated their formative experiences, said Strauss. Soaring divorce and crime rates, economic woes, the emerging AIDS epidemic and a still-frosty cold war contributed to an underlying angst.
A Cinderella and her stepsisters relationship between Gen X and the larger baby boomer generation added to the tension.
“All through the ‘80s, Gen Xers were constantly told how stupid they were, how their parents had failed them and how the schools had failed them,” Strauss said.
When baby boomers began having children of their own—Strauss and Howe call them the Millennial generation, beginning in 1982—attitudes about children changed.
Gen Xers grew up during an era when “demon child” movies such as “The Omen” and “Rosemary’s Baby” were popular, according to Strauss, while the Millennials’ childhood was one of coddling and ubiquitous “Baby on board” signs.
Much of the difference in how succeeding generations were perceived—“Rosemary’s Baby” vs. “Baby on board”—stems from the dominance of the baby boomer generation not only in size but also in its tendency to throw its weight around when it comes to making pop culture pronouncements.
“The boomers have a cultural purpose. They ride astride the culture and don’t let go of it easily,” Strauss said.
The 800-pound gorilla influence of the baby boomers may have led not only to grunge being cast as the soundtrack for Generation X, but also to some critics’ dismissal of the genre as inconsequential, because it failed to produce a single act with the long, commercially successful career of an Aerosmith or a Rolling Stones.
Following Cobain’s suicide, Nirvana dissolved. Soundgarden called it quits in 1997.
Alice in Chains imploded as frontman Layne Staley waged a losing battle against heroin addiction, finally overdosing on April 5, 2002—eight years to the day of Cobain’s suicide.
Pearl Jam continues to tour and release albums, though its sales and critical reception have been sliding since the mid-’90s. Its fan base has sharply eroded.
Less commercially successful but still musically influential acts such as Mudhoney never made it onto pop music’s A-list, and most have petered out into obscurity.
“Kurt’s suicide was the beginning of the end. The day Soundgarden announced they were breaking up was the death of grunge,” said WLZR’s Elliott.
By its very nature, however, the cathartic intensity of grunge wasn’t compatible with long-term rock stardom.
“Mick Jagger never met a stage he didn’t want to jump up and down on. These guys weren’t that way,” Elliott said.
Spin’s Klosterman agreed, arguing that looking for the grunge equivalent of the Rolling Stones is missing the point.
“If the core aesthetic of your band and your genre is that you hate rock stars and don’t want the trappings of the Rolling Stones, you can’t have a long career without losing your credibility entirely,” Klosterman said. “If Pearl Jam did the things they needed to do to be like the Rolling Stones, they wouldn’t be Pearl Jam.”
The musical elements of grunge, such as down-tuned guitars and its lyrical preoccupation with the darker side of life, have had lasting impact on younger musicians, however.
“Grunge to me is the most important style of music in the last 20 or 30 years,” Elliott said. “Post-grunge, everything’s different.”
“There wouldn’t be a Seether or a Silverchair or a Candlebox without Nirvana.…Those bands wouldn’t have gotten a chance to be signed—or even been inspired to become musicians—without grunge. We’re still seeing the residual effects now with bands like Three Days Grace.”
Another legacy of grunge has been one of cruel irony, however.
The very word “grunge” remains a catchphrase for the Gen X stereotype of the slacker: a jobless, ambitionless, often drug-addled caricature that has little grounding in reality but remains a popular put-down in some circles.
“It’s a useful focal point for boomers to argue family values,” Strauss said.
The truth at odds with that stereotype is that while Cobain and grunge itself were on a path to self-destruction, their fans were making some of the most important advances in technology, business and other fields.
“Generation X went through this period where they were criticized constantly but went on to become the greatest generation of job creators and entrepreneurs,” Strauss said.
Since entering the work force in the early ‘90s, for example, Gen Xers have made their mark innovating and exploiting new technologies, from video game advances to Web-based file-sharing, legal and otherwise.
Grunge may still, in pop culture parlance, be cheap shorthand for slackers and shiftless sorts. But calling grunge the music of Generation X is no more accurate than claiming every baby boomer rolled in the mud at Woodstock.
Instead, grunge was simply a cultural snapshot, capturing a time and place when pop music changed course.
Said Elliott: “Will grunge ever be less relevant? Probably so, but it’s the last important music revolution that we’ve seen at this point.”