For those of you who do not know, grunge was a distinctive sound born out of the cold desolate scene of Seattle in the early 1990s. Its heavy reliance on sludgy power chords, a generous amount of guitar distortion, skull rattling drums and melancholic lyrics was a sharp diversion from the pop-heavy 80s power ballads that defined the previous decade. The rawness of grunge is often expressed in our collective memory as an aesthetic of plaid shirts, worn down jeans and teenage angst. While it’s uncertain how much of grunge can be defined by such a narrow pop culture, one thing is clear from a listen — that era of music’s freshness is as relevant as ever before. While we have long passed the days of Nirvana, Pearl Jam and Soundgarden, problems such as mental health and sexual assault still permeate today. A misconception of all the buzz surrounding the grunge label in the early 90’s was that due to the heavy guitars and drum beat, grunge was no different than the ultra-masculinized heavy metal that preceded it. This couldn’t be farther from the truth. Grunge focused specifically on critiquing existing social evils to make way for a newer and more progressive social order.
Nirvana’s song “Rape Me” is, Corbain claims, characteristic of Nirvana’s ironic critique of patriarchal norms, and was intended as an anti-sexual assault battle cry. Growing up with a single mother in a troubled neighborhood, Cobain saw firsthand the pressures put on women. In a 1993 interview, Cobain explained, “I couldn’t find any friends (at school), male friends that I felt compatible with, I ended up hanging out with the girls a lot. I just always felt that they weren’t treated with respect. Especially because women are totally oppressed.” The Nirvana song “Polly” follows the disturbing perspective of a serial rapist, based on a 1987 incident with Tacoma resident Gerald Friend offered a 14 year old girl a ride home from a concert. In the CD for Nirvana’s “Incesticide,” released shortly after “Polly,” Kurt spelled out his frustration of his newfound misogynistic audience, saying “At this point I have a request for our fans. If any of you in any way hate homosexuals, people of different color, or women, please do this one favor for us — leave us the fuck alone! Don’t come to our shows and don’t buy our records.” While grunge itself may have died out, grunge influenced popular music by centering the empowerment of women and women’s issues. As The Daily Beast wrote, “Women now dominate mainstream pop in a way they didn’t in the ’90s, resulting in megastar acts like Lady Gaga and Amy Winehouse, who are (or could have been) the brains as well as the face of their operations. In many ways, this normalization of feminism in rock represents the most lasting impact of the great alternative rock revolution…”
To understand grunge’s critical attitude, we must look at where grunge comes from — punk. Punk has its roots as the protest music of the late 1970s. Mobilized by a declining economy, rising crime and urban decay, a new conservative movement criticized the boisterous youth culture of the previous decade. Young rockers fought back with a music that was faster, louder and more cynical than any of the hippy counterculture anthems from before. Simple chord progressions and driving percussion put a greater focus on the wailing political rants of the lead singer. Punk attacked social inequality and a government that was unwilling to help. Since then, economic strife has only increased. Seattle, where grunge originated, was yet another hotbed for this political tension. In the late 1960s, Seattle’s main employer, Boeing, went bankrupt, causing massive layoffs. A generation of teens felt abandoned and neglected. Cast off by their parents as no good slackers, they looked inward to attack the system that hurt them.
Due to this tension, many grunge songs are actually seething attacks on inequalities we still face today. While there is a tendency to pass off songs with names such as “Fell on Black Days” as overly dramatic, addressing issues such as mental health and suicide was groundbreaking in the early 1990s. In the widely played song “Jeremy” by Pearl Jam, Eddie Vedder’s lyrics tell the story of a high schooler from Richardson, Texas, who committed suicide in front of his English class. The song follows a bully’s account of how their victim, Jeremy, spiraled out of control due to the trauma they inflicted. “Clearly I remember/ Pickin’ on the boy/Seemed a harmless little fuck/Oh, but we unleashed the lion/ Gnashed his teeth/ And bit the recess lady’s breast.” Famously, many grunge artists had serious mental health problems as a result of the pressures of their unexpected stardom, which may have influenced their discussion of mental health issues in their music. Their honesty on that topic was radically different from the narratives of fame that preceded them and something which we are only just beginning to rediscover in the actions of well-known athletes and celebrities and recent pressure to prioritize mental health.
Despite the stereotyped image of grunge musicians as angsty teens, the music grunge bands produced and the ideas behind them were nothing short of revolutionary. In an era where music was shaped around getting wealth, sex or prestige, grunge bands shifted the focus of music back to the real issues of class and gender, issues we still struggle to grapple with today. Moreover, such artists refused to let the system of fame and selling out get to them. This mentality of musical independence is more relevant than ever in our overly corporatized society. Today, problems are relevant so long as they are viral and leaders govern so long as it is profitable — the type of world so many grunge artists railed against. It is those same forces that dismiss grunge music as overly cynical, overly played and overly outdated, which explain why that line of music should be revived today. To those whose interest I have piqued with this piece, I highly recommend listening to the aforementioned bands Nirvana, Pearl Jam and Soundgarden. I also recommend less known bands such as X, Marcy Playground, L7, Silverchair and Hole, who do a good job of continuing the legacy of defiance away from the media circus.
Peter Levy is an undeclared sophomore.