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Focus Study: Grunge

Bernie Howitt - Narara Valley High School

Outcomes
Focus
The creation of Grunge
The origins of Grunge
The impact of the environment upon Grunge
Sub-pop and Grunge goes national
“Nevermind” changes the world
Activities
The consumption of Grunge
National heroes-national product
The control of Grunge
Who held power? Did they have authority?
Different perceptions of Grunge
The contribution of Grunge to social change
Popular culture - the future
Conclusion
Activities
More

Outcomes

H3 accounts for cultural diversity and commonality within societies and cultures ( who accepts Grunge? Who rejects Grunge?)

H4 evaluates continuity and change, and assess social futures and strategies for change and the implications for societies and cultures (you need to consider issues of continuity and change to be able to properly assess the future of Grunge)

H5 evaluates the influence of power, authority, gender and technology on decision making and participation in society (this relates particularly to issues of control of popular culture)

H7 applies appropriate language and concepts associated with society and culture (which you should do every time you write or think about the subject)

Focus

The way in which individuals interconnect with the popular culture of Grunge (a music genre).

The syllabus states that the focus of the Popular Culture Depth Study is “the interconnection between the individual and popular culture”. In other words, it is asking for students to understand not only the nature of popular culture, but also the way they personally interact with it. Developing that idea further, by completing this Depth Study, students should be able to observe, recognise and comment upon the interaction of other individuals, with their own particular preferences in popular culture.

The syllabus also requires a specific focus study to examine a particular popular culture in depth.

Through an examination of this focus study, students should become aware of the specific knowledge required under the five syllabus headings. This article looks at Grunge, a music genre, as an example of a focus study examined through the five headings used in the syllabus for Popular Culture. Obviously this is merely an approach which can be applied to whichever focus study you are studying. The important thing in terms of examination preparation is that whatever focus study you are preparing, you can apply it to all five aspects of the syllabus, because that is what examination questions will concentrate on.

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The creation of Grunge

You should always make sure that your focus study is linked to your understanding of the nature of popular culture. You must be able to show how and why your focus study links to the four distinguishing characteristics of popular culture given in the syllabus. You must have clear examples of how your focus study fits each of those characteristics. This will enable you to show an examiner that you understand the nature of popular culture by explaining why your focus study is popular culture.

In the case of Grunge, it means being able to explain:

  1. how commercial products are associated with Grunge. Examples could range from vinyl records and CDs, through to posters, videos and clothing designed to enable you to look Grunge
  2. the way in which Grunge developed from local (Seattle) to national (United States) to global (certainly most of the Western world) popularity
  3. the nature of the access consumers had to Grunge. This could be as simple as turning on the radio or TV, or as immediate as seeing one of the bands play live
  4. the way in which Grunge evolved from a fairly primitive style of music, being bashed out in Seattle garages, to the widespread mainstream success of bands like Pearl Jam and Soundgarden, with extensive recording budgets and contracts.

The origins of Grunge

It has been well documented that the subculture known as Grunge started in Seattle. To most teenagers it started when Nirvana released "Nevermind" in September, 1991. That single record release was undoubtedly the key event in moving Grunge from subculture to popular culture. To study Grunge as a focus study of popular culture though, requires a bit more historical perspective. As Spin magazine proclaimed in December, 1992, "Seattlehellip;it's currently to the rock world what Bethlehem was to Christianity".

Seattle in the north-western United States is rightly regarded as the launching pad of Grunge, but why? The journey from the local scene in Seattle in the mid 80s, through Nirvana's national number one with “Nevermind” in 1991, to the global success of Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Soundgarden and others, is a classic example of the emergence and subsequent exploitation of popular culture.

According to those who were there, Seattle in the early 80s was a fairly isolated place culturally. Major bands often didn't bother adding Seattle to their west-coast American tours, and the live scene was awash with derivative bands doing their best to sound like someone else. It wasn't an environment that seemed immediately conducive to an explosion of original musical vitality. Yet environment seems to be a key concept in explaining the 1985-95 decade.

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The impact of the environment upon Grunge

The physical environment is one of great beauty, with trees and water in abundance. It has consistently been voted the most liveable city in America, for what its worth. It does, however, rain a lot, an awful lot. As a result, in the words of pioneering local record producer Jack Endino, "when the weather's crappy you don't feel like going outside, you go into a basement and make a lot of noise to take out your frustration”. The psychological environment is also important. Seattle is the major city of Washington State, the furthermost corner of the contiguous United States, the last stop before Canada or the Pacific Ocean. For many Americans it is the symbolic end of the line in the journey of westward expansion that is so integral to the way Americans perceive themselves. Art Chantry, graphic designer who was a key figure in the early Grunge scene pointed out in Hype, "the north west is weird. It's the flying saucer capital of the US, serial killer capital of the US, the Manson family used to vacation here." From this environment emerged a music scene of real vitality.

It's easy to see the musical ancestry of British punk in the Seattle music of the mid-eighties. It was a style that had never been popular in mainstream America, but had obviously found a niche in the youth of the isolated north-west. Bands formed, playing gigs they arranged themselves, to an audience that Kim Thayil of Soundgarden pointed out, was "usually just other bands". It was a friendly, incestuous scene powered by an ever-changing collection of bands playing for the main reason, fun. Music became the escape from an America dominated by the socially barren policies of Ronald Reagan. It's the classic local scene, thriving completely independently of any corporate power structure.

Local photographer Charles Petersen, who chronicled the emerging scene with his camera summed it up best in Hype, "we were all so fhellip;hellip; bored out of our heads it was get drunk, fall down and throw your body around. And all the bands that came through Seattle at that time said Seattle had the most exciting live scene, and they loved to play here, because the audience would get drunk and go nuts".

It was this excitement that was the pinnacle of the local element of Grunge's emergence as mainstream popular culture. Along with the excitement of a self-produced local live scene came the local entrepreneurs. Small, independent record companies sprung up sealing deals with friends on a handshake to produce a vinyl record of the six months they may have been together. Fanzines were the other great explosion of sub-cultural access, as those who couldn't play in bands showed their allegiance to their chosen favourites by producing cheap, enthusiastic magazines that helped glue the scene together.

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Sub-pop and Grunge goes national

The first step towards a national level of success came with the emergence of Jonathan Poneman and Bruce Pavit, who founded their own label Sub-pop. Unlike their contemporaries in Seattle, they had a grander vision that spread beyond the northwest. They were unashamed admirers of the 60s Motown approach to having a hit factory that controlled the recording process through recording and distribution. After starting with the simple desire to get Soundgarden onto vinyl, they soon proved themselves masters of self promotion.

In November 1988 came one of their masterstrokes. They established a "Sub-pop Singles Club" producing strictly limited editions of singles from local bands, released monthly. It started with 1,000 copies, of the then totally unknown, Nirvana's "Love Buzz/Big Cheese". It stimulated an artificial demand by creating an aura of desirability because the releases were so limited. As other local bands like Green River, Mudhoney, Tad and Soundgarden found themselves on Sub-pop singles, the idea of a Seattle sound clearly emerged as an ideal marketing tool.

The key event in Sub-pop's elevation from the Seattle scene to national and global recognition came in 1989 when British journalist Andy Catlin was brought over to Seattle. Poneman and Pavit took him to a Mudhoney show, introduced him around and loaded him up with Sub-pop singles. The result was a major story in Britain's influential Melody Maker on March 11, 1989, headed "Seattle, Rock City". The emergence of a Grunge popular culture was now underway as Americans clamoured to know what was happening in this remote outpost of their own country.

Art Chantry described the next few months as "an explosion of subculture", while local journalist Dawn Anderson saw everything "suddenly buzzing with activity". Many locals felt it was a short-term fixation fuelled by the national media, and Anderson remembered, "about 1990 we thought good, it's over". Even Sub-pop were falling on hard times, with Poneman and Pavit creating a now legendary T-shirt in 1991, which proclaimed "WHICH PART OF 'WE HAVE NO MONEY' DON'T YOU UNDERSTAND?"

“Nevermind” changes the world

Then in September 1991 they released Nirvana's second album, "Nevermind". Nirvana was still a small scale local act, mainly recognised for emerging from the mind numbingly boring small red-necked logging town of Aberdeen. Local record promoter Susie Tennant remembered, "the record came out in the fall. The video, I remember when I first saw it I thought this is so cool, but there's no way MTV will play this, and when they started going with it, it reached millions of kids instantly".

The song MTV had placed on high rotation was "Smells Like Teen Spirit". It became the anthem of a generation, and gave the mainstream media a focus point to categorise that generation. Kurt Cobain suddenly found himself not only the financial saviour of Sub-pop, but more disturbingly for one who's psyche was so fragile, the “spokesman of a generation”. As he said in his last major interview (US Rolling Stone issue 674, Jan 27, 1994), "Everyone has focused on that song so much. The reason it gets a big reaction is people have seen it on MTV a million times. It's been pounded into their brains." Thus in the rock world of the 1990s, the key to national and global success was high rotation on MTV. In the age of satellite TV that was enough to guarantee a global profile. "Nevermind" knocked Michael Jackson's "Dangerous" off the top of the American album charts, Nirvana toured Australia as part of the Big Day Out, and Grunge was now a global popular culture. The merciless exploitation was about thirty seconds behind. As Eddie Vedder of Pearl Jam explained, "when commerce is involved, everything changes".

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Activities

  1. Outline how, when and where Grunge developed.
  2. How did Grunge turn from a local phenomena into an internationally recognised ‘subculture’?
  3. Discussion: Is Grunge still a viable, developing and commercialised form of Pop Culture in the new millennium?
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The consumption of Grunge

Once Nirvana arrived on the global scene, teenagers everywhere became the potential consumers for the explosion that followed. The Seattle bands were proud of their ordinariness. Van Conner from Screaming Trees summed up the attitude of the Seattle bands to their image better than anyone in Hype, "We were the guys in high school who got beat up-we couldn't even get to talk to the pretty girl-we're nerds god damn it!".

It was an image millions of teenagers could identify with. "Smells Like Teen Spirit" with its "Here we are now, entertain us" became described as "the slacker's anthem". It was the time of George Bush and over a decade of conservative Republican administrations in the US. In Britain youth had suffered under the "profits before people" social policies of Margaret Thatcher, and in Australia young people hadn't really rated under a Hawke government that had cosied up to entrepreneurs like Skase and Bond. Once mainstream America cottoned on to Grunge, the market for consumer exploitation just opened up. Conrad Uno, owner of PopLlama Records, summed up what was going on in Hype.

"Rolling Stone called, they were doing a fashion spread on what the indies were wearing. I said I wasn't what they wanted, but I had a fellow here, Scott McCoy from Young Fresh Fellows, who was just what they were looking for. They came and interviewed Scott briefly, and then got out these clothes and made him put them on hellip;.They got him to take off his flannel shirt and wear their flannel shirt. The caption below said 'flannel shirt: $85”.

When muzak versions of "Smells Like Teen Spirit" started appearing as background in shopping malls and lifts, the corporatisation of Grunge popular culture was complete. Vanity Fair magazine did a Grunge fashion spread, and it appeared on the runway of 7th Avenue New York fashion shows. Chain stores advertised Grunge wear for children and grown-ups. The consumers had moved on from being simply the kids who related to the music to those who simply wanted to be with it.

At the local level, interaction with the Grunge scene was limited to gigs in local halls and clubs, record releases on small, local labels, and the production and consumption of fanzines. There were plenty of opportunities in Seattle and nearby cities such as Tacoma and Olympia, but as Kurt Cobain's life in Aberdeen showed, by the time you were that far out, individuals started to feel pretty isolated from the excitement of the Seattle scene.

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tional heroes-national produc

As Grunge emerged as a legitimate popular culture, complete with heroes, paraphernalia and a mythology created by those in Seattle for consumption by the mass media, interaction came much easier. As stated earlier, Grunge fashion turned up everywhere from fashionable New York catwalks to the humble K-Mart or Target store. Pearl Jam and Soundgarden joined Nirvana as major league chart successes, and Kurt Cobain and Eddie Vedder started appearing on T-shirts. Geffen Records brought Nirvana's contract off Sub-pop, Alice in Chains ended up with Columbia and Pearl Jam signed with Epic. There was a feeding frenzy as the major labels descended upon Seattle looking for the next Nirvana.

Major labels meant international promotion, and in the MTV age, the Seattle sound and associated cultural attachments soon became an international phenomenon. For Australian kids, JJJ, now a national youth network, and Rage, another national show, enabled you to see and hear what all the fuss overseas was about. Whether you lived in Gosford, Grafton or Geelong, you knew how you were supposed to look and act. It became increasingly easy to consume a Grunge lifestyle.

The control of Grunge

You could probably argue that once Sub-pop emerged on the Seattle recording scene with their vision of international success, and a willingness to hype their label shamelessly, control of Grunge as a popular culture had begun. Until then, it had been a purely local scene. Small labels like PopLlama, Estrus and K Records were there for local bands. In Jack Endino's words, "nobody was too worried about success, because this was Seattle, not LA, nobody was going to come up here and sign us".

Once mainstream success was achieved, control of Grunge was gone from local hands. National magazines like Rolling Stone, Cream and Circus, and international magazines like Q in Britain and Juice in Australia championed the new sound. The major successes like Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Alice in Chains and Soundgarden were in demand around the world, and it was no longer possible to see them on a Wednesday night thrashing it out in a small hall in Seattle.

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Who held power? Did they have authority?

Of course, in the America Reagan and Bush had tried to create, any movement that allowed youth a voice and identity of their own, was to be mistrusted. Conservative pressure groups such as the Parent Music Resource Centre (PMRC) and national Parent-Teacher Association (PTA) condemned the new music. As they became established as recognised authorities in the area of moral correctness, they looked for more and more opportunities to assert their power. They could be secure in publicising their opinions, knowing that political power lay in the hands of genuine conservatives such as Reagan, Bush and House speaker Newt Gringrich.

They need not have worried, as the commercialisation of Grunge exhibited a control all of its own. In Hype, Kim Thayil of Soundgarden makes the point that, "that's what makes pop culture so significant to all the little consumers out there-they have no interest in history or economics-they're interested more in gossip and the nature of celebrity". As Kurt Cobain found out, Grunge became trivialised, as it became popular culture. The mass media hounded Cobain and Courtney Love, trying to work out just what sort of baby they could possibly raise. The media assassination of Cobain and Love as they became parents showed where the control of Grunge now lay. Not in the music, but the perceived celebrity status of its purveyors.

Different perceptions of Grunge

Once "Nevermind" topped the charts and opened up the commercial floodgates, perceptions of Grunge varied widely. To those who had grown up with it in Seattle, it was something that had once been special. For a generation of teenagers worldwide, it was a voice of recognition. Massive international sales figures can never be explained away purely in terms of hype. Cobain and Vedder in particular, mean a lot to many, many people. They certainly never sought recognition as spokespeople for a generation, but the fact remains that many young people recognise something of themselves in the lyrics of Nirvana and Pearl Jam.

The reaction to Kurt Cobain's death reveals differing generational perceptions of Grunge. For many of the older journalists covering the story, Cobain was simply the latest in an illustrious line that included Jimi Hendrix (also a Seattle native), Jim Morrison and Janis Joplin. It was a view that gave no integrity to Cobain's life, music or career. Kathy Bail discusses this issue very clearly in an article called "Boomer Fogeys" in The Independent Monthly, November 1994, p38-9.

Grunge also showed how easily perceptions could be created. Hype documents the way the members of the Seattle scene just made things up as they were bombarded by the mainstream media. The classic example was when the New York Times rang Sub-pop to get some inside scoop on Grunge. Employee Megan Jasper just started creating a whole series of words that were allegedly the Grunge translation of common terms. It was a total fabrication, yet was given national prominence in a highly respected and prestigious national paper.

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The contribution of Grunge to social change

Has Grunge changed the world? Even if it has helped its followers make sense of themselves and their world, it has contributed to social change. Eddie Vedder stated in Hype that "it would be a tragedy if the Seattle scene gets to the top and doesn't do anything with it". So how much have the Seattle musicians been able to contribute to social change?

Certainly Vedder and Pearl Jam have done their best to live up to their ideals. Their long standing battle with the ticket selling monopolies in the United States has endeavoured to create a genuine alternative way of promoting and presenting music to its fans. Pearl Jam's last Australian tour was characterised by ticket prices around a third that of other major acts like U2, Madonna and Michael Jackson.

Kurt Cobain's very public rejection of the Axl Rose school of rock manipulation and machismo also did a lot to enlighten his audience. Never comfortable with the trappings of success, Cobain did an enormous amount to challenge male rock stereotypes. As Phil Sutcliffe wrote in Q Magazine No 93, June 1994 (P 74), "although party politics didn't engage him, sexual politics did. In interviews and song lyrics, he espoused feminism and opposed homophobia." Cobain's relatively brief musical legacy is summed up by David Fricke in Rolling Stone No 683, June 1994 (Australian edition), "Never mind all that standard issue babble about Generation X. There was nothing blank about the way Cobain articulated his broken dreams and wrapped up his discontent and, by extension, that of his audience, in roughshod song."

That was probably Kurt Cobain's lasting legacy, the ability to sing honestly about his own life. While doing that he connected with a generation who were also struggling to make sense of it all, the divorced parents, the low self esteem, the lack of employment prospects, and a government which seemed totally disinterested in considering the needs, dreams or aspirations of young people. It's probably too early yet to really ascertain the full contribution of Grunge to social change. Certainly the genuine outpouring of grief at Kurt Cobain's death indicated that he was as important to his generation as Presley and Lennon had been to theirs. The final image of thousands at the Seattle vigil commemorating his life, and the ever present TV cameras devouring every moment of private anguish, to package into two minute bites, to send across the world was probably a fitting summary of Grunge as a popular culture. As Jack Endino said, "symbolically, it (Cobain's death) represented the death of something".

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Popular culture - the future

And where is it heading? The last word goes to Seattle record producer Steve Fisk, "there'll be no shortage of disaffected youth in America over the next 50 years, so there'll be some great rock 'n' roll coming down the line". You may like to think about this as you assess issues of continuity and change in Grunge, and develop scenarios about its future.

Conclusion

This is not meant to be a definitive history of Grunge music or culture. Hopefully it will help you get the idea of Popular Culture into some sort of perspective. Grunge is simply one of an infinite number of focus studies. I would've liked to have time to compare the rise and fall of Grunge with the formation of early rock 'n' roll, or particularly with the rise of The Beatles and the Liverpool sound. That is something you could do. Also worth exploring is the rise of the local Grunge scene. Silverchair are another textbook example of the rise from local to national to global, and as "Freak" and “Neon Ballroom” show, have been able to rise above the local jibes which were content to write them off as Nirvana in Pyjamas.

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Activities

  1. What examples would you use to justify Grunge as a popular culture?
  2. Under each of the syllabus headings, list specific examples of Grunge that support your understanding.
  3. Was Kurt Cobain a “spokesperson of a generation”? Support your answer with specific examples.
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More

The video Hype is essential viewing. Much of this article is based on the comments found there. Useful magazine articles have been mentioned in the text. The Classic Rock Albums series of books published by Schirmer Books contains a volume on “Nevermind”. It is written by Jim Berkenstadt and Charles R Cross. Published in 1998, the ISBN is 0 02 864775 D. It gives a real depth to the period surrounding the recording and release of “Nevermind” particularly, and is excellent in understanding Grunge as a popular culture. The Internet is an interesting source of opinions and ideas, but you need to be careful, many articles are unsourced and uncredited. When using the Internet, it is your responsibility to sort fact from opinion. A reliable search engine like www.google.com (external website) should help you sort the myriad entries under the topic Grunge. You may wish to refine your search by looking for combinations of words such as Grunge + control or Grunge + popular culture.

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