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Grunge subculture

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 Seattle-based ‘grunge’ movement is a loosely defined amalgam of guitar-heavy rock music, retro-hippie fashion, laid-back attitude and cafe culture. While nobody can define what grunge is exactly other than a youthful rebellion against pop culture’s slicker aspects, musical, sartorial and otherwise, devotees know it when they see it. And from espresso bars to wool caps, from Alice in Chains on the radio to students in plaid on the streets...the trappings of grunge culture are popping up everywhere. (Kahn, J.P. It’s grunge and it’s here from Seattle. [1992, November 20]. The Boston Globe.)

 

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.

 

Spawned in the hometown of acid-rock avatar Jimi Hendrix, the grunge sound combines elements of 1970s-style heavy metal (Black Sabbath, Kiss) with a punk-rock sense of antiestablishment exuberance. It is, to put it mildly, raw, cacophonous, high-energy rock, the kind nurtured in Seattle’s clubs and basements, where the beer flows freely and musicians tend to borrow just as freely from one another’s play lists. A recent article in Rolling Stone credited the grunge-rock scene to ‘isolation and inbreeding’ and defined its quintessential look as being ‘all hair, sweat, and guitars.’ (Kahn, op. cit.)

 

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:

 

I don’t blame the average 17 year-old punk-rock kid for calling me a sellout. I understand that. Maybe when they grow up a little bit, they’ll realize there’s more things to life than living out your rock and roll identity so righteously. (ibid., p. 38)

 

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.

 

I definitely have a problem with the average macho man—the strong-oxen, working-class type because they have always been a threat to me. I’ve had to deal with them most of my life—being taunted and beaten up by them in school, just having to be around them and be expected to be that kind of person when you grow up. (ibid., p. 41)

 

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:

 

Call us Boomlets, if you have to call us anything. There is a great difference between people who left college in the 1980s and people leaving college now...We left school under Ronald Reagan in the wish-fulfillment 80s. If anything, we didn’t dislike the Baby Boomers’ values; we disliked the Boomers for getting all the stuff we wanted.

We’ve been waiting to be noticed, it’s true. We’ve gotten a bum rap. But we’re not the younger Grunge kids. No one we know listens to Pearl Jam or Nirvana. (Abrams, A. & Lipsky, D. [1992, January 4].The boomlet generation [Editorial]. The New York Times.)

 

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