Why Grunge Mattered

If you’re hoping for a historically astute overview of grunge’s evolution, you’re listening to the wrong playlist. You won’t encounter a single song from Green River (who kickstarted the movement), and the only Mudhoney tune is “Suck You Dry,” from their (gasp) major label debut. Oh, and another thing: not one but two Stone Temple Pilots songs, “Sex Type Thing” and “Plush,” make the cut, inclusions that are sure to piss off those Sub Pop-era grunge fans steadfast in their dismissal of STP as corporate knockoffs.

Why all this sonic sacrilege? Because this playlist (put together after Chris Cornell’s death got me thinking about his crazy-intense impact on my youth) reflects how I encountered grunge as an early-’90s teenager. Growing up among the dying factories of Syracuse, New York, I wasn’t a skate punk or alt-rock kid. Independent record labels like Sub Pop and SST were not anywhere near my radar. I was a classic-rock fan who discovered the music through videos on MTV, four in particular: “Man in the Box,” “Alive,” “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” and “Outshined.” And let me tell you, they blasted my worldview into smithereens. The widely held belief that the grunge revolution overthrew hair-metal dominance overnight is more myth than reality (the shift was, in fact, gradual), but goddamn, it sure as hell felt like it. Kids one day were sleepwalking through life to a soundtrack of Bon Jovi and Firehouse hits, and the next they were stage-diving at Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, and Alice in Chains concerts. It was heady.

The radical cultural upheaval that grunge unleashed was maybe more important than the music itself. Though the movement barely lasted three years (1991 to 1994), it transformed me, my friends, and a shit-ton of folks my age. And I’m not just talking about the addition of flannel and Doc Martens to my wardrobe. All this thrillingly angry and aggressive music hit me at a time when I was beginning to question society, mainstream culture, and especially my high-school teachers and their shitty conservatism. It’s no exaggeration to say the music pushed me to become intensely sarcastic, caustic, and irreverent towards the status quo. On top of all that, there was a lot of mind-expanding exploration. When grunge pierced mainstream consciousness in 1991, I was just discovering weed; by early 1994 I was dropping acid and blasting the hellishly damaged In Utero. It, more than any other album from the time, nails the deep biting contempt I possessed for just about everything on this planet, a quality that still lurks inside me (thought largely dormant) over 20 years later.

I wish I could say it was Kurt Cobain’s suicide in 1994, five days before my 19th birthday, that severed my ties with grunge, but it wasn’t anything that romantic. I had simply moved into the deeper corridors of indie rock. I did have a fling with Pearl Jam’s No Code, an album that possesses a meditative, post-grunge comedown vibe. But by the time of its release in 1996, I was already thinking of PJ as something from my past. Grunge, meanwhile, had become something to be rejected—which I think the musicians would’ve been fine with. The last thing a grunge band wanted was to be worshipped.

Revisiting this music now, in the weeks after Cornell’s death, I’m blown away by the sheer amount of downer vibes oozing from it. Pearl Jam excluded (their lifeforce has always had some lift to it), Nirvana, AIC, and Soundgarden all released a lot of deeply painful music. “Rape Me” is absolutely chilling; so is “Down in a Hole.” Layne Staley is straight-up drowning: “Down in a hole, feeling so small/ Down in a hole, losing my soul/ I’d like to fly, but my wings have been so denied.” Back in my teens, I didn’t pick up on all the fragility; I was too busy using the music as high-decibel anthems for my own alienation. As I dig deeper into my 40s, however, it’s hard to expose myself to the pain. It makes me wonder: Has there ever been a pop fad (and it most certainly was a pop fad) as depressingly fatalistic as grunge? I doubt it.

At the same time, I wouldn’t swap my youth for anything. It was a thrilling time to be a rock ’n’ roll teenager (especially the concerts, which were sweaty, chaotic, and euphoric). For a brief moment, grunge actually managed to throw a monkey wrench in the gears of corporate-determined youth culture. As my friend Chloe recently said of those days, “I think the best part of the whole scene was the rejection of how things were. It was cool to be different. To be yourself. To be into whatever you wanted. To reject the corporate lifestyles we were sold.” For that we owe these artists, both surviving and fallen, a big thank you.