Genres and labels have become a necessary yet arbitrary force in the music industry. A band is analyzed by their sound and then grouped with similar acts in order to forever place them in a cube of adjectives to help describe just what they sound like. It can be both good and bad, with the good being certain people who browse through these labels might find that specific artist, but bad if a band just wants to make music and all of a sudden they are labeled as something they didn’t even know they were or want to be associated with. That being said, an authority figure has to police the authenticity of certain genres, right? Welcome to Genre Benders, a fun and inventive column that uses wit and research to tackle just what it is that makes a genre well, a genre.
I vividly remember the first time I listened to Nirvana. I was in the seventh grade and walking home from the bus stop when I saw a CD case laying open on the sidewalk. It looked as if it had been abandoned on purpose because some of the discs inside were broken and the thing smelled terrible. Naturally, like any curious kid, I brought the booklet home and showed my dad. One of the only CDs that worked was Nevermind and from then on my life was changed. From that day on, I began shedding some of my mainstream metal roots and taking an interest into the rather more mainstream era of grunge.
How perfect of a context for a kid to find out about Grunge, huh? A foul shit covered CD case containing music from the prince of the genre himself. I’ve never really understood how grunge is still considered a label rather than a definitive way to describe a sound or look. Back in the day when Avril Lavigne’s first wedding photos were leaked my mom said, “She looks beautiful and not so grungy.” Correct me if I am wrong, but in that sense does the term not represent more of a characteristic rather than a definite label of music?
Take a look at the big five grunge artists: Alice In Chains, Nirvana, Soundgarden, Pearl Jam and Mudhoney. These are oddly all from the same area of the U.S. as well, isn’t that something? I’d argue alongside Spotify’s official playlist and say “Grunge” should be termed as an era for people to channel their inner dirty and rebellious selves into screaming along to some finer rock/punk tunes. I’d even argue against Pearl Jam as being a real “grungy” band rather than just a rock band that got looped into the scene at the time. For purists of the genre, the apex of the grunge era was in 1992 and by the time of Cobain’s death most of the bands fitting under this microscope had moved on sound wise, well except Stone Temple Pilots, who still haven’t moved on.
But even during the significant years, what linked these bands together besides location and an overall raging anthem of “death to the previous decade of music?” Nirvana had more of an aggressive punk style, Alice In Chains is rooted in more metal with a hint of blues, Pearl Jam is almost just standard loud arena rock as well as Soundgarden being harder alternative rock. It’s not like the characteristics of this era of bands all feature an extremely distinct style. Some have screaming vocals, some have a plethora of guitar solos, some have very abrasive drums, some use chugging guitar progressions and some just lather themselves in feedback until the song has a reason to move on. “Grunge” as a musical genre is pretty diverse to say the least. They all do feature loud, pounding drums and rather simplistic chord progressions but so does black metal, so what really loops them all together?
Listen to “Alive,” by Pearl Jam. Follow that with “Dumb” by Nirvana. Next, “Fell On Black Days” by Soundgarden. “Kool Thing” by Sonic Youth, “Heaven Beside You” by Alice In Chains. If anything all these tracks feature a simplistic song structure with stripped down guitar chords and a catchy vocal melody being warped by a monotonous presence and sometimes guitar effects. Cool. Sheryl Crow did that as well, as did Elliott Smith. Guns N’ Roses and Nine Inch Nails and Metallica.
I remember watching documentaries about albums with my dad, and after watching the one featuring Butch Vig he explained to me that Nevermind and Nirvana killed the guitar solo. It was attached to this grunge era but I still don’t understand that idea because Pearl Jam has plenty of solos. I will agree that Nirvana changed the perspective and scope of what acceptable radio friendly alternative music is, which Blink-182 also did with their antics almost a decade later, but that’s for a separate Genre Bender.
If we really want to talk about “Grunge” being a genre, then where is it today? As the later 90s approached a thing called post-grunge had a bit of a scene, featuring Nickelback and The Foo Fighters and Smile Empty Soul. Fast forward later and I rarely see a band receive the grunge label anymore. Donovan Wolfington is a band that has some audible similarities to Nirvana’s music, but they are instead classified as punk-alternative-noise-stoner rock or something to that effect. That’s what I don’t understand, their music gets labeled with these other terms yet they have similar qualities that Nirvana blew up with. Raspy monotonous vocals that can turn into harsh, urgent screams mixed with rather poppy songwriting structures that can explode with crunchy distortion. Oh yea, don’t forget the hazy moments that dazzle between feedback and winding compositions. You can take this same description of their music and apply it to Nevermind or In Utero and it would work, yet how dare we call these four dudes out of Louisiana a “Grunge” band.
Back to Lavigne and her not so grungy wedding pictures. It’s not fair to take a musical term and apply it to someone’s looks. I can’t tell that weird cat killing kid that he looks “post-symphonic black metal” or describe the hippie guy in the bandana as “classic rock revival looking.” Yea, you can say I might look a bit like a “hardcore kid” but you wouldn’t say I look “anarcho-punk” because that doesn’t make fucking sense. Yet when I wake up before a shower I can be described as looking a bit “grunge” and not “glam power metal.”
I’d argue the most grunge looking album cover is actually Sheryl Crow’s self-titled album, I mean look at it. Just fucking look at it. If I had to describe what “Grunge” should sound like, it’s whatever she’s got going on right there, and it makes me happy (it can’t be that baddddd if it makes you happy then why the hell are you so grungy?).
P.S. Sheryl Crow likes a good beer buzz in the morning, sign me up. Follow Sean on Twitter @Seanthecaptain
What Genre should New Noise tackle next?