Grunge Developed With Intentions Of Staying Pure
Origins of grunge, the conflicted relationship with commodification and capitalism.
Seattle’s 1980s underground scene is reflected by the punk club The Bird which opened in 1978. The all-ages club was co-founded by Roger Husbands, who at the time was the manager of the Seattle punk band Enemy. There was also the all-ages club The Metropolis in 1983 which featured performances from local bands such as U-Men and Mr. Epp & The Calculations.
The Tupperwares recorded live on May 1st in 1976 at the TMT show at Oddfellows Hall and it was considered Seattle's very first Do It Yourself (DIY) punk show. Evolving from Mr. Epp & The Calculations, Green River established in 1984, became the pioneers of what became known as grunge. Green River`s record Dry As a Bone (1987) was the first full-length record to be released on Sub Pop records, described as a ‘’direct distillation of the Seattle scene ethos and the distinctive Sub Pop sound’’ (Buckley, 2003, p.453). The band consisted of Jeff Ament, Mark Arm, Steve Turner, Alex Vincent and Stone Gossard. And later, Stone Gossard and Jeff Ament would form Mother Love Bone and Pearl Jam- who became one of the most famous examples in grunge music. Sub Pop records was founded by Bruce Pavitt and Jonathan Poneman in 1986.
The independent label had released albums from successful bands such as Nirvana, Soundgarden, Mudhoney, Sonic Youth, Tad, Screaming Trees, Smashing Pumpkins and many more. After Nirvana had reached mainstream attention with their album Nevermind (1991), Sub Pop had become a great interest of mainstream media, which was wanting to appropriate and capitalise on grunge. As the word itself had become popular and exciting, for the reasons that it contrasted sharply with the 1980s high class dominance. The '’dictionary entry for 'grunge' in 1984 gave its meaning as ‘'grime and dirt'’ (Pilbeam, Kerr and Naudé, 2008. p.70). Reflective of the distorted guitar sound and Seattle's rainy weather.
The word originated from the word ‘grungy’ ‘’a word coined in the 1960s, probably by blending grubby (from the state you get in when you grub or dig) and dingy (an 18th century word of unknown origin, but perhaps related to dung)’’(Cresswell, 2014.p. 84). The derivation of ‘Grunge’ is ‘Grungy’ – a: ‘’word used in common speech for the first time in the 1960s, meaning filthy or dirty‘’ (Strähle, 2018,p.53) .The Seattle ‘Sub Pop’ Records founder Jonathan Poneman has been credited for inventing and popularizing the word. However: ‘’Grunge was used as a description for music decades before….Grunge ‘shows up in 1957, on the back sleeve to a Johnny Burnette rockabilly album’’ (Strähle, 2018,p,53). It is believed that that the word was: ‘’already being thrown around in Australia in the mid-80s to describe bands like King Snake Roost, The Scientists’’(Strähle, 2018,p,53).
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Even though the rock lexicon ‘grunge’ has many battling for the noun’s accreditation in the description of the Seattle scene, the word was featured firstly by Mark Arm in ‘’a Lester Bangs record review in Rolling Stone in the ‘70s. Mark Arm had used the word in the early 80s’’ (Yarm, 2011. p.195). Arm in return had credited the ’’70s reissue of Rock ‘n’ Roll Trio album, and the liner notes talked about Paul Burlison’s: ‘‘grungy guitar sound’’ (Yarm,2011.p.196). Mark Arm is a central figure in the grunge scene. Arm after being in Mr. Epp & The Calculations and Green River would become the frontman of Mudhoney, the band which became known as the first ‘official’ grunge band.
For Seattle Sub Pop Records, Mudhoney ‘’emerged as one of the Seattle bands most likely to succeed, and as one of Sub Pop`s greatest hopes’’(Waksman, 2009,p.252). Mudhoney`s album Every Good Boy Deserves Fudge (1991) ‘’saved Sub Pop from economic ruin, the sheer fact that Sub Pop was on such unsteady grounds at the very moment when Seattle Sound reached new levels of popularity indicated that the label had done a better job of building hype than building sales’’(Waksman, 2009,p.252). Leading to Mudhoney signing a new deal with Warner Bros.Records. Despite Arm and guitarist Steve Turner viewing the relationship between Sub Pop and the band not as a business relationship but a partnership. This was due to the bands friendship with Sub Pop`s founders Bruce Pavitt and Jonathan Poneman (Waksman, 2009, p.252). Considering Nirvana`s success of Nevermind (1991) after the band had signed to a major record label DGC Records, Mudhoney and Nirvana indicate how Seattle musicians had wanted major label record deals.
Pearl Jam throughout the 1990s had advocated against consumerism, corporatism, and capitalism, yet had never been signed to an independent label or produced records through the DIY approach. The lack of DIY approach can be identified through the music label history of Alice in Chains, who had signed their first record deal with Columbia Records in 1989. Soundgarden also signed with A&M Records in 1989. Signifying grunge`s entrance in the American mainstream, despite advocating against it. Grunge became characterised as a punk rock and heavy metal intermix, with heavy distortion and pop-melodic lines. The fashion style evolved from the scene`s musicians and thrifted clothing, ripped jeans, combat boots and the brown corduroy jacket had gained mainstream popularity in the 1990s. However, the music was still concerned with upkeeping an anti-capitalism stance, reflective through the thrifting clothing fashion.
Shaun Scott concludes that mainstreams appeal of popularising critics of capitalism, was due to the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, the same year Nirvana`s Nevermind (1991) gained mainstream appreciation. Scott explains that ‘’the set-ending chaos epitomised the cultural terrain of the 1990s: anti-establishment histrionics that are commoditized and made compatible with the capitalist establishment itself. With the socialist threat officially vanquished, capitalism could afford to give more airtime to its critics’’ (Scott, 2018,p.59).
Musician Myles Kennedy (Alter Bridge, Myles Kennedy and the Conspirators) in Loudwire Who Was Really Responsible for the Grunge Explosion? (2021) documentary explained that when grunge came, it was not cool to be commercial, if it was too commercial, or obvious that success or money was one’s aim. It was dismissed and pushed aside- juxtaposing a few years back when the wealth factor was embraced in pop and rock culture (Loudwire, 2021). Nirvana and grunge became successful quickly-the bands were picked up on radio-constantly rotated and featured on shows such as Headbangers Ball-before the ‘overnight success’ had been granted. With notable bands such as Soundgarden, Alice In Chains, The Screaming Trees, Mudhoney, Pearl Jam and many more. The emergence of artists from the Pacific Northwest in the 1990s, serve as a significant cultural indicator when considering that for the first time in American history, a subculture movement had gained mainstream status whilst gaining popularity in Europe, as Nirvana played the Reading Festival in Leeds (1992).
Before grunge gained acclaim in the United States with the success of Nirvana`s Nevermind in 1991, Sub Pop with Nirvana, Mudhoney and Tad had gathered critical acclaim in their festival Sub Pop Lame Fest at Astoria Theatre, London on November 27, 1989. From which the English press covered the Seattle sound-leading to local exposure of the Seattle scene back in the U.S. With the release of ‘’Smells Like Teen Spirit’’ (1991) the alternative and rock radio formats were merged together. Kurt Cobain had created the new ‘cool’ whilst being effortless which juxtaposed the big hair, leather rockstars (Loudwire, Who Was Really Responsible for the Grunge Explosion?, 2021) of the 1980s.
On 11th of January, 1992 the song overtook Michael Jackson, U2 and Hammer in the U.S. Billboard Top 200, signifying the influence and popularity it had gathered (Gelfand, 2017). Not only did major corporations and Seattle musicians capitalise on the anti-establishment mentality but Sub Pop did too. They had capitalised on this approach to create an illusion of anti-corporatism and independence, yet at the same time they indicated the relationship that independent record labels have with major record labels. Sub Pop had sold Nirvana`s contract to David Geffen who had created Asylum Records (1971), Geffen Records (1980), DGC Records (1990) and DreamWorks SKG (1994).
At the same time they ‘’retained a small royalty percentage on Nevermind, which earned the label its greatest earnings to date, and also benefited from increased sales of Nirvana`s debut album, Bleach ’’(Waksman, 2009,p.253). Sub Pop was unable to be independent completely and Sub Pop had focused on capitalising on the grunge hype than focusing on record industry business. But the focus on the hype of grunge from Sub Pop, is important when considering the aesthetic ideas and preferences of the grunge style. Sub Pop had crafted and established grunge music and also grunge graphic design conventions. They had manipulated with the illusion of anti-consumerism and anti-corporatism and created an aesthetical vision which advertised left wing politics. An important figure in such aesthetical vision and approach is Art Chantry (he worked as the graphic designer for Sub Pop). Nevertheless, the political ideas attached to the grunge scene contrasts the 1980s Republican decade. For example, this can be illustrated through Temple of the Dog’s album, Chris Cornell describing their hit single ‘’Hunger Strike’’ (1991) as a ‘’somewhat of a political, socialist statement’’ (Hay, 2005). Pearl Jam`s frontman Eddie Vedder explained that:
‘’It is a weird position as an artist…to blatantly enter the political ring. We don`t come from that space…but I know what it is not to be heard, so if I can raise my hand and speak out for some of these people who don`t have a voice at the moment, then I almost feel a responsibility…The conservatives are using democracy in a supremely active fashion. The left-wing are more passive…The left has a lot to learn from these guys. They need to get organised’’ (Clarke, 2017,pp.97-98).
Vedder reveals that Pearl Jam are politically conscious and do not believe that music should be kept in the entertainment category. He confirms how political the music had become and how important speaking out on political matters is for grunge. He confirms his sympathy towards the left-wing ideology which gives insight of the reasons against Pearl Jam`s protests against Republican candidates and Presidents such as George W. Bush and George H. W. Bush. They have continued an anti-republican protest in the contemporary, protesting against Donald Trump. As example, Eddie Vedder has worn masks of President Bush and Donald Trump on stage, and Pear Jam had released the song Bu$hleaguer (2002), criticising Bush.
Pearl Jam visiting President Bill Clinton at the White House on April 9, 1994. (Kinney, 2021)
Pearl Jam supported former president Bill Clinton (democrat) in his presidential campaign in 1994. Clinton had invited Pearl Jam to the White House in 1994 in order to popularise his candidacy within the youth voters. Pearl Jam had become one of the biggest rock bands in 1994, as well as indicating how popular grunge had become. Invitation by Clinton suggested unity with their ideological stance, which was pro-choice, pro-abortion, pro-feminist, equality, anti-capitalism, and anti-corporatism. Pearl Jam did not wear formal clothing, aesthetically showcasing their political protest against high class and consumerism. Also, by wearing the casual attire they are not changing themselves, not even for the formal occasion, symbolic of grunge`s obsession with authenticity. Symbolising a victory for the working class, as Pearl Jam and grunge who had celebrated such class, had become important enough to be invited by the United States President to the White House. Whilst Bill Clinton also appeared more casual, trying to showcase his unity with the band and working class. Marking how fashionable the working-class aesthetic had become. However, the conflict between capitalism and anti-capitalism is present. Chris Cornell commented:
“I think Pearl Jam was the band that set the perfect example. Their big video, "Jeremy," propelled them into becoming TV stars and one of the biggest rock bands on the planet, so they stopped making videos, which was proof positive that that wasn't where they wanted to be. And that made a lot of sense to me. Nirvana doing an Unplugged at the same time that they did it and making a video for "Heart-Shaped Box," that didn't make a lot of sense to me, because it seemed clear to me that Kurt was pretty disillusioned by the situation that he was being put in. It felt like, if he's so unhappy, he shouldn't be doing this kind of stuff” (Yarm, 2011. p.442).
Cornell indicates that Pearl Jam had not wanted to be on a mainstream level, as they stopped making music videos at the time (from 1991-1998) because they did not want to be ‘‘TV stars and one of the biggest rock bands on the planet’’(Yarm, 2011, p.442).This contradicts Pearl Jam always being signed on a major label, as the goal for such attention from major labels is to generate financial income. If grunge is considered in punk terms (as it was an alternative movement), Stacy Thompson has remarked that punk has a ''conflicted relationship with commodification and capitalism''(Thompson, 2004, p.120). Selling punk as a product contradicts its anti-capitalist stance and contradicts its fight against conservative Republicanism which is in favour of private ownership.
This is exemplified in Cornell’s evaluation of Pearl Jam. 1990s MTV music channel played music videos and the showcasing of Nirvana's ‘’Smells Like Teen Spirit’’ (1991) music video had contributed to it gaining success. Grunge participated in such commodification. With the popularity of the music video, music had been even more commodified with VHS tapes. For example, Soundgarden released Louder Than Live (1990) VHS tape of their live performance at Whisky a Go Go nightclub in West Hollywood, California. However, at the same time, Cornell clarifies that for him (Soundgarden, Temple of The Dog, Audioslave) and Pearl Jam creative freedom and control of their own image, brand and artistic expression is always a priority over financial gains. This is the case with Pearl Jam, who wanted to escape their mainstream exposure after the release of Ten (1991). They did not make any music videos for their next three albums Vs (1993), Vitalogy (1994), No Code (1996), despite being at the top of their popularity at the time. This also indicates their freedom of choice and consciousness over their music and expressions, which is worth highlighting. At the same time, such choice carries the essence of anti-capitalism and anti-corporatist approach, as Billboard Magazine in 1992 estimated that:
‘’music video sales are projected to reach $420 million in 1996, representing an average annual growth rate of 28.9%- the largest of any pre-recorded entertainment format- if the average price falls, as expected, and if consumers ‘respond to lower pricing.’ In that case the number of units sold would quintuple to 30 million in 1996 from 6 million last year’’(Survey: Slower-Music Sales Growth Projected, 1992,p.73).
Specifically, as grunge captures a social protest against the decade of 1980s, the choice to not make music videos, confirms such movements' protest element. Bruce Pavitt concluded in the late 1980s that:
‘’the next few years will see the ultra-heavy rock of Seattle rival the Motor City scene of the early ‘70s. I believe that bands like Green River and Soundgarden are every bit as great as the Stooges and the MC5…The town right now is in a musical state where this is an acknowledgement of a certain consciousness. A lot has to do with our geographical isolation: for once that’s paying off in that the bands here are developing with their intentions staying pure’’ (Waksman, 2009,p.246).
As Pavitt had acknowledged, bands that came out of Seattle had a consciousness over their power. Nirvana had supported pro-choice, pro-abortion, pro-feminist, equality, anti-capitalism, and anti-corporatism. Nirvana had protested against Oregon Ballot Measure 9 (1992) which was proposed by the conservative activist group Oregon Citizens Alliance. The ballot measure proposed the limiting of state government funding for promotion and encouragement of homosexuality. Nirvana performed the No on Measure 9 concert on September 10th the same year at Portland Meadows. LA county Republican party headquarters were set on fire by vandalism on august 24th, 1992. Before starting the performance Cobain stated that
‘’I saw this picture on the news about three weeks ago. It was a Republican Party headquarters in Pasadena. And it was firebombed, and it was a beautiful picture. It was a picture of Republican Party headquarters in Pasadena, and there was a window. And there was smoke and fire coming out of it. It was really pretty. It should be on a Christmas card’’ (No On Measure 9, 2016).
Through the sarcastic commentary he shows his support of the vandalism and his dislike towards the republican party. The protest against republicans in grunge was demonstrated through being conscious over environmental issues. Grunge made recycling culture fashionable; however, its advertisement of such is tied with environmental awareness and environmental preservation. This was a protest and reaction against 1980s consumerism, which was associated with Ronald Reagan and Republicans. Koen Byttebier explains that ‘’the implementation of the doctrine of ‘consumerism’ in the USA especially attempted to challenge an earlier economic crisis which had particularly impacted the American economy, by stimulating demand’’ (Byttebier, 2017,p.181). Advertisement plays a central role, as it helps to ‘’create and perpetuate a society void of critical thought; the lack of any such critical thought allows for the continued dominance of the advertising machinery’’(Frantz, 2000,p.9) maintaining demand. The stimulation and necessity for demand had come from the recession of 1982-1983, which had greatly affected the economy of the United States. Popularisation of consumerism would aim to grow expenditure from the American citizens, in such benefiting domestic (U.S) businesses and the economy.
By the 1980s environmental groups were often going to court; however, ‘’courts staffed with conservative Reagan appointees, turned to the right. Groups began to find that courts in some regions tended to side more often with business and development interests’’ (Duffy, 2003,pp.72-73). Republicans with the encouragement of consumerism had neglected its negative effects in regard to the environment, therefore, establishing themselves with strict capitalism, even egoism. The reputation which Republicans had created was protested by grunge musicians, not only through recycling but through the notion of being pure. Bruce Pavitt noted that bands from Seattle ‘’are developing with their intentions staying pure’’ (Waksman, 2009,p.246).
And that’s how they remained.
Buckley, P., 2003. The Rough Guide to Rock. 3rd ed. London: Rough Guides, p.453.
Pilbeam, E., Kerr, S. and Naudé, B., 2008. FCS English First Additional Language L3. Forest Drive,Pinelands, Capte Town: Pearson Education South Africa, Maskew Miller Longman, p.70.
Cresswell, J., 2014. Little Oxford Dictionary Of Word Origins. 1st ed. United Kingdom: Oxford University Press, p.84
Strähle, J., 2018. Fashion & Music. Springer Singapore, p.53.
Yarm, M., 2011. Everybody Loves Our Town: A History Of Grunge. US: Faber & Faber,196,442.
Waksman, S., 2009. This Ain't the Summer of Love Conflict and Crossover in Heavy Metal and Punk. Berkeley and Los Angeles, CA: University of California Press, p,246,252,253.
Scott, S., 2018. Millennials and the Moments That Made Us A Cultural History of the U.S. from 1982-Present. Alresford, UK: Zero Books, p.59.
Gelfand, Z., 2017. 25 Years Ago Punk Overtook Pop When Nirvana Knocked Michael Jackson Off The Top Of The Chart. [online] UPROXX. Available at: <https://uproxx.com/music/nirvana-nevermind-number-one-25th-anniversary/> [Accessed 8 September 2022].
Hay, T. 2005. Transcript Of Exclusive P-I Interview With Chris Cornell. [online] SeattlePI. Available at: https://www.seattlepi.com/ae/music/article/Transcript-of-exclusive-P-I-interview-with-Chris-1185127.php [Accessed 7 September 2021]
Clarke, M., 2017. Pearl Jam & Eddie Vedder None Too Fragile. London, UK: Plexus Publishing Limited, pp.97,98.
Kinney, B., 2021. On April 9, 1994, Pearl Jam visited the White House and posed in the Oval Office with President Bill Clinton. From left, Stone Gossard, Jeff Ament, Mike McCready, Clinton and Eddie Vedder. To Vedder’s left are John Hoyt of Pyramid Communications, who served as an adviser to the band, and Kelly Curtis, who retired last year after managing the band since its 1990 start. (Barbara Kinney, National Archives). [image] Available at: <https://www.seattletimes.com/pacific-nw-magazine/how-pearl-jam-ended-up-in-that-white-house-photo-with-bill-clinton/> [Accessed 8 July 2022].
Thompson, S., 2004. Punk Productions Unfinished Business. Albany: State University of New York Press, p.120.
Billboard, 1992. Survey: Slower-Music Sales Growth Projected. (Vol. 104, No. 28), p.73.
Byttebier, K., 2017. Towards a New International Monetary Order. Belgium: Springer International Publishing, p.181.Frantz, G., 2000. Consumerism, Conformity, and Uncritical Thinking in America. [ebook] Harvard University, p.9. Available at: <https://dash.harvard.edu/handle/1/8846775> [Accessed 15 January 2022].Duffy, R., 2003. The Green Agenda in American Politics New Strategies for the Twenty-first Century. Lawrence, Kansas: University Press of Kansas, pp.72,73.
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