Grunge is the name given to the hard rock music produced by bands such as Nirvana, Soundgarden, and others, in Seattle, Washington, from the mid-1980s through the mid-1990s. While the term provides a convenient blanket description, it also hides fairly substantial stylistic differences between the bands. Few, if any, of those groups ever described themselves as "grunge," and the stereotyping of grunge as humorless and angst-ridden is a serious distortion. Nonetheless, the same media scrutiny that bred those misrepresentations turned grunge into a worldwide phenomenon that shaped not only music, but also other aspects of popular culture such as fashion.
Through the late 1970s and early 1980s, punk and hard-core rock had embraced a do-it-yourself attitude in defiant opposition to the bombast and big money of heavy metal and arena rock. However, as the hard-core and punk movements began to wane in the mid-1980s, many of those independent bands retained their amplifiers and distortion pedals but began slowing the tempos of their songs considerably. As a result, many bands (intentionally or not) began to reproduce the sound of the arena rock bands on which they had originally turned their backs. Although this trend occurred throughout America, it became particularly noticeable in two groups of musicians in Seattle, The Melvins and Green River. Hailing from Aberdeen, Washington, The Melvins played a particularly sludgy form of hard rock, touring with their friend Kurt Cobain at the wheel of their tour bus before he formed Nirvana. Green River also received some attention in independent music circles, before splitting up to re-form as Mudhoney and Mother Love Bone.
Those two groups nicely illustrate the two poles of the grunge movement. Fronted by flamboyant lead singer Andrew Wood, Mother Love Bone's music clearly indicated the band's commercial ambitions, and after just a handful of shows they secured a contract with PolyGram Records—a situation amounting to heresy in the independent music scene. After Wood's death in 1990 from drug-related causes, members of the band secured the talents of San Diego-based singer Eddie Vedder and formed Pearl Jam.
In contrast to Mother Love Bone, Mudhoney openly satirized the entire notion of rock stardom. Their sound was considerably rougher, with front man Mark Arm's vocals closer to a hoarse shout than to singing. Taking their name from the title of a soft-core film directed by Russ Meyer, they embraced a faux -sexism that simultaneously spoofed and celebrated the excesses of big-name rock bands.
Soundgarden fell somewhere between the blatant commercialism of Pearl Jam and the unpolished garage sound of Mudhoney. Lead singer Chris Cornell possessed a powerful falsetto that went well beyond that of Black Sabbath's Ozzy Osbourne, his most obvious influence. Soundgarden built its reputation as an independent band, satirizing the misogyny of heavy metal in songs such as "Big Dumb Sex," but a lot of listeners seemed to miss the joke. The group's 1989 album, Louder than Love, was nominated for a Grammy, and Superunknown, released in 1994, debuted at number one on the Billboard charts. By that time the band's sound was closer to Metallica or Guns 'N' Roses (with whom they had once toured) than to Mudhoney or Nirvana. Soundgarden broke up in 1997.
It is likely that many of these bands would have vanished quietly, or perhaps not even formed at all, if it were not for Sub Pop Records. Founders Bruce Pavitt and Jonathan Poneman recognized the strength of the Seattle music scene and, like Berry Gordon, whose Motown label had popularized the pop and rhythm-and-blues of Detroit in the 1960s, they set out to promote their city's bands. From the label's inception, they showed an ambition previously absent from independent labels. Sub Pop's first release, a compilation of bands who, for the most part, weren't from Seattle at all, described the label as "The new thing, the big thing, the God thing: A multi-national conglomerate based in the Pacific Northwest." Most people thought it was a joke, but Pavitt and Poneman weren't kidding.
Many independent record labels in America had been releasing excellent music that never achieved any degree of commercial success, but Pavitt and Poneman were shrewd marketers with an unrivaled gift for generating hype. They hired a British press agent to promote their bands, and paid a correspondent from the British music newspaper Melody Maker to come to Seattle. They believed—correctly—that the best way to promote their bands in the United States was through a reputation that was build abroad. Soon the city was renowned as one of the foremost centers of independent music in the world.
Nonetheless, by early 1991, Sub Pop was nearing bankruptcy. Its salvation came from the wholly unexpected success of Nirvana's first full-length album, Nevermind. When David Geffen's DGC label signed Nirvana, the contract stipulated that Sub Pop would receive a two percent royalty if the album sold more than 200,000 copies. Most observers expected it would sell a fraction of that number. However, "Smells Like Teen Spirit," the album's first single, became an overnight anthem, combining an infectious riff with a heavy guitar sound and lyrics which expressed a wry world-weariness. A few months earlier, Nirvana had been known to only a small number of independent music cognoscenti; now they were receiving airtime on top 40 rock and alternative stations throughout the world. Within a year, Nevermind had sold four million albums. Pearl Jam's Ten was released the same month as Nirvana's album, and although sales were initially slower, it sold an equal number of copies during its first year.
With the success of Nirvana and Pearl Jam, journalists, film crews, and fashion designers began flocking to Seattle to cash in on the music, which the world outside Seattle was calling "grunge." The flannel shirt became the ultimate symbol of grunge couture, although flannels had been popular for years in the national hard-core scene because they were cheap, comfortable and durable. Soon, upscale stores were selling "designer grunge," a bizarre inversion of a look essentially the opposite of fashion. Seattle bands on tour often found crowds dressed in flannels, ripped jeans, and Doc Marten boots: "more Seattle than Seattle" as one musician observed.
Many bands who had prided themselves on a punk ethos now found themselves signing very lucrative contracts. A popular tee-shirt in Seattle depicted the irony. It featured a large picture of a heroin syringe with the caption "I came to Seattle to score, and all I got was this stupid recording contract." The standard defense was an equally ironic pose. Kurt Cobain appeared on the cover of Rolling Stone with a hand-lettered tee-shirt which read "Corporate mags still suck"—an allusion to the bumper-sticker "Corporate music still sucks." Even Mudhoney signed with a major label and, in concert, began changing the lyrics of their song "Touch Me, I'm Sick" to "Fuck Me, I'm Rich." While those might have been effective comebacks, they did nothing to disguise or alter the fundamental fact that bands that had begun by satirizing rock stars suddenly became rock stars.
One of the reasons for that irony is the music that influenced grunge. While most independent music up until that time ignored commercial hard rock (or at least pretended to), grunge reveled in it. Kurt Cobain said "we just accepted the fact that we liked the music we grew up on: Alice Cooper, the MC5, Kiss…. We're paying homage to all the music we loved as kids, and we haven't denied the punk-rock energy that inspired us as teenagers." But, with commercial success, many bands began to spend more time polishing their recordings in the studio. That effectively destroyed the "Seattle Sound," much of which came from producer Jack Endino, who used a simple four-track recorder to get a deliberately rough sound. Cobain himself admitted that he thought the production of Nevermind was a little too slick. Punk energy was often filtered out by producers looking to make a more palatable recording.
By 1994, many of the original grunge bands had cut their hair and begun to release more mainstream albums. Effectively, Grunge ended with the suicide of Kurt Cobain in the spring of 1994. Nonetheless, it had already forced an essential change in the recording industry; major labels became much more willing to sign new acts, even when they did not fit into a preconceived commercial formula.
Azerrad, Michael. Come As You Are: The Story of Nirvana. New York, Bantam Doubleday Dell, 1993.
Humphrey, Clark. Loser: The Real Seattle Music Story. Portland, Feral House, 1995.
The term "grunge" is used to define a specific moment in twentieth-century music and fashion. Hailing from the northwest United States in the 1980s, grunge went on to have global implications for alternative bands and do-it-yourself (DIY) dressing. While grunge music and style were absorbed by a large youth
following, its status as a self-conscious subculture is debatable. People who listened to grunge music did not refer to themselves as "grungers" in the same way as "punks" or "hippies." However, like these subcultures, grunge was co-opted by the music and fashion industries through its promotion by the media.
The word "grunge" dates from 1972, but did not enter popular terminology until the birth of the Seattle sound, a mix of heavy-metal, punk, and good old-fashioned rock and roll, in the late 1980s. Many musicians associated with grunge credit their exposure to early punk bands as one of their most important influences.
Like San Francisco in the 1960s, Seattle in the 1980s was a breeding ground for music that spoke to its youth. The independent record label Sub Pop recorded many of the Seattle bands inexpensively and was partly responsible for their garage sound. Many of these bands went on to receive international acclaim and major record label representation, most notably The Melvins, Mudhoney, Green River, Soundgarden, Malfunkshun, TAD, and Nirvana. Nirvana's second album, Never-mind, was released in 1991, making Nirvana the first of this growing scene to go multiplatinum and Kurt Cobain, Nirvana's lead singer, the reluctant voice of his generation.
The youth movements most often associated and compared to grunge—hippie and punk—were driven both by music and politics. Punks and hippies used music and fashion to make strong statements about the world and are often referred to as "movements" due to this political component. While the youth of 1980s Seattle were aware of politics, grunge was fueled more by self-expression—sadness, disenchantment, disconnectedness, loneliness, frustration—and perhaps was an unintentional movement of sorts. There does not appear to have been a common grunge goal, such as punk's "anarchy" or the hippies' "peace." Despite this lack of unifying intentionality, grunge gave voice to a bored, lost, emotionally neglected, post-punk generation—Generation X.
If punk's antifashion stance can be interpreted as "against fashion," then that of grunge can be seen as "nonfashion." The grunge youth, born of hippies and raised on punk, reinterpreted these components through their own post-hippie, post-punk, West Coast aesthetic. Grunge was essentially a slovenly, thoughtless, uncoordinated look, but with an edge. Iconic items for men and women were ripped and faded jeans, flannel shirts or wool Pendletons layered over dirty T-shirts with outdated logos, and black combat-style boots such as Dr. Martens. Because the temperature in Seattle can swing by 20 degrees in the same day, it is convenient to have a wool long-sleeved button-down shirt that can be easily removed and tied around one's waist. The style for plaid flannel shirts and wool Pendletons is regional, having been a longtime staple for local lumberjacks and logging-industry employees—it was less a fashion choice than a utilitarian necessity.
The low-budget antimaterialist philosophy brought on by the recession made shopping at thrift stores and army surplus outlets common, adding various elements to the grunge sartorial lexicon, including beanies for warmth and unkempt hair, long underwear worn under shorts (in defiance of the changeable weather), and cargo pants. Thrift-store finds, such as vintage floral-print dresses and baby-doll nightgowns, were worn with over-sized sweaters and holey cardigans. Grunge was dressing down at its most extreme, taking casualness and comfort dressing to an entirely new level.
The first mention of grunge in the fashion industry was in Women's Wear Daily on 17 August 1992: "Three hot looks—Rave, Hip Hop and Grunge—have hit the street and stores here, each spawned by the music that's popular among the under-21 set." The style that had begun on the streets of Seattle had finally hit New York and was heading across the Atlantic. Later that same year, Grace Coddington (editor) and Steven Meisel (fashion photographer) did an eight-page article and layout for Vogue with the help of a Sub Pop cofounder and owner Jonathan Poneman: "Flannels, ratty tour shirts, boots, and baseball caps have become a uniform for those in the know, and their legions are growing" (p. 254). The fashion machine was drawn to the utilitarian aspects of grunge as well as the juxtapositions of textures and the old against the new. Marc Jacobs is credited with bringing grunge to the runway with his spring 1993 collection for Perry Ellis. He was later followed by such designers as Calvin Klein, Christian Francis Roth, Armani, Dolce & Gabbana, Anna Sui, and Versace who all came out with layered and vintage looks made out of luxury fabrics.
Ultimately, grunge failed as a high-fashion trend because its vitality came from the unique and personal art of combining clothes and accessories from wildly disparate and idiosyncratic sources. Grunge was not easily repackaged and sold to the people who related to it because it was out of their price range and the upscale consumer was not taking the bait. Where grunge worked well was at low to moderate price points as middle-class kids across America were buying pre-ripped jeans, beanies, and flannels all the while dancing to Nirvana.
Repackaging was also the fate of grunge music as every major record label tried to find the next Nirvana, and bands like Pearl Jam and Bush filled stadiums but paid little homage to grunge's punk roots. Nevertheless, grunge ultimately managed to revive rock and roll, redefine the music of the 1990s by bringing the focus back to the guitar, and make the word "alternative" meaningless in the twenty-first century as alternative music is now the music of the masses.
What grunge did for music it also did for fashion. Grunge opened the door to recycled clothes for everyone as a fashionable, and even a chic, choice. Grunge defined a new approach to dressing that included layering and juxtapositions of patterns and textures. The DIY approach to dress has become the norm, giving the consumer the freedom to choose, to not be a slave to one look or designer, and the confidence to create personal ensembles with the goal of self-expression through style.
Coddington, Grace. "Grunge and Glory." Vogue (December 1992): 254–263.
de la Haye, Amy, and Cathie Dingwall. Surfers, Soulies, Skin-heads, and Skaters: Subcultural Style from the Forties to the Nineties. London: V&A Publications, 1996.
Polhemus, Ted. Street Style: From Sidewalk to Catwalk. London: Thames and Hudson, Inc., 1994.
Sims, Joshua. Rock/Fashion. London: Omnibus Press, 1999.
Shannon Bell Price
Grunge fashions, inspired by the look of popular Seattle-based rock bands like Nirvana and Pearl Jam, were a fashion sensation of the early to mid-1990s. The casual street look eventually became incorporated into the designs of high fashion.
The term grunge was originally a slang term for the heavy guitar-based brand of rock music distributed by the Seattle-based independent record label Sub Pop. Once the Sub Pop band Nirvana hit the top of the charts with its 1991 album Nevermind, grunge suddenly became the hottest music style in the United States. With the music revolution came a fashion upheaval as well. Grunge style, a working-class look highlighted by the flannel shirts, combat boots, and ripped jeans favored by suburban teenagers, was suddenly seen everywhere. Nirvana posed for the cover of Rolling Stone magazine, while lead singer Kurt Cobain (1967–1994) and another grunge heartthrob, Eddie Vedder (1965–) of the group Pearl Jam, both received pin-up treatment in teen magazines. In 1992 grunge fashions came to the big screen with the release of Singles, a feature film about a group of slackers, or unmotivated, lazy people, from Seattle, Washington. Featuring 1980s teen idol Matt Dillon as a long-haired, flannel-clad, wanna-be rock star, the movie was a box office hit and helped popularize the grunge look.
The high point of the grunge style may have been the "Grunge and Glory" photo spread in the December 1992 issue of Vogue, the world's top fashion magazine. Designer Marc Jacobs (1964–) outfitted his models in $500 to $1,400 designer flannel and corduroy ensembles, supposedly representing a new style fresh from the thrift stores of Seattle. Jacobs followed that up with his Spring-Summer 1993 women's collection featuring over-sized flannel shirts, slouchy sweaters, and chunky army boots paired with floral print, vintage-looking dresses. The fashion line proved to be a commercial disaster, but few can deny its impact. For the next few years flannel shirts and other grunge staples could be seen on the racks at such mass-market shops as K-Mart and J. C. Penney.
FOR MORE INFORMATION
Azerrad, Michael. Come As You Are: The Story of Nirvana. New York: Doubleday, 1994.
True, Everett. Live Through This: American Rock in the Nineties. London, England: Virgin, 2001.
"Grungy" is a slang word that means dirty, old, and beat-up. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, the word became "grunge" and was used to describe a new kind of rock and roll (see entry under 1950s—Music in volume 3) music and style of dress that was emerging in Seattle, Washington. The term "grunge" was originally used to describe the loud, jarring electric guitar (see entry under 1950s—Music in volume 3) of rock bands such as Mudhoney, Alice in Chains, and Soundgarden, because their guitar was fuzzy and raw, not "clean" and clear. However, the word was soon used to describe the shaggy hair, ragged jeans, thrift-shop flannel shirts, and combat boots worn by the musicians and their fans. It also came to be used to describe a general attitude toward life. Combining some of the features of heavy-metal (see entry under 1980s—Music in volume 5) music and punk (see entry under 1970s—Music in volume 4) rock, grunge music contrasts a loud, driving rock sound with deeply personal, often sad and protesting, words. Rebellious and indifferent, angry and depressed, harsh and vulnerable, grunge represented many of the contradictions in the lives and attitudes of the young, mostly white, members of "Generation X" (see entry under 1980s—The Way We Lived in volume 5), the teenagers of the 1990s.
Like the protest music of the 1960s, the psychedelic rock of the 1970s, and the punk rock of the 1980s, grunge music came out of teenage disenchantment with the world of their parents' generation. Both grunge music and grunge style began by rejecting the shallow values associated with consumerism and commercialism, like buying brand-name clothes. The music is also characterized by anger, loneliness, and drug use, particularly heroin, whose depressive and addictive effects seemed to go well with the hopelessness and sadness expressed in much grunge music. Grunge seemed forbidden and dangerous, and its popularity spread quickly.
Because of its anticommercialism, the success of grunge seemed by definition to bring about its end. National record labels began to produce grunge bands like Nirvana (see entry under 1990s—Music in volume 5) and Pearl Jam. Fashion designers began to sell expensive versions of the tattered thrift-shop grunge clothes. Even the spaced-out, wasted look of the heroin addict was imitated by fashion models. In 1994, Kurt Cobain (1967–1994), lead singer for the most nationally successful grunge group, Nirvana, shot himself in his new, expensive Seattle home, in part because he could not cope with becoming one of the successful rich people he had criticized in his songs.
For More Information
Azerrad, Michael. "Grunge City." Rolling Stone (No. 628, April 16, 1992): pp. 43–46.
Fish, Duane R. "Ripped Jeans and Faded Flannel: Grunge, Youth, and Communities of Alienation." Popular Music and Society (Vol. 19, no. 2, Summer 1995): pp. 87–103.
Kennedy, Dana, and Benjamin Svetkey. "Reality Bites: Suicide of Grunge Rock Star Kurt Cobain." Entertainment Weekly (No. 219, April 22, 1994): pp. 16–26.
Lowry, Rich. "Our Hero, Heroin." National Review (Vol. 48, no. 20, October 28, 1996): p. 75.
The Ultimate Grunge Page: Everything You Ever Wanted to Know about Seattle Music.http://seattle.hypermart.net (accessed April 4, 2002).
scum / skəm/ • n. a layer of dirt or froth on the surface of a liquid: green scum found on stagnant pools. ∎ inf. a worthless or contemptible person or group of people: you drug dealers are the scum of the earth.• v. (scummed, scum·ming) [intr.] (of a liquid) become covered with a layer of dirt or froth: the lagoon scummed over. ∎ [tr.] form a layer of dirt or froth on (a liquid): litter scummed the surface of the harbor.DERIVATIVES: scum·my adj. (-mi·er, -mi·est) .
grunge / grənj/ • n. 1. grime; dirt.2. (also grunge rock) a style of rock music characterized by a raucous guitar sound and lazy vocal delivery. ∎ the fashion associated with this music, including loose, layered clothing and ripped jeans.DERIVATIVES: grun·gi·ness n.grun·gy adj.