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The grunge exhibit at the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.

"I'm taking our music to the next level - Guitar Rock Utilizing Nihilist Grunge Energy - or, as I call it, GRUNGE!"
Homer Simpson, The Simpsons, "That '90s Show"

Primary Stylistic Influences:

Grunge is an influential form of Alternative Rock. This genre helped Alternative Rock's mainstream popularity advance past the late-80s alternative crossover boom. Grunge started in the indie rock scene in Seattle, and was sometimes called "the Seattle sound" in the early days, although the documentary Long Way to the Top: Stories of Australian Rock & Roll claimed it originated with The Scientists, who hailed from Perth, Western Australia.note  The earliest examples of grunge music includes Malfunkshun and Green River, neither of which achieved any mainstream success.

As a backlash against polished, highly produced commercially-successful Hair Metal, which was big at the time (the mid-'80s), Grunge artists featured a stripped down and low-key aesthetic lacking in the theatrics and bombast of the prevailing trends. Playing in rainy Seattle, many struggling early grunge rockers wore the only warm clothing they could afford: thick flannel shirts, which became a trademark of the genre. The greasy, unwashed hair and thrift shop clothes of early grunge bands was more of a product of their low income playing underground venues, rather than a fashion statement.

The music itself could be described as a strange combination of Doom Metal, Noise Rock and Alternative Rock with even more influences from Hardcore Punk (Black Flag's sludgier, slower material from 1984 on was frequently cited as an influence). Many artists in the genre also take cues from the Power Pop-inspired songwriting of college rock bands such as R.E.M., Pixies and Hüsker Dü. The guitars have heavy distortion and plenty of shrieking feedback (usually), songs often consist of both loud and soft sections, and the lyrics are often personal and introspective, with topics like drug addiction (particularly heroin), depression, poverty, and suicide. This introspective focus influenced lots of more angsty genres such as Nu Metal and modern emo bands. The vocals range from Perishing Alt-Rock Voice to Yarling, and all stops in between.

However, these were among the few traits that most of the acts had in common; while Nirvana, Melvins, Green River, and Tad could certainly be said to have lived up to most of those supposed hallmarks, they had little to do with Pearl Jam's arena rock stylings, Alice in Chains' dark thrash-meets-glam dirges, Soundgarden's mix of 70s hard rock spectacle with the grit and fuck-you attitude of traditional doom metal, Mudhoney's punky, bluesy Stooges-inspired garage rock, Mother Love Bone's sleazy, punkish blues glam, Hole's violent, abrasive, grindcore-tinged noise rock, and Screaming Trees' psychedelic leanings. In short, while there was something resembling a basic skeleton of grunge, there wasn't really anything resembling a codified style, and the bands that did sound alike often did so out of coincidence or common influences.

So, Grunge started off underground, but of course something happened. Record labels decided it was the "next big thing.” Anybody with a guitar and two songs got signed, and the A&R department did a photo shoot of them in retro thrift store clothes and flannel. So what was this "something?" A little band named Nirvana.

A Seattle (by way of Aberdeen and Olympia) grunge band fronted by Kurt Cobain, Nirvana unexpectedly made it big in 1991 with their album Nevermind, containing the famed hit single "Smells Like Teen Spirit," which, in typical "most famous song" fashion, was shunned by Cobain. The album drove away from the dirgy, sludgy material that had defined the "grunge" label and the bands earlier material to that point and instead experimented with less distortion and catchy pop hooks, a feature that when combined with Cobain's anguished voice and rugged good looks launched them into superstardom. Another grunge approach that broke with Hair Metal was to downplay or even eliminate the guitar solo. In contrast to a typical hair metal solo, which used two-handed tapping and rapid-fire, virtuoso arpeggio riffs, Cobain's guitar solos might be simply an instrumental version of the vocal melody.

With Nirvana's success, other bands from Seattle, as well as those that were similar in tone, such as Pearl Jam, Soundgarden and Alice in Chains, also made it pretty big, and less-popular groups (namely Mudhoney, Melvins, Screaming Trees, and Tad) also had their moments in the mainstream spotlight. Against their will. As with punk before it, being big and famous went against Grunge's philosophy, and many of the bands tried to avoid fame. Cobain himself was pretty depressed over this, as well as many other things, including his heroin addiction. This depression culminated in Cobain's shotgun suicide in 1994 (although some conspiracy theorists still maintain that he was murdered).

Then Nirvana disbanded, Pearl Jam retreated from the spotlight and reinvented itself, Alice in Chains went on hiatus, Soundgarden disbanded, and with the rise of commercial Post-Grunge bands like Bush, Foo Fighters, Silverchair and Matchbox Twenty, grunge itself had begun to fade into the shadows cast by the mid-to-late nineties. By the turn of the millennium, grunge in the mainstream was reduced to nostalgia and another blow was dealt nearly a decade after Cobain's suicide when Layne Staley, lead singer of Alice in Chains, died of a heroin overdose — on the approximate date of Cobain's death note .

So, there you have it. The strange, short story of Grunge.

Archetypal of The '90s. For more information see articles like this one.

Although Grunge's time is over, the genre is still viewed as a landmark one due to its honesty, authenticity and creative musicianship (especially compared to what it mutated into), and it still has a fanbase in certain corners, and the teens of the nineties started to look back upon it with nostalgia. Some of the bands have also had a significant influence on Doom Metal subgenres such as Stoner Metal and Sludge, which could be seen as a Spiritual Successor of sorts. Conversely, Grunge, Sludge, and Stoner Metal can also be considered "sister genres" as all three formed from the same sonic root with quite a bit of overlap in the bands themselves ('70s heavy/garage rock filtered through doom-influenced hardcore punk rock) but developed along tertiary characteristics that distinguished them: Grunge took up Alternative Rock, Stoner Metal added more Psychedelic Rock, and Sludge doubled down on Doom Metal. For this reason, while the latter two are sonically very similar to Grunge, they are not quite the same.

Not to be confused with Post-Grunge, which, beyond being based around downtuned guitar, often has very little in common. Also not to be confused with Sludge, which actually has quite a bit in common, but is far heavier, more nihilistic, and abrasive.

See also: Riot Grrrl, a women-led feminist hardcore punk genre and subculture from the same time period.

Bands typically categorised as Grunge include:

Grunge in fiction:

  • Cyclic National Fascination: Grunge started out as an underground, indie style in Seattle and Australia, with groups doing noisy, loud, DIY recordings that incorporated elements of punk and heavy metal. When recording executives decided Grunge would be the next big thing, they signed up almost anyone with a flannel shirt and a guitar, distortion pedal, and a few angsty songs about alienation and addiction. Grunge bands soared up the charts and toured widely. Of course, a musical style that was developed by outsiders could not flourish under the thumb of industry managers, so there was a pushback against this commercialization and commodification. This pushback, along with the surge of copycat acts and the saturation of the market with derivative songs, and the impact of addiction issues led to Grunge's demise.


Video Example(s):



[Trope Codifier] Nirvana, a grunge band formed in Aberdeen, Washington, was regularly considered as among the upper echelons of modern rock music for popularizing and influencing the Grunge and Alternative Rock scenes of the '90s, most prominently with their smash hit 1991 album Nevermind. The trio of guitarist and frontman Kurt Cobain, bassist Krist Novoselic, and a revolving door of drummers (eventually settling on Dave Grohl) would become the face of the '90s Grunge movement. The group is most well known for songs like "Smells Like Teen Spirit", "Come as You Are", "Heart-Shaped Box", and "You Know You're Right". Although the band disbanded following Cobain's suicide in April 1994, Nirvana still remained popular, releasing many compilations and live albums, and Grohl would go on to form Foo Fighters, one of the most respected and successful Alternative Rock acts of the genre.

The song example used is "Smells Like Teen Spirit".

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