The Rise, Demise and Lasting Impact of Grunge

Why does popular music change? Why do we, as creators and consumers of music and culture, rebel against what appears to be harmonious and correct? Although the answers to these questions may be many, the musical soundscape of Seattle during the early nineties gives an insight into how modern America consumes its ever-changing fads. Grunge music started in the mid to late-eighties in the garages of Seattle and epitomized everything mainstream rock at that time did not. After gaining popularity, this sound became trendy in the early nineties and eventually was turned into a culture fad that commercialism spread across the country. Using R. Murray Schafer’s idea of soundscapes, varied “acoustic fields of study” (Reader, 99), I will analyze how the Grunge soundscape that emerged in Seattle in the late eighties and early nineties differed from mainstream rock at that time and how the Grunge sound went from a localized expression to a nationwide fascination causing the founders of the movement to revolt against its sudden popularity.

From the generation-defining guitar playing of Jimi Hendrix to the furious riffs first struck by Kurt Cobain, music from Seattle has proven to be both timeless and influential. The city’s most iconic sonic-movement, however, was Grunge. Starting as a fusion of punk’s energy and excitement with metal’s heavy sound, Grunge quickly formed its own identity. Key groups in the early grunge movement include, but are not limited to, the Melvins, Mudhoney, Green River and the U-Men. The early Grunge bands are not given nearly enough credit for the formation of the genre due to the commercial success of their successors, but many had direct influences on later bands and often continued to tour with them. Many groups achieved commercial success in Grunge, but four stand out above the rest: Nirvana, Alice in Chains, Soundgarden and Pearl Jam. What made the grunge movement so unique was that, in addition to coming from the same city, all were acquaintances and often played together either while in different groups or in previous years. Other key aspects of the movement were unkempt appearances consisting of everyday clothing and very few stage antics, both of which clashed with what mainstream rock up to that point had been about.

Grunge is a perfect example of how our preferences for music can shift drastically over a short period of time within one genre of music. While the eighties rock scene was about everything being bigger and flashier, the Grunge movement quickly took the genre back to being about the music. Although change in presentation was instrumental for this shift, the most important aspect to the change came from the music itself. Using the aspect of “keynotes” discussed by Schafer in his book, I plan to discuss how the “fundamental tone” (Reader, 100) present in Grunge is heavier, more complex and more emotionally driven than in the hair metal popular throughout most of the eighties. These discussions will be driven by examples given about guitar sound, style of singing and lyrical content among others. Without going into detail, overall themes in the music shifted from the glamour/partying lifestyle of the eighties metal bands to darker songs driven by personal issues such as drug abuse. This drug culture played a role in dismantling the Grunge movement both by separating groups with members who were using heavily and by killing key figures in the movement.

Although the Grunge movement was extremely popular and is still remembered today, it was relatively short lived. Very quickly, the music of Seattle traveled across the United States by way of MTV, and Grunge became a fashion statement/trend in addition to a style of music. Encapsulating the commercialization of the Grunge movement, top designers from New York began to create clothing lines in the “grunge style”, but sold them for hundreds of dollars. It was factors such as this as well as not wanting his music to become commercialized that caused Kurt Cobain to famously wear his “grunge is dead” t-shirt. Unfortunately, as the music industry always does, it commercialized Grunge because it was what was trendy. Through this commercialization, profit instead of good music was turned into the main objective for the music. I plan on analyzing how the Grunge movement quickly went from being localized music to a national trend, and by doing this, will then discuss how this affected the different artists being brought into the spotlight and see if a trend develops between their fates. Grunge quickly faded from the American spotlight, but its music is still listened to today. What caused America to fall in love with Grunge as a genre of music? Also, what caused America to fall out of love with the fad of Grunge, and does this say something about how commercialization affects musicians in the industry today?

Bibliography

Blecha, Peter. Sonic Boom: The History of Northwest Rock, from “Louie Louie” to “Smells like Teen Spirit” New York: Backbeat, 2009. Print

Peter Blecha is an award winning author and historian. He has contributed to many distinguished publications including The Seattle Times, Vintage Guitar and Life. He is also the founder of the Northwest Music Archives and has been called “Seattle’s unofficial curator of rock’n’roll” by Seattle Weekly. The broad audience intended to read this publication is all music fans, but the more focused audience is music fans from the Northwest as this book discusses the music scene in that region during the past fifty years. Unlike Yarm’s Everybody Loves Our Town, Blecha’s book discusses the history behind a large variety of Seattle’s music. Although I will not go in depth on it in my paper, understanding the rich tradition of music the city has is critical to understanding how Grunge was heard and accepted in the city. In addition to having critical information and quotations about the era of Grunge that will be necessary for this research paper, this source useful in providing a scope and history to the history of Seattle and will be helpful in writing a background section of the paper.

 

Hyman, Dan. “Mudhoney’s Mark Arm on Grunge’s Legacy.” Rollingstone.com. Rolling Stone Magazine, 7 Sept. 2011. Web. 12 Mar. 2013.

Dan Hyman is a freelance writer that has written over 170 articles for Rolling Stone magazine. Hyman received his Masters degree in journalism from Northwestern University. His article is written for all of the magazine’s readers, but it may catch the eye of older fans more since the title signifies that it is about Grunge. Also, it may only appeal to diehard Grunge fans because the article features someone who was instrumental in the establishment of the genre in Seattle’s late eighties but didn’t necessarily gain the notoriety/recognition of say, Kurt Cobain or Chris Cornell. When compared to the other magazine article I used as a source, “Grunge: A Success Story”, stark differences stand out which contribute to many of the ideas I wish to discuss in my research paper. While this article discusses Grunge from a musical perspective and illuminates some of the “what ifs” present in the history of the genre, the second article shows everything that was commercial about the movement. Another interesting contrast comes about when one considers how commercialism removes credibility from one of the founders of Grunge while also highlighting the wear of musicians whose last concern was attire. This article will be important for my paper by providing me with opinions of one of the key figures in the movement while also giving me a slightly more realistic view of the success of Nirvana in relation to Cobain’s death.

 

Lyons, James. Selling Seattle. London, NY: Wallflower, 2004. Print.

James Lyons is a British film historian who has written a number of books on the history of television and modern television. In Selling Seattle, he focuses on how Seattle boomed culturally and economically during the nineties. The audience intended for this read seems to be someone foreign or unaware of the cultural history of Seattle and interested in why it was so successful during the end of the twentieth-century. This reading contrasts sharply with the other two books on the “Seattle Sound” because it addresses Grunge not from a musical perspective but from a very broad cultural perspective. Instead of discussing the meaning of the music, or the influences behind the lyrics, Lyons focuses on how Grunge was a smaller aspect of many different fads that came out of the city during that time. This will be important for my paper, however, because it gives a good summary of how commercialism affected the cultural surge in Seattle, the demise of Grunge specifically and the decline of the city as a whole.

 

Marin, Rick. “Grunge: A Success Story.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 15 Nov. 1992. Web. 11 Mar. 2013.

Rick Marin is a best-selling author and has also written many articles for the New York Times Style department. Marin holds two Masters degrees, one in English from the University of Toronto, and one in Journalism from Columbia. The intended audience for this article would be people interested in what would be hip to wear in 1992. This articles projects interestingly what the rest of the country took from the Grunge movement and represents everything that frustrated the musicians from Seattle who originally started the rebellion against glamour and everything eighties rock represented. While the impressive work by Mark Yarm, Everybody Loves Our Town, chronicles the history of grunge from its earliest roots, this magazine article explores everything that Grunge became once it left the clubs of Seattle. Unlike the other works that I have cited, this article does a good job of showing the negative side of grunge. It realistically tells the story of how Grunge lost its original following and shifted to the designers and rich, elite of New York and other urban hubs across the United States. This article will help illuminate one of the main topics of my thesis by showing how Grunge went from being a localized expression to a national fad that caused the founders of the movement to revolt against its sudden popularity.

 

Sterne, Jonathan. The Sound Studies Reader. New York: Routledge, 2012. Print.

 

Yarm, Mark. Everybody Loves Our Town: An Oral History of Grunge. New York: Crown Archetype, 2011. Print.

Mark Yarm is the former senior editor for Blender magazine and has written for prominent publications such as Men’s Health and Esquire. Intended audiences for this read, in my opinion, would be fans of rock music in general. The entire book consists of interviews and quotes from famous musicians discussing various groups, people, and aspects involved with Grunge. This book provides the best look into the lives and minds of the musicians who created the Grunge movement. Instead of analyzing the music, style and actions of the people like the other readings, this book contains their own words, opinions and stories. This is the most entertaining and enticing work that is being cited for research. This source will illuminate my topic because it will show the raw emotion and energy that goes into grunge music, and will provide personal explanations and feelings toward making the music.

Background into Focus

I have never been someone who has had great skill in listening to multiple things at once. Because of this when I am focused on an activity I tend not to notice the things around me. The whole world is happening but because I am not paying attention to it, it is not actually happening to me. Every so often something in the things that I tune out begins to capture my attention. “Hearing has evolved as our alarm system — it operates out of line of sight and works even while you are asleep” (Horowitz 1). In my case, without my hearing working as an alarm system, I wouldn’t hear my alarm go off in the morning.

Having sound that capture my attention can work to my disadvantage also. At times when I attempt to study, the constant turning of a page can pull me away from what I should be doing. I become so focused on the one sound that every time I hear it, I have to pay attention to it. This also occurs as I am trying to fall asleep. It is much more interesting to listen to the conversations that occur in the hallway at midnight then it is to just fall asleep.

In some cases sounds that I hear become much easier to ignore once I discern their cause. My room borders a stairwell. Lying in bed trying to fall asleep, I would often hear a banging, echoing sound coming from the stairwell. The source of noise in the stairwell was a mystery to me for a while. It would occur randomly throughout the day but it was especially prevalent on weekend nights.  I was force to rely on causal listening “to gather information about its cause” and came to the conclusion that it was the result of people banging on the railings as they climbed the stairs (Chion 48).

Sometimes I was unable to pick out the specific cause of my distraction. In the Harris-Millis Dining Hall the sounds were not individual. All the different sounds had combined to create a whole new sound. Because I could not pick up the individual sounds I had to focus on the sound itself. By using reduced listening I was able to pick up the “timbre and texture” of the dining hall (Chion 51).

This assignment has been particularly successful at bring my focus to the things that I traditionally ignore. Even at this moment the clack of the keys on my computer keyboard have caught my attention. As I type I normally tune out the fact that each key has a sound that varies slightly differently from the others. Something that I do so often is so easily ignored. Previously, when I filled my water bottle at the fountain I was fascinated with the way the water would land in the bottle and then fill it. This assignment made me listen to the change in the sound that the water made as the bottle went from empty to full.

When I ride the bus, initially I am able to hear all the people talking along with being able to hear the rumble of the bus engine. As I spend more time on the bus, everyone’s voices seem to gradually fade out and blend with the engine unless I specifically focus on one particular conversation. However the longer that I am on it, the less I notice the engine. In this way my ears close without me even being aware of it happening.

At times I close my ears to things I should not. If a lecture does not capture my attention I end up getting distracted. In these cases I am not “open to new ideas” because they do not hold my interest (Schafer 25). Doing this assignment has made me realize just how much I close my ears to the world around me. If I miss this much in the course of a week, how much do I loose in a lifetime?

List of Sounds

Works Cited

Chion, Michel. “The Three Listening Modes.” The Sound Studies Reader. Ed. Jonathan Sterne. New York: Routledge, 2012. 48-53. Print.

Horowitz, Seth S. “The Science and Art of Listening.” The New York Times 9 Nov. 2012: 1-3. Print.

Schafer, Murray. “Open Ears.” Thinking About Sound. 25-39. Print.

Repeat or Replay

According to Karin Bijsterveld, quoting Doron K. Antrim, “‘the ear tends to follow’ the agreeable ‘regular tonal pulsations’ of music and ‘ to forget’ the irritating and fatiguing ‘regular pulsations’ of noise” (Bijsterveld 156).  The recordings included in my audiography, “Repetitions,” exemplify Bijsterveld’s idea that noise and chaos become musical and rhythmic when repeated in an orderly fashion.  The sounds I included in “Repetitions” are sounds that I hear repeated each day and have taken on the role of rhythmic background music to the dynamic aspects of my life.  I arranged these sounds in the order that I hear them each day.  “Repetitions” begins with the way I begin my day, with my morning shower, cycles through my routine of eating and attending class and running, and then ends back where it began in my dorm room.  Occasionally one sound is misplaced in the sequence, for example I eat at Harris/Millis later in the day or hop on my computer earlier, but usually such small shifts in the rhythm of my life do not change the way I define myself.  However, major shifts in the arrangement of these repetitive sounds alter my perceptions of myself, and often these major changes occur depending on my physical location and my age.

When initially establishing my rhythmic background, by coming to a new place or point in my life, I employ causal listening by “listening to a sound in order to gather information about its cause or source” (Chion 48).  Upon my arrival at UVM, I heard an electronic swish and thump, and I was forced to identify the cause of the sound as the hallway door being opened and closed.  Gradually, as I became more accustomed to the opening and closing noises of the door, I employed a form of semantic listening by listening for, “a code or language to interpret a message” (Chion 50).  Although, in listening to the door, I was not hearing the words that make up language, I was using semantic listening by identifying patterns in the way the door was opened to signify the meaning behind that act.  For example, if the door is opened for more than ten seconds before it shuts, there are probably multiple people entering the hallway, or if the door is opened very gruffly and quickly, it is possible that the person opening the door is in a hurry.  By identifying patterns and behavioral codes in the sounds of the door, I am using semantic listening to identify the motivations behind the person opening the door.  Throughout my college experience so far, I have first listened to all of my recorded sounds causally and then later listened semantically.

By entering the next stage of listening to my various rhythmic sounds, Schafer would claim that these sounds no longer capture my attention as they did when I was first employing causal listening because the sounds become a consistent part of my environment, and “things that can’t be generated or shut off with buttons or switches attract little attention in the modern world” (Schafer 38).  However, due to the consistent repetition of these sounds day after day, I have developed a relationship with the noises because they define me at this point in my life.  I may not listen to each of these sounds with focused attention every time I hear each noise, but because I listened intently to the sounds when I first encountered them I have “tune[d] [my] brain to the patterns of [my] environment” and will  quickly identify a change in any of my included recordings (Horowitz 2).

Like the factory workers Bijsterveld describes whose “cultural meanings of sounds largely explain the lack of [their] enthusiasm for hearing protection,” the way I identify with the sounds of my current situation at UVM explains how I feel about my surroundings and myself (Bijsterveld 163).  When I return home to Oregon this summer, I will need to redefine myself by the rhythmic noises of my everyday life in a new town and a new season.  However, right now in my life the ten tracks presented in “Repetitions” demonstrate my stability here at UVM.  “While unusual noises suggested mechanical faults” to the factory workers, and “familiar sounds were a comfort to both drivers and workers,” I find comfort in the familiar sounds I hear from the time I wake each morning, to the time my head hits the pillow (Bijsterveld 161).

 

Works Cited 

Bijsterveld, Karin. “Listening to Machines.” The Sound Studies Reader. Jonathan Sterne. New York: Routledge, 2012. 152-167. Print.

Chion, Michael. “The Three Listening Modes.” The Sound Studies Reader. Jonathan Sterne. New York: Routledge, 2012. 48-53. Print.

Horowitz, Seth. “The Science and Art of Listening.” New York Times. 9 Nov 2012. Web. .

Schafer, Murray. “Open Ears.” Thinking About Sound.