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.

The Sounds of Winter

Something that I am very familiar with is the sound of winter in Vermont. Growing up here, I’ve always accepted it as the season of snowboarding, dragging sleds of hay out to my horses, and the rumble of the snow blower. However, UVM has depicted an entirely new concept of winter that is easy to explore with sound.

I begin my audiography in the Davis Center tunnel. In order to escape the frigid wind howling off the lake, I try to take the tunnel as much as possible. Once I started paying attention to my walks through, it became clear to me that there were two very separate soundscapes at work. The first is during actual class time. This causes near silence in the trek between athletic and central campuses, a trek that I tend to take with only three or four other silent travellers. However, during my rush back to University Heights North at the end of the next block, the tunnel is complete chaos. The line of people waiting to get into the door is the first clue, followed by the loud voices and roar of students scrambling to class or to eat. It ends with the second bottleneck up the stairs and out the door onto athletic. This is something that I only experience in the winter; on fair days, the masses opt to enjoy the weather outside.

Following my rush through the tunnel, I’m usually ready for something to warm me up. The newest addition to my dorm room is my espresso maker; the roar of the coffee brewing and the light tones of the milk frother are always well-received noises after the bitter cold. This tends to be accompanied by some procrastination in the form of Netflix and a cozy blanket. One of my favorite shows is Desperate Housewives. The upbeat theme song instantly relaxes me, an assurance that for at least 43 minutes I won’t have to worry about the work I’m pushing off. Occasionally the four women’s lives are put on hold so I can wash my cup and spoon in the sink, and again when I need to refill my water bottle to combat the dry air emanating from the heater above my head. This has recently been aided by the installment of the water bottle station on the UHN1 side, which has a very distinct hum followed by the trickle of excess water.

When I finally venture out again, sometimes to my next class or to dinner, the cyclical squeal of the heater in the entrance to UHN2 always catches my attention. It’s been a distinct sound since the heating system got switched on in the fall, annoying anyone who is forced to wait there. As I walk outside, my boots mimic the squeak in the snow-packed pathways. Due to the storm, there are plow trucks everywhere, dictating where I can and cannot walk. The beeping as they reverse upsets the peacefulness of the cold day.

Another trademark of the change in temperature is my desire to take the bus downtown or across campus instead of walking. I can usually make it to Waterman before my fingers begin to numb and I hop on the College Street Shuttle. Instantly, the heating vents hit me as I sit down for the warm ride. However, the cold doesn’t bother me when I am able to get out and go snowboarding, usually either to Bolton or Smuggs. Unlike many of the other sounds, the scrape of my board against ice is something I’ve been familiar with my entire life.

These sounds create a very different soundscape than the one I experience in warmer months; the shouts in the sun are replaced by the scraping of ice, the whir of my bike by the crowded bus, and so on. However, both are soundscapes that tend to be overlooked. But throughout this project, I noticed that my sense of hearing became attuned to picking up interesting sounds in everything I did. As Michel Chion would say, my listening turned from solely being causal to being reduced; or it focused “on the traits of the sound itself, independent of its cause and of its meaning” (50). I became more concerned with the intricacies of the actual noises instead of the source, since I needed to notice sounds that I tend to ignore. Instead of simply detecting the noise around me, I would actually practice resolution and sometimes identification as well; I would really listen to sound in order to understand it (Arehart 12). This is something that can be challenging in today’s society of constant overstimulation where we are rarely forced to heed the world around us. Through this project, I was forced to understand Horowitz’s conclusion that “listening is a skill that we’re in danger of losing in a world of digital distraction and information overload” (2).

Works Cited

Arehart, Kathryn H. “The Nature of Hearing and Hearing Loss.” Sounscape. 1st ed. Vol. 6. Melbourne: Printing Edge Melbourne, 2005. 11-14. Print.

Cherry, Marc. “Give Me the Blame.” Desperate Housewives. ABC. Burbank, California, 2011. Television.

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.

 

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.

The Comfort of Monotony

To be comfortable, I believe people need some consistency in their daily routines. Especially after being thrown, mentally unprepared, into this completely new and unfamiliar university world, I searched for a pattern to establish within my everyday activities. However, this comforting monotony also has the tendency to numb the senses. I especially notice how little I listen to during my daily routine. I no longer notice the buzzing of cars as I wait at the Main Street crosswalk, which I used to enjoy when I first came to school, as it was new to me. This type of aural ignorance comes with time and being accustomed to the environment and the sounds it contains.

In my audiography Monotony, listeners get a sense of what sounds make up my now regular college routine. It opens with a short recording of the alarm sound I wake up to each morning for class, which is the tone entitled “Marimba” on the iPhone. This sound is a perfect example of when I would incorporate causal listening into my day. My roommate and I have the same alarm tone, so I always let the alarm go off for about three run-throughs to ensure that it is my alarm going off and not hers. I then realize my phone is the source of the incessant, vexing tune. Following my alarm is the sound of window shades being pulled open, and immediately after is the whistling of wind through the barely existent cracks in the windowpane. Once awakened by my alarm, I pull open the shades to give myself a view of outside, where I will soon venture, to motivate me. The wind whispering through the windows allows me to focus on the outdoors and use semantic listening to “interpret a message” of the wind as a “code or a language” [1] of the world outside my room inviting me to venture there. Then, in the next recording, my roommate coughs several times, which I often hear as I get up in the morning lately due to her sickness. This sound grounds me back to where I am, and reminds me that I still have some preparing to do before taking part in the outdoor pursuit that begins my sure-to-be busy day.

The next sound is my door slamming shut, representing me leaving my room and beginning my daily duties, followed by the grinding, mechanical drone of my laptop starting up as I open it. These two sounds incorporate semantic listening as well, as they both involve a message of starting something. The shutting of the door represents leaving behind one event and starting another, and the laptop, obviously, illustrates gearing up and getting ready for some research or writing.

Typing of keys on my laptop is the next sound on the playlist, which is meant to stand for my times in class during the five school days every week. I believe I use semantic listening again when hearing typing, as I interpret it as a representation of work and academic efforts since I type homework assignments and notes.

The last three sounds of the playlist represent the gradual closing of each day. Scrunching of snow under boots is next, which is representative of my finishing class and walking back to the dorms to unwind a bit before burying myself under readings and notes for the unfortunate hours of homework I will surely have that night. Although I listen to music as I walk, I often hear this sound in the silence between songs on my iPod, and it is one of my personal favorites. Semantic listening tells me that it is winter in Vermont, which is beautiful and spirited.

The running water of a shower follows, representing relaxation and cleansing of the stresses of class before returning to work. Next is a short clip of one of my favorite study songs, the third movement of Scenes from the Louvre, a classical piece by Norman Dello Joio. I often listen to classical music as I work because songs with words tend to distract me. For this music, I use reduced listening, because I hear it for what it is, and do not infer anything from it.

I arranged my playlist in chronological order because I believe that gives listeners more insight into my routine, as the point of a routine is that the events are normally done in a particular order. They experience the sounds in the order I do. Making this playlist, I realized how many sounds blend together into the soundscape background that makes up everyday life. Searching for these sounds to record caused them to be “perceived consciously rather than just being part of [my] auditory surroundings” [2]. However, the fact that these sounds can blend together into the background proves that I have established my niche here at UVM and gives me a sense of comfort and belonging in my environment.

 

[1] Chion, Michel. “The Three Listening Modes.” Trans. Array The Sound Studies Reader. Jonathan Sterne. New York, NY: Routledge, 2012. 48-53. Print.

[2] Horowitz, Seth S. “The Science and Art of Listening.” New York Times. n. page. Print.