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Grunge music

Music Sound

Grunge music

Post-grunge | Mosh

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Stylistic origins: Alternative rock, Hardcore punk, Indie rock, Heavy metal
Cultural origins: early 1980s, United States Pacific Northwest
Typical instruments: Guitar - Bass - Drums
Mainstream popularity: high during the early and mid-1990s; lower but existent in the 2000s
Regional scenes
Australia - California - Oregon - Washington
Other topics
Timeline of alternative rock

Grunge music (sometimes also referred to as the Seattle Sound) is a genre of alternative rock inspired by hardcore punk, heavy metal, and indie rock. It became commercially successful in the late 1980s and early 1990s, peaking in mainstream popularity between 1991 and 1994. Bands from cities in the Pacific Northwest of the United States, such as Seattle, Washington, Olympia, Washington, and Portland, Oregon, created grunge and later made it popular with mainstream audiences. The genre is closely associated with Generation X in the US, since it was popularized in tandem with the rise in popularity of the generation's name.[1] The popularity of grunge was one of the earliest phenomena that distinguished the popular music of the 1990s from that of the 1980s.


Style, roots, and influences

Grunge music is generally characterized by "dirty" guitar, strong riffs, and heavy drumming. The "dirty" sound resulted both from a stylistic change in the standard method of playing punk rock, and from the common use of guitar distortion and feedback. Grunge involves slower tempos and dissonant harmonies that are generally not found in punk. The lyrics are typically angst-filled — anger, frustration, ennui, sadness, fear, and depression are often explored in grunge songs. These lyrics may have come from the feelings of angst that are common in adolescence; many grunge musicians began their careers as teenagers or young adults. However, other factors, such as poverty, discomfort with social prejudices, and a general disenchantment with the state of society may also have influenced grunge lyricism. Nevertheless, not all grunge songs dealt with such emotions: Nirvana's satirical "In Bloom" is a notable example of more humorous writing. In fact, several grunge songs are filled with either a dark or fun sense of humor as well (for example, Mudhoney's "Touch Me, I'm Sick!" or Tad's "Stumblin' Man"), though this often went unnoticed by the general public. Much of the humor in grunge satirized heavy metal and other forms of rock music that were popular during the 1980s.[2]

Grunge evolved out of the Pacific Northwest's local punk rock scene, inspired by local punk bands such as The Fartz, The U-Men, the feedback- and distortion-intensive The Accused, and pop-punksters The Fastbacks.[3] Above all, the slow, heavy sound of The Melvins was the biggest influence on grunge. Both The Melvins and the punk band The Wipers (also influential) are themselves considered grunge bands by some fans of the genre, although others classify them as hardcore punk bands. Aside from its punk origins, the grunge movement had strong roots in the musical and youth culture of the American northwest. The musical resemblance to such 1960s northwest bands as the Wailers and, most particularly, the Sonics, is unmistakable.

Mark Arm, the vocalist for the Seattle band Green River (and later Mudhoney), is widely credited for being the first to use the term "grunge" to describe the style. However, Arm used the term pejoratively; he called the band's style "pure grunge, pure shit". This was not seen as being negative by the media, and the term was subsequently applied to all music that sounded similar to Green River's style.[4] It is likely that the term was seen as appropriate because of the "dirty" guitar sound that grunge is known for (the word grunge itself means "dirt") and the unkempt appearance of most bands of the genre which was in direct contradiction to the relatively polished look of hair metal bands of the late 1980s.

Alice in Chains Alice in Chains

Formed in 1983, Green River is widely believed to have created the genre, and was a large inspiration for many grunge bands despite the band's relatively low level of commercial success.[5] After the band split up in 1988, members of Green River formed Mudhoney and Mother Love Bone, continuing on their style. Green River, who used a harder sound in their performance than many later grunge bands, inspired other early grunge bands such as Soundgarden and Alice in Chains to use a similarly hard style. However, the sound of the genre became a mix of the earlier grunge style and alternative rock shortly before its mainstream success in the 1990s. This is most often credited to Nirvana's style, which combined the sound of earlier grunge bands with that of The Pixies. Nirvana's use of the Pixies' "soft verse, hard chorus" style popularized this stylistic approach in both grunge and other alternative rock genres.

Grunge's unique sound is often said to have resulted from Seattle's isolation from other alternative rock scenes.[6] However, outside of the Pacific northwest, other musicians are said to have influenced grunge. Such northeastern bands as Sonic Youth and Dinosaur Jr. are considered important influences on the grunge sound; both groups championed many Seattle bands who would later achieve notoriety. The influence of the Pixies on Nirvana — and through them on other bands — is also unquestionable. The Minnesota hardcore punk/alternative rock band Hüsker Dü are also believed by some to have been an influence. After Neil Young played live a few times with Pearl Jam and recorded the album Mirror Ball with them, some members of the media gave Young the questionable title "Godfather of Grunge," a claim grounded mainly on his work with his band Crazy Horse. Australia's The Scientists and Detroit's proto-punk luminaries the Stooges and MC5 are also noted influences.

Mudhoney's Steve Turner says that Black Flag's 1984 record My War and its supporting tours were major influences on many Seattle bands. The record found the Los Angeles punk rock stalwarts slowing their tempi considerably and injecting a potent dose of heavy metal, though to considerable derision and disgust from some fans. Turner says that "A lot of other people around the country hated the fact that Black Flag slowed down ... but up here it was really great — we were like 'Yay!' They were weird and fucked-up sounding."[7] While elements of heavy metal made their way into the grunge sound, the genre continued to remain more loyal to its punk roots. The mentality of the musicians was still very deeply rooted in the punk scene, with many bands adhering to the DIY ethic. The hardcore punk band Bad Brains was also a huge influence on grunge. Dave Grohl of Nirvana said, "Seeing Bad Brains live was, without a doubt, always one of the most intense, powerful experiences you could ever have... They made me absolutely determined to become a musician, they basically changed my life, and changed the lives of everyone who saw them." Fellow Nirvana bandmate and bassist Krist Novoselic said that their single "In Bloom" "sounded like a Bad Brains song." [8] Bad Brains' albums I Against I and Quickness helped pioneer the combination of hardcore and metal styles into a single sound.

Grunge concerts were known for being straightforward, high-energy performances. Grunge bands avoided the complex, high budget presentations that bands from other musical genres such as heavy metal were known for; complex light arrays, pyrotechnics, and other technological visual effects unrelated to playing the music were not part of the concerts. Instead, the bands presented themselves no differently from any local band, using only their instruments and their own presence as visual "effects" (neither being budgeted higher than what was needed). The concerts did have some level of interactivity though, presented in the form of the mosh pit. Fans and musicians alike would participate in stage diving, crowd surfing, headbanging, and pogoing, though the audiences at grunge concerts were best known for their extremely enthusiastic moshing. The mosh pits would be located close to the stage, allowing such interaction between the audience and the band.

Mainstream popularity

Nirvana, early in their career Nirvana, early in their career

Prior to its popularity, grunge was listened to mostly by those who played the music. Bands would play at clubs with very few people in attendance, most of which were from other performing bands. Others who listened to the music in those early days were often people who were "just trying to get out of the rain" as many attendants would claim. As bands began to issue albums, independent labels became the key catalysts in bringing the music to the local public. Many of the more successful bands of the era were associated with Seattle's Sub Pop record label. Other record labels in the Pacific Northwest that helped promote grunge included EMpTy Records, Estrus Records, C/Z Records, and PopLlama Records.[9][10]

A seminal release in the development of grunge was 1986's Deep Six compilation, released by C/Z Records (later reissued on A&M). The record featured mutliple tracks by six bands: Soundgarden, the Melvins, Green River, Malfunkshun, Skin Yard, and the U-Men; for many of them it was their first appearance on record. The artists had "a mostly heavy, aggressive sound that melded the slower tempos of heavy metal with the intensity of hardcore".[11] As Sub Pop producer Jack Endino recalled, "People just said, 'Well, what kind of music is this? This isn't metal, it's not punk, What is it? '[. . .] People went 'Eureka! These bands all have something in common.'" Later in '86 Bruce Pavitt released the Sub Pop 100 compilation as well as Green River's Dry As A Bone EP as part of his new label Sub Pop. An early Sub Pop catalog described the Green River EP as "ultra-loose GRUNGE that destroyed the morals of a generation".[12]

In November 1988, Sub Pop took their initial step towards popularizing grunge with the Sub Pop Singles Club, a subscription service that would allow subscribers to receive singles by local bands on a monthly basis by mail. This increased grunge's following locally, and allowed Sub Pop to become a powerful company in the local scene. According to Sub Pop founders Bruce Pavitt and Jonathan Poneman, grunge's popularity began to flourish after journalist Everett True from the British magazine Melody Maker was asked by them to write an article on the local music scene. This helped to make grunge known outside of the local area during the late 1980s, giving the genre its first major spurt of popularity.[13] Mudhoney is often credited as having been the biggest commercial success for grunge during this time, and was the most successful grunge band until the end of the 80s.[14] Still, grunge would not become a huge national phenomenon in the US until the 1990s.

Nirvana's Nevermind album cover Nirvana's Nevermind album cover

Nirvana is generally credited for breaking the genre into the popular consciousness in 1991. The popularity of Nirvana's song "Smells Like Teen Spirit", from the album Nevermind, surprised the entire music industry. The album became a #1 hit around much of the world, and paved the way for more bands, including, most popularly, Pearl Jam. Pearl Jam, in fact, had released their debut album Ten a month earlier in August 1991, but album sales only picked up after the success of Nirvana. For many audiences then and later, grunge came to be almost totally associated with these two bands and their punky, rebellious attitude towards mainstream mores as well as cultural and social institutions. By 1993, other popular Seattle-based bands (most notably Alice in Chains and Soundgarden) would also become extremely successful. Some bands from other regions, such as Stone Temple Pilots from San Diego, Australia's Silverchair, and Great Britain's Bush also became popular by the mid-90s.[15]

Most grunge fans and music critics believe that grunge emerged as a popular genre and was embraced by mainstream audiences in reaction to the declining popularity of hair metal. Hair metal bands, such as Mötley Crüe, Poison, and Warrant, had been dominating the charts during the 1980s (especially in the United States) despite being looked down upon by most critics. Hair metal was known for macho (some critics have said misogynist) lyrics, anthemic riffs, and a perceived lack of social consciousness, especially in the race to attract mainstream audiences. These aspects were popular during the 1980s, but they began to have the opposite effect on audiences towards the end of the decade. Grunge, however, sharply contrasted to hair metal; its lyrics avoided machismo and used a simpler style similar to punk. With a viable alternative to hair metal realized by the public, the popularity of hair metal began to die off as the popularity of grunge began to rise.

Grunge fans in the Pacific Northwest believed that the media gave excessive importance to the clothing worn by grunge musicians and fans, along with other aspects of the local culture. Clothing commonly worn by grunge fans in the Northwest in its early years was a blend of the punk aesthetic with the typical outdoorsy clothing (most notably flannel shirts) of the region. The "fashion" did not evolve out of a conscious attempt to create an appealing fashion, but due to the inexpensiveness of such clothes and the warmth that they provided for the cold climate of the region. The media, rather than focusing on the music, would give this fashion a heavy amount of exposure. In the early 1990s, the fashion industry marketed "grunge fashion" to a widespread audience, charging relatively high prices for clothing that they assumed to be popular in the grunge scene. Similarly, the media would view grunge as a whole culture, assuming it to be Generation X's attempt to create a culture similar to the hippie counterculture of the previous generation. Rather than focus on the music, much of the media focused on other superficial aspects of the musicians and fans. An interesting case of this superficiality backfiring on the media was the grunge speak hoax, which caused The New York Times to print a fake list of slang terms that supposedly were used in the grunge scene. This was later proven to be a prank by Sub Pop's Megan Jasper. The excesses of this media hype would also be documented in the 1996 documentary Hype!.[16]

Pearl Jam's Ten album cover Pearl Jam's Ten album cover

While such superficiality bothered Seattle-area grunge fans, most grunge musicians from the area continued to dress in the way that they had prior to popularity. Some musicians from outside the region also began to dress similarly. In the rock world, expensive, designer clothing was shunned in favor of less elaborate clothing; some common items worn included flannel, jeans, boots (often Doc Martens), and Converse sneakers. Many young fans outside of the region embraced this style for its simple defiance of the norms of the era's popular culture, which was seen by many of them as corporate-dominated and superficial. In England, youth who dressed in this fashion were sometimes called grungers, while the term grungies was often used in the United States. Traditional rock and roll ostentatiousness became offensive to many rock music fans, inspiring an anti-fashion trend. Oddly, this attitude helped the fashion industry push their "grunge fashion" line, turning the fans' defiance to fashion against them. As a result, many grunge fans dropped the "traditional" grunge fashion soon after having embraced it; the industry stopped marketing it shortly afterwards.

Many notable events happened during the "grunge era" of music that may not have happened had grunge never become popular. Alternative rock, previously heard mostly in local clubs, on college radio, and on independent record labels, became popular in the mainstream as major record labels sought out more previously obscure music styles to sell to the public. The traveling festival Lollapalooza came about as a result of this, with grunge being a major part of the 1992 and 1993 events. In the media's spotlight, grunge became part of the pop culture, most notably being a major part of the 1992 film Singles, which featured several grunge bands. Nirvana and Sonic Youth would star in a documentary film that same year, 1991: The Year Punk Broke. Riot grrrl, another hardcore punk offshoot that came into being in Western Washington (and was thus often seen as the feminine equivalent of grunge), became well known from the media coverage of the local scene. With such punk derivative genres becoming popular, punk itself was able to make a revival, as bands such as Green Day and The Offspring became chart-topping successes. Independent record labels, which used to rarely have success on level with major labels, were able to sell albums with equal or similar success as the major labels (most notably in the cases of Sub Pop and Epitaph Records).

Decline of mainstream popularity

The mass popularity of grunge music was short-lived, however. There were several important factors that contributed to this. Though some of them could have single-handedly ended the genre's mainstream popularity, it is generally believed that more than one factor caused the decline.

Most fans and music historians believe that many grunge bands were too opposed to mainstream stardom to actually achieve long-lasting support from major record labels. Many grunge bands refused to cooperate with major record labels in making radio-friendly hooks, and the labels found new bands that were willing to do so, albeit with a watered-down sound that did not sit well with the genre's long-time fans. A decline in music sales in general in 1996 may also have influenced labels to look for different genres to promote rather than genres such as grunge that were popular up to that point. However, this decline may have been a result of the industry's use of such watered-down groups.

Another factor that may have led to the fall of grunge's mainstream popularity was the advent of the sub-genre of grunge known as post-grunge. Post-grunge was a radio-friendly variation of grunge which lacked the "dirty" sound that most fans of grunge were used to. The sub-genre is generally believed to have come about at the behest of label executives who wanted to sell a variation of grunge that would sell to a larger audience as a result of sounding more like pop music. In the mid-1990s, record labels began signing several bands that used such a sound and gave them wide exposure. While some of these bands, such as Silverchair and Bush, were able to gain widespread success, many fans of grunge denounced post-grunge bands as being sell-outs. This is most notable in the cases of Candlebox and Collective Soul, who were reviled by most grunge fans. Even the commercially successful post-grunge bands would be given such accusations by grunge fans, causing most of them to have shorter spurts of popularity than earlier grunge bands. As grunge began to disappear from the mainstream, later post-grunge bands such as Creed and Nickelback would also receive such negative treatment by fans of the genre.

Soundgarden's Superunknown album cover Soundgarden's Superunknown album cover

Heroin use amongst grunge musicians was also a serious problem for the continuation of some grunge bands. Andrew Wood's death from an overdose in 1990 was the first major tragedy for the grunge scene, bringing an end to Mother Love Bone. Kurt Cobain's use of heroin is believed to have contributed to his death (though whether or not it did was never confirmed).[17] The deaths of Kristen Pfaff of Hole and Layne Staley of Alice in Chains in 1994 and 2002, respectively, were also caused by heroin overdoses. It is believed by many that grunge effectively began its decline when Cobain died in April of 1994. Interestingly, Cobain had often been photographed wearing t-shirts stating that "Grunge is Dead."

For many fans of the genre, it wasn't until the pioneering band Soundgarden disbanded in 1997 that they finally conceded grunge's time in the mainstream was over. Over the next few years grunge's mainstream popularity quickly came to an end. Many grunge bands have continued recording and touring with more limited success, including, most significantly, Pearl Jam. Grunge music still has its followers, and many of them still express their fandom over the Internet. Grunge's mainstream following still shows some continuation in the popularity of Nirvana's post-break-up releases; the previously unreleased song "You Know You're Right" became a chart topping hit in 2002, and the box set With the Lights Out has become the best selling box set of all time.


Prominent Seattle area bands

Alice in Chains
Green River
Love Battery
Mad Season
Mono Men
Mother Love Bone
My Sister's Machine
Pearl Jam
Screaming Trees
Skin Yard
Temple of the Dog
The U-Men

Bands from outside the Seattle area

The Fluid (Denver, CO)
Hole (Los Angeles, CA)
L7 (Los Angeles, CA)
The Nymphs (Los Angeles, CA)
Stone Temple Pilots (San Diego, CA)


  1.  The novel Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture by Douglas Coupland, which popularized the term "Generation X", was published in 1991. Despite common belief, the novel makes no reference to grunge at all; Nirvana had yet to release "Smells Like Teen Spirit" at the time that the novel was published. Still, the characters' attitudes and dress styles were seen as being reminiscent of those of grunge fans and musicians.
  2.   Arm first used the term in 1981, before he had adopted the name under which he became famous. As Mark McLaughlin, he wrote a letter to a Seattle zine, Desperate Times, criticizing his own then-band Mr. Epp and the Calculations as "Pure grunge! Pure noise! Pure shit!" Clark Humphrey, who edited Desperate Times, cites this (Loser, 63) as the earliest use of the term to refer to a Seattle band, and mentions that Bruce Pavitt of SubPop popularized the term as a musical label in 1987–88, using it on several occasions to describe Arm's band Green River. [18] As early has his 1971 essay "Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung", rock critic Lester Bangs, used the term "grungy" in passing, although not to characterize a genre: "…The Count Five, who weren't so hot at it actually but ripped their whole routine off with such grungy spunk that I really dug 'em the most!"[19]
  3.  A common claim of the media is that Geffen Records played a major role in marketing grunge to the mainstream audience. However, its only involvement was in promoting Nirvana in the 1990s. It is worth noting that Nirvana had already begun to gain a considerable following when they were signed to Sub Pop.
  4.  Pavitt and Poneman were both criticized for their actions. Some grunge fans felt that their role in popularizing grunge was done out of greed rather than an actual love for the music.
  5.  Most grunge bands that came from outside of the Pacific Northwest belonged to the subgenre of post-grunge. Those mentioned were not exceptions; Bush and Silverchair, despite their success, were heavily criticized by grunge fans for helping post-grunge proliferate in the music industry. Stone Temple Pilots were often criticized for their similarities to mainstream musicians of the previous decade, and some grunge fans do not believe that they count as a grunge band at all.


  •  "The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time". Rolling Stone. Retrieved October 28, 2005.
  • Azerrad, Michael. Our Band Could Be Your Life. Little Brown and Company, 2002. ISBN 0316787531
  •  Bangs, Lester. Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung. New York: Anchor, 1988. ISBN 0679720456
  •  Deming, Mark. "Mudhoney". All Music Guide. Retrieved July 5, 2005.
  •  Freind, Bill. "Grunge". St. James Encyclopedia of Pop Culture. Retrieved June 23, 2005.
  •  Howitt, Bernie. Grunge Music - Academic View. Retrieved May 7, 2005.
  •  Huey, Steve. "Green River". All Music Guide. Retrieved July 3, 2005.
  •   Humphrey, Clark. Loser: The Real Seattle Music Story. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1999. ISBN 1929069243
  •     Pray, D., Helvey-Pray Productions (1996). Hype!. Republic Pictures.

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