1991: the year Grunge broke. Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” was released as a single in September, and everything changed. A manifesto for dissatisfied Reagan-era youth.
2018: Rock music is still in the remission its been in for a vague number of years. Everyone yearns for the glory days of rock to return. You still get some solid releases from legacy guitar acts like Foo Fighters, Pearl Jam, STP. There’s plenty of quality underground guitar rock acts who never really make that leap outside of indie rag buzz, and we get some solid new acts like Royal Blood and Highly Suspect on a mainstream level. However, it seems like they never hit their career zenith and release an album the likes of Ten, Superunknown, Nevermind.
Something happened along the way that put a cap on rock music. We’ve had some little movements along the way (nu-metal, and the early 2000’s garage rock wave spearheaded by The White Stripes and The Strokes), but it just seems as though the rock scene is dead as a doornail in public eyes. We’ve haven’t experienced a “moment” in the vein of the British Invasion, or the Glam Metal explosion (maybe for the better), or the Grunge movement. Those three sweet years, 1991-1994, made as much noise as they possibly could before burning out with Kurt Cobain’s suicide.
In the years since, we’ve had a disgustingly hollow echo of the Grunge movement in the post-grunge craze, a scene that made such a vapid mockery of itself by 2010’s “Porn Star Dancing”, by My Darkest Days. That song was so non self-aware of its ticking off of every single awful cliche of the genre, from its macho-man sex machine attitude (as if someone had listened to STP’s “Sex Type Thing”, had the ironic feminist message go over their head entirely, and built an entire genre around it) and awful lyrics, that guitar rock almost entirely disappeared from radio after the fact, being replaced by the pop crossover acts spearheaded by Mumford and Sons and Owl City. And that’s where we still stand today: pop stars like Imagine Dragons still hog up alternative radio music space, and good old fashioned guitar rock, for the most part, stands by in wait.
Lots of young bands today like to refer to themselves as “grunge”; my own inbox is flooded with thousands of emails from representatives of bands “trying to bring back grunge”, or something to that effect. Many seem to want success but don’t go for it in full measure. Many of these bands are talented musicians, but lack any songs with discernible hooks that would get the attention. I hear many young bands argue about artistic integrity and a fear of selling out. Oftentimes, if I suggest a way to help get them attention on the internet, there is a backlash against being “clickbait” or “not earning attention the right way”. Many people claim anyway that another big rock “moment” will never happen again anyway, due to the fragmentation of the music audience on the internet.
I say all of this is completely wrong.
“Grunge” was never a genre of music. It was a buzzword used by market research groups to sell products to disaffected Reaganite youth, a way to advertise punk and hard rock bands that grew up equally on their dad’s Black Sabbath records and their mother’s ABBA compilation. The term has become so synonymous with the early 90’s now that trying to say you are “reviving grunge” would probably be a disservice to your own future career, likening yourself to a tribute act instead of being a trailblazer in and of yourself.
It isn’t a horrible thing to “sell out”, and hatred of financial success was never a component of the “Grunge” scene. Trying to appease the Grunge gods and your own sense of honor by NOT writing the next “Smells Like Teen Spirit” is a disservice to the genre in general. The myth that Kurt Cobain hated success is always underscored by the fact that he specifically had discussions with Geffen Records about making Nirvana “the biggest band in the world” – he took his commercial pop songwriting chops displayed on Bleach‘s “About a Girl” and applied it to every single track off of his sophomore record, Nevermind.
Take an interview with Rolling Stone Magazine in 1993, where Kurt himself breaks down the mythology surrounding the “the whiny, complaining, neurotic, bitchy guy who hates everything, hates rock stardom, hates his life… I’ve never been happier in my life.”
Despite failing record sales, we live in an age where Kendrick Lamar’s Damn can go double platinum in 2017, or Adele’s 25 can go diamond in 2015. It doesn’t matter if the internet has made the music-consuming audience scatterbrained. All we need is one single hungry for success guitar-driven rock band with a knack for pop songwriting sensibilities, shed of Post-grunge’s douchey exterior or Indie pop’s pretentious and glossy facade, to bring rock back to the forefront and inspire other bands to achieve the same.
To do that, we have to unlearn what Grunge supposedly taught us about image and financial integrity, and move forward. That’s not to say I’m being an armchair critic telling Pearl Jam and STP to break up (unless it’s an unhealthy situation similar to propping Chris Cornell or Scott Weiland up on stage for a project their heart and soul isn’t entirely in); all I’m saying is they had their time in the limelight.
Now it’s time for the next generation to pick up the slack. Maybe it’s time for a new Beatles, not a new Nirvana.