Grunge music is a type of alternative rock. It started in Seattle, Washington, in the mid-1980s. It became popular in the early 1990s. Grunge music has a distorted guitar sound, heavy drumming and angry lyrics. The lyrics often talk about social alienation, self-doubt, addiction and depression.
Grunge music was inspired by punk rock, metal, indie rock and other genres. It inspired many other music styles, fashion trends and cultural movements. In this article, we will share six insights to grunge music. You will learn about its origins, characteristics, impact and legacy.
1. Grunge music was born out of the Seattle underground scene
Seattle was where grunge music began. Many bands that started the genre and shaped its sound came from there. The Seattle underground scene was a lively and diverse group of musicians, artists, fans and indie labels. They helped each other and had a “do it yourself” (DIY) ethic.
Some of the key people in the Seattle scene were:
- Sub Pop Records, a label that signed many grunge bands and marketed them with clever campaigns.
- Jack Endino, a producer and engineer who made many grunge albums at his studio Reciprocal Recording.
- Bruce Pavitt and Jonathan Poneman, the founders of Sub Pop who used the word “grunge” to describe their bands’ style.
2. Grunge music was influenced by various genres and bands
Grunge music was not all the same. It was a mix of different musical styles that each band used in their own special way. Some of the main influences on grunge music were:
Grunge bands admired the rebellious attitude, raw energy and DIY ethos of punk rock bands such as The Stooges, The Sex Pistols, The Clash, Black Flag, Minor Threat and Hüsker Dü. Punk rock inspired grunge bands to use distortion, feedback, power chords and simple song structures.
Grunge music were influenced by the heavy riffs, loud drums and dark themes of metal bands such as Black Sabbath, Led Zeppelin, AC/DC, Motörhead, Metallica and Slayer. Metal influenced grunge bands to use drop tunings, palm muting and guitar solos.
Grunge bands were influenced by the experimental and eclectic sounds of indie rock bands such as Sonic Youth, Pixies, Dinosaur Jr., The Replacements, R.E.M. and Husker Du. Indie rock influenced grunge bands to use unconventional instruments, noise effects, dynamic shifts and melodic hooks.
Grunge artists learned from other genres of music. For example, blues rock, folk rock, psychedelic rock, pop rock, new wave, post-punk, hardcore punk and alternative rock. Some of the artists and bands that grunge bands looked up to from these genres were:
- Neil Young, The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Doors, and David Bowie from blues rock, folk rock, psychedelic rock and pop rock.
- The Cure, The Smiths, Joy Division, Nirvana, and U2 from new wave, post-punk and alternative rock.
3. Grunge music had distinctive characteristics that set it apart from other genres
Grunge music had some common characteristics that made it recognisable as a genre. Some of these characteristics were:
Grunge guitar players used tools like distortion pedals, fuzz boxes, overdrive units and amplifiers to make a noisy, rough and distorted sound. This contrasted with the polished and perfect sound often heard in popular rock music. Moreover, they incorporated feedback, reverb, delay, flanger, chorus and wah-wah effects to infuse their sound with dimension and ambience.
These guitarists expressed a taste for vintage instruments such as Fender Telecasters, Fender Jaguars, Fender Mustangs, Fender Stratocasters, Gibson Les Pauls and Gibson SGs, opting for these classics instead of contemporary guitar models.
Grunge drummers used strong drumming techniques. They hit the drums hard, played fast, used offbeat rhythms and used double bass pedals. This made a powerful and strong sound that matched the intense guitar sound.
These drummers had big drum sets with cymbals, tom-toms, snare drums, bass drums, and sometimes cowbells or tambourines. This made their sound varied and changed how loud or soft it was. Their preference leaned toward vintage drum brands such as Ludwig, Slingerland, or Gretsch, as opposed to contemporary alternatives.
Grunge singers used a spectrum of vocal approaches encompassing screams, shouts, growls, whispers, croons and melodies to express their view and communicate their narratives.
Grunge singers used tricks to change how their voices sounded. They added things like distortion, reverb, delay, and chorus effects. This made their voices sound unique and special. They liked using old-fashioned microphones, such as the Shure SM57 or SM58, rather than modern options.
Grunge songwriting was personal and introspective. It shared confessions that reflected the feelings and experiences of the singers and their time. Grunge lyrics talked about many topics. Additionally, it explored social isolation, self-doubt, abuse, neglect, betrayal, emotional and social detachment, addiction, mental wounds and a desire for freedom.
Grunge lyrics used irony, sarcasm, humor and metaphors to add depth to their messages. Additionally, they expressed their views while criticizing the society and culture they lived in.
Grunge songs often used simple and repetitive structures, such as going from verse to chorus and back, or using A-B-A-B patterns. Sometimes, they added changes such as bridges, solos or breakdowns.
There were frequent changes between loud and quiet parts in grunge songs. This created a sense of difference and excitement within the song. Unusual ways of counting beats, chord changes and tuning were often used, giving grunge songs a unique and creative sound.
4. Grunge music had a huge impact on the music industry and culture
Grunge music was a cultural phenomenon that changed the music industry and culture in many ways. Some of the impacts of grunge music were:
Grunge music was a huge hit in the early 1990s. It sold millions of albums and singles around the world. For example, some of the best-selling grunge albums were:
- Nevermind (1991) by Nirvana, which sold over 30 million copies;
- Ten (1991) by Pearl Jam, which sold over 13 million copies;
- Superunknown (1994) by Soundgarden, which sold over 9 million copies;
- Dirt (1992) by Alice in Chains, which sold over 5 million copies;
- Core (1992) by Stone Temple Pilots, which sold over 8 million copies.
Grunge music ruled the charts, radio, MTV and awards shows. It was the most popular rock music in the early 1990s.
Grunge music made alternative rock popular. It showed millions of people a new and different kind of music that was not like mainstream rock. Grunge music let many people know about the Seattle underground scene and as a result, learned about its bands, labels, venues and culture.
Grunge music influenced many other bands and artists from different genres. They used some grunge elements in their own music. Moreover, they made the music scene in the 1990s more diverse and varied.
Grunge music influenced many aspects of culture. It changed fashion, art, literature, film, television and even language. Grunge fashion was casual and anti-conventional. It had flannel shirts, distressed jeans, combat boots, band tees, thrift store clothes and long hair.
Grunge art was rough and unpolished. It used collage, graffiti, photography, painting, drawing and sculpture. It reflected the visual style of grunge music. Grunge literature had novels, poems, essays, memoirs and comics. They dealt with themes such as alienation, rebellion, identity, sexuality, violence, addiction and death.
Grunge film portrayed the lives and challenges of grunge musicians and fans. Furthermore, it incorporated grunge music into its soundtracks and visual style. Similarly, grunge television featured characters or themes influenced by grunge. These shows infused the mood and essence of the genre into their narratives. Grunge language included slang expressions and phrases, effectively capturing the attitude and perspective of grunge culture.
5. Grunge music faced many challenges and controversies
Grunge music was not without its challenges and controversies, as it faced many difficulties and criticisms from various sources. Some of the challenges and controversies that it faced were:
Grunge music was subject to intense media attention and hype that created unrealistic expectations and pressures for the bands and artists involved. Consequently, the media often misrepresented or misunderstood grunge culture and its values, creating stereotypes and clichés that distorted its image.
Moreover, the media often exploited grunge culture for profit, creating a commercialized and diluted version of it that lost its original meaning and purpose.
The industry exploited grunge music for profit. It signed or promoted many copycat bands. They had no grunge roots or ties. Moreover, it controlled or manipulated grunge bands and artists by forcing them to sign contracts, meet deadlines or limit creativity. It also interfered with their artistic vision and integrity. Additionally, it marketed or categorized grunge bands and artists wrongly by ignoring their true identity or diversity.
Grunge music was subject to internal conflicts that caused tension and division among the bands and artists involved. Some of the sources of internal conflicts were artistic differences, personal issues, ego clashes, jealousy, rivalry or betrayal.
Internal strife emerged among grunge bands. Feud between Nirvana, Pearl Jam due to style and popularity. Soundgarden’s breakup due to disputes. Alice in Chains’ original bassist left due to drug problems. Stone Temple Pilots split due to Scott Weiland’s issues.
Grunge music faced critical examination from mainstream rock fans, critics and musicians, questioning its authenticity and value. Some critiques labeled it as fleeting, gimmicky or derivative.
Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” was overplayed and Pearl Jam’s “Vitalogy” was deemed pretentious. Soundgarden’s “Black Hole Sun” was criticized as derivative and Alice in Chains’ “Man in the Box” as melodramatic. Stone Temple Pilots’ “Plush” received accusations of being generic and unoriginal.
Grunge music confronted personal tragedies, spanning death, injury, illness and addiction among its involved artists. Causes ranged from suicide to accident, murder, overdose, disease and violence.
Noteworthy cases included Kurt Cobain‘s 1994 suicide and Dave Abbruzzese’s 1997 murder. Also, Layne Staley’s 2002 overdose, Jason Everman’s 2003 accident and Scott Weiland’s addiction culminating in his 2015 demise.
6. Grunge music left a lasting legacy that continues to inspire and influence many people
Grunge music was a remarkable genre that left a lasting legacy that continues to inspire and influence many people. Some of the aspects of it’s legacy are:
Grunge influenced bands cross-genre and generation, incorporating its essence. Furthermore, it impacted genres including post-grunge, alternative metal and rap rock.
Foo Fighters, Nirvana, Audioslave, Silverchair, Bush, Seether embraced grunge’s spirit. Bands such as Nickelback, Linkin Park, Fall Out Boy and Green Day also resonated with its vibe.
The influence of grunge music can be seen in many different parts of culture. These include fashion, art, literature, film, TV and even how people talk. This impact keeps grunge important and liked today. People still like grunge fashion because it is comfortable and stylish, which makes it popular. Grunge art is also something that people continue to enjoy and use to express themselves.
Furthermore, grunge literature sustains its readership, forging connections with individuals who resonate with its themes and messages. In the realm of grunge film, an captivated audience endures, drawn to its narratives and characters. Grunge television, with its combination of humor and drama, continues to captivate followers. People who find grunge language interesting and stylish continue to use it enthusiastically.
Grunge music influenced many people who identified with its values and view. It gave voice to a generation that felt disillusioned, deprived and disaffected by the society and culture they lived in.
Moreover, grunge music urged questioning authority, embracing diversity and seeking authenticity. It kindled social awareness, compassion, activism, poverty, racism and environmentalism.
The Bottom Line
Grunge music was a genre of alternative rock that emerged in the mid-1980s in Seattle, Washington, and became popular in the early 1990s. Marked by distorted guitars, robust drumming and dark lyrics, it frequently tackled themes such as social isolation, self-doubt, addiction and depression. Punk rock, metal, indie rock and different kinds of music influenced grunge music. As a result, grunge music also influenced many other types of music, fashion trends and cultural expressions.
Grunge’s roots were in Seattle’s underground scene. It drew from diverse genres and bands as well as its unique traits that defined it. The industry and culture were greatly impacted causing challenges and controversies. Moreover, its enduring legacy continues to inspire and influence countless individuals. Grunge music was a remarkable genre that changed the world of music and culture forever. Check out “The Best of Seattle 90s Grunge” playlist below: