What You Need to Know
Grunge was a genre of guitar music—invented by long-haired punks and short-haired heshers in the Pacific Northwest—that combined the bombastic grunting of ’70s hard rock with the slightly less bombastic grunting of Iggy and the Stooges. That is, it sounded like those two things, except when it sounded like something else. Some of it sounded like slowed-down Minneapolis punk and some of it sounded like sped-up Sabbath and some of it sounded like a Nuggets comp that had been left out too long in the Seattle rain. Few of the genre’s originators embraced the term, at least not with a straight face. By 1990, the genre was being openly mocked by Soundgarden in the song “Sub Pop Rock City.” By September 1991, Sub Pop was also taking shots at the genre’s popularity with the Sub Pop: The Grunge Years cover, which depicted two business-men conducting a deal in the back of a limo.
Sub Pop: The Grunge Years came out 23 days before Nevermind. The pressing of The Grunge Years was “limited” to 500,000 copies.
Lyrically, when it wasn’t Mark Arm complaining about grunge, grunge’s concerns were largely self-hatred, substance abuse, and suicidal ideation. Once that ideation became actualization, the powers that be decided to take a couple steps back and saturate the airwaves with the idea-free genre known as “post-grunge.”
Notable Vibe Shifts
People believe that Nirvana “killed” hair metal. This is false because (a) hair metal never died, its bands just got less sensually themed tattoos and started calling themselves shit like “Avenged Sevenfold” and “Falling in Reverse” and whatnot, and (b) hair metal’s progression away from spandex ’n’ STDs was already underway in 1990, a year before Nevermind. For evidence of this:
The Black Crowes’ debut album came out on Feb. 13 and, along with Cinderella’s Heartbreak Station (which would come out later that year), sparked a rush on the blouse, vest, and guitar-slide market. Pantera released Cowboys From Hell on July 24, their last album to contain a power ballad. Jane’s Addiction’s Ritual de lo Habitual reached No. 19 on the Billboard charts, expanding the Overton window for Led Zep worshippers who loved bubble gum as much as Poison did and who couldn’t get their hair to wave like David Coverdale’s. Alice in Chain’s debut, Facelift, came out on Aug. 21. While considered a “grunge” album, mainly because of geography and heroin, Facelift can be safely considered the third lodestar album (along with 1988’s Vivid, by Living Colour, and 1989’s The Real Thing, by Faith No More) in the “Adapt or Die, Hard Rockers” trinity.
What You Need to Know
Where it all begins: a beautiful sour-bellied boy and a bevy of anarchy cheerleaders doing cartwheels in a saturation-lensed gymnasium. Was Nevermind the “best” album of the ’90s, or even the “best” album of 1991? There are Zen koans with easier answers. What was Hüsker Dü’s face before your parents were born? Does Kim Deal have Buddha nature? What’s the sound of one hand playing the breakbeat from The Gap Band’s “Burn Rubber on Me”?
Wherever one places Nevermind in the chicken/egg zeitgeist equation, there was undoubtedly something in the air. Less the Jesus Jones-ian waking up from history, and more a waking up next to history, complete with the postcoital desire to gnaw one’s own arm off. Prior to “Smells Like Teen Spirit” dropping, Paula Abdul broke up with MC Skat Kat and made a brave attempt at inventing Lana Del Rey with the James Dean tribute video for “Rush Rush,” but America wanted a James Dean with a different kind of greasy hair. After “Smells Like Teen Spirit” dropped, MC Hammer tried to co-opt goth with “Addams Groove.” But America was going in another altogether kooky direction. Only bands like Alice in Chains and R.E.M. read the vibe shift precisely, and they rode that depressive rocket to the top of the charts. Metallica, The Scorpions, and Pearl Jam did taboo numbers riding a counternarrative, one of hope, affirmations, and curly-haired masculinity; intuiting correctly that—Cold War or no Cold War—the Marines are always recruiting.
Exactly one week before Nevermind came out, Guns N’ Roses released two albums, Use Your Illusion I and Use Your Illusion II, simultaneously. Already amongst the most aggressive of the hair metal bands, GN’R were indifferent to the cultural shift happening around them. After throwing a bone to alternative culture by hiring an ex-member of The Cult as their new drummer, Axl & Co. covered Bob Dylan and Wings, honored the rock tradition of recording two okay songs for every great one, and released “November Rain,” an (admittedly gorgeous) nine-minute power ballad, complete with a video—one of the most expensive ever made—that featured Slash soloing in the middle of the desert and Axl Rose’s then girlfriend, the model Stephanie Seymour, dying from a stray slab of wedding cake. One month later, Guns N’ Roses would be forced to watch Kurt Cobain be interviewed on MTV’s Headbanger’s Ball whilst wearing a dress, as though Axl and all his lil’ Sunset Strip buddies hadn’t been dressing like Bebe Buell for the past decade. Two years later, Guns N’ Roses would cover Soundgarden.
What You Need to Know
Because of Sir Mix-a-Lot, the sole Seattle artist of the time who managed to avoid being pigeonholed as grunge, the nation rejoiced in big butts. While Bell Biv DeVoe had begun the decade with the warning to “never trust a big butt and a smile,” Sir Mix-a-Lot—in what can be taken as a nod to the burgeoning riot grrrl movement—put the onus to be honest on the big butt observer rather than the big butt purveyor. And, as a musician from the Pacific Northwest in the 1990s, omitted entirely the mention of anyone smiling.
For a year that is commonly remembered as when grunge really exploded (with Nevermind reaching the top of the Billboard charts, and once and future Sub Pop employee Megan Jasper famously giving The New York Times a fake “lexicon of grunge,” which included such terms as “harsh realm” and “lamestain”), it’s notable how, even within the context of the genre’s extremely loosey-goosey defining characteristics, ungrunge, and by extension unpunk, so many of the rock albums of that year were.
Tori Amos was one of the first to offer a refuge to those already exhausted by man-children and their interminable guitars. Pavement added some distortion to ’80s U.K. DIY. PJ Harvey, not yet in her own Captain Beefheart phase, was practically prog. En Vogue did their part for the Rock Is Back zeitgeist (at least on their hit single “Free Your Mind”) but—instead of referencing the white guitar grunters of two decades prior—drew from Funkadelic and Labelle. Helmet ignored punk/grunge entirely and invented the ultramodern guitar tone that would ruin hardcore for the next 15 years. Splitting the difference between Harvey, Helmet, and En Vogue, Rollins Band—by setting The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People to prog funk played at half speed—inspired a generation of future probation officers to get frowny-face-pinwheel tramp stamps. For their part, Pantera made their Rollins Band/Helmet hybrid album, adding a bit more groove and a lot less book reading. Soul Asylum had stringy hair but mainly made a ramshackle Midwest rock, adding a pop sheen that inadvertently paved the way for the Goo Goo Dolls to eventually answer the question, “What if Night Ranger were from Minneapolis?” Gin Blossoms and Blind Melon made opposing pro vs. con arguments regarding the relative merits of ’70s pop rock.
Screaming Trees and Alice in Chains helped pick up the grunge slack. Julianna Hatfield at least had a (great) song called “Nirvana.” And Stone Temple Pilots’ debut was grunge rock, but Core was also the decade’s first indication that, despite Nirvana’s popularity and the nascent cult of personality/tragedy surrounding Kurt Cobain, it would be Eddie Veder’s gravel-ache brofundity, rendered more bro and less fun with every iteration, that would carry the day.
Notable Vibe Shifts
Dave Kendall, the VJ of MTV’s long-running college rock/indie/post-punk video program 120 Minutes, stepped down as host. Kendall, a decidedly post-punkish figure of the teased-black-hair and cross-earring variety, simply wasn’t built for a world that favored distressed flannel over black leather. This same year, Alternative Nation, a show more likely to showcase bands like Blind Melon than The Lightning Seeds, premiered. It was hosted by a swirling slouch of black-rimmed glasses and nihilism named “Kennedy.” Just like the guy whose death got us into this whole mess in the first place. Almost immediately the term “college rock” was forgotten entirely, and “alternative” became the catchall term for...nearly everything. Kennedy, as an early standard-bearer of yet another of the decade’s most defining characteristics (that of just saying stuff in a deadpan tone in lieu of saying actual jokes), would eventually join the Fox network, where—as one of their in-house libertarian conservatives—she is no longer held to the famously high standards of video hosting or alternative comedy.
The punk subculture riot grrrl—a thrashing garage rock affair that sounded like The Sonics’ “The Witch” told from the witch’s point of view—made even other punks get more defensive than a meat eater encountering a vegetarian in the company break room. In 1992, riot grrrl took its needling existence to new heights; with its stars garnering the attention of national publications (such as USA Today, Newsweek, and even The New Yorker, in the form of an Elizabeth Wurtzel piece). With expected results. Those of us who have compromised in life tend to treat those who hold fast to integrity like they’re witch-burning Puritans, even when we’re the ones with all the torches and they’re the ones doing their scolding from a gas-soaked stake.
Admittedly, the whole “slut”-written-on-one’s-midriff-whilst-wearing-a-baby-doll-dress-and-barrettes look didn’t end up dismantling the patriarchy entirely. And, even at the time, it didn’t escape notice within the scene itself that riot grrrl’s figureheads often bore a remarkable aesthetic similarity, both in skin color and body mass index, to the faces of other, less riot-enthused youth trends. The bikini being “dressing for the H-bomb” is one cultural concern. An oppositional subculture looking like extras from Beach Blanket Bingo is another. That said, the glossies telling bands like Bratmobile to give more interviews (i.e., smile more) didn’t exactly slather the music media in glory either.
What You Need to Know
Despite Sir Mix-a-Lot’s best efforts of the previous year to instill into the culture an appreciation of a healthy heinie, 1993 instead gave us “heroin chic,” the fashion of appearing to be addicted to heroin. The look was accomplished by becoming addicted to heroin. It goes without saying that the “chic” aspect of this trend mainly applied to those whose elfin/Aryan aesthetic could just have easily been accomplished via the traditional methods of eating disorders, self-hatred, and all the other weight-loss cheats favored by the patriarchy. While bands like Alice in Chains, Poison Idea, and Eyehategod held up their end of the heroin bargain, the validation of a Calvin Klein ad campaign remained elusive.
Afghan Whigs did an entire album about going through their girlfriend’s purse looking for drug money. Liz Phair’s debut was about a lifetime of going out with the kind of dudes who listened to Afghan Whigs. The Breeders answered both gnawing desires by making an album that sounded like what people are hoping for when they do drugs in the first place. (Not that it was such a solution that it resolved the need for drugs—more like it provided a nice alternative while also being a lovely album to do drugs to.)
On March 8, the first episode of Beavis and Butt-head aired on MTV. Mike Judge’s soon-beloved cartoon featured a pair of dunderheaded adolescents having racy misadventures and rating popular videos of the day. There was some concern that the popularity of a cartoon depicting two maladjusted pimple-poppers uttering slurs and espousing a deep-seated nihilism—only occasionally mitigated by the pair’s enthusiasm for female anatomy and the music of AC/DC and White Zombie—might be indicative of a larger cultural malaise. The popularity of Seinfeld—a show whose adult characters exhibited a similar nihilism, minus the enthusiasm for any art whatsoever—was not seen as a problem.
In early 1993, no longer content to release Borbetomagus deep cuts, newly flush with Scottish power-pop money, and perhaps looking to give their pal Steve Albini something to write about, Matador Records signed a distribution deal with Atlantic Records. One of the first albums to be released through this deal is the second album by scabrous NYC noise rock act Unsane. The deal with Atlantic would be dissolved just three years later. Matador’s owners and upper management would be forced to do lines off the jewel cases of unsold Total Destruction CDs for the remainder of the decade.
With Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers), the Staten Island collective made one of the few pieces of ’90s art (along with maybe Loveless, Dummy, Homogenic, or either of Tricky’s first two albums) whose place within ’90s canon is almost immaterial to its greatness. Not to pretend that the music wasn’t part of any tradition (and not to diminish the artistry of any other great albums from the decade), but merely to say that the Wu-Tang Clan’s debut is a “’90s album” is like saying the Velvet Underground were “a ’60s band.” At the time of 36 Chambers’ release, RZA, GZA, et al. seemed less like standard-bearers in any “golden age of hip-hop” and more like titans bringing fire down from the mountain. That effect hasn’t diminished with time.