by Kevin Currie-Knight
My most grunge moment happened in what is arguably the most grunge place: a coffeehouse. And I was there to do a most grunge thing: play an acoustic set with my garage band. Whether it was before or after our set, my bandmates and I were sitting and chatting with fellow flannelled-out grungers, in plush chairs near a shelf of old books that obviously served as a prop. One of these grungers recited the predictable diatribe about how those who are different — ahem! — were so misunderstood and alienated.
“You’re kidding,” I exclaimed. “Look at us. We’re not alienated. We’re not misunderstood. We are fitting in like all the rest of ‘em. Everyone here has on a flannel, and let’s be honest: the music we like is the stuff everyone likes.”
I’m sure whatever I actually said was less eloquent, but it was in that spirit. And whatever I said — at least this is how I remember it — was met first with silence and then with argument, but argument that only served to prove my point. These kids — and maybe I — wanted to be alienated, because in a strange twist of grunge logic, alienation was now the surest road to acceptance.
As far as movements go, grunge was short. And it was full of tensions that would never resolve. But it was my high school soundtrack, and I’m glad it was, because ultimately, its tensions — wanting to be the true individual who fits in with the group, or the popular outcast — were my tensions; were our tensions.
A friend of mine came across Nirvana’s newly-released Nevermind when I was a freshman in high school. He told me to give it a listen and let me borrow it, though he had little reason to think I’d like it. Or maybe he knew me better than I knew myself. To that point — over my middle school career — I was mostly into rap: De La Soul, Public Enemy, and because my parents were lenient, 2 Live Crew and N.W.A. Of course, being a white suburban kid, I was at least a bit aware that this was music regarding which I’d always be an outsider. My friends and I rocked faux-leather Africa medallions mostly because they were cool. We probably thought we understood the message, but it must have been obvious to everyone else that we didn’t.
The music was tougher and masculine in a way I sensed I could never be, and so were my friends. They all were involved in organized sports and seemed to be in on jokes I wasn’t in on. But they let me hang out with them, so I did my best to get excited about playing pick-up football after school even though I’d much rather hang out in my room and draw. If they liked the film Do The Right Thing because of its assertive hip-hop vibe, I liked it because it had interesting characters and wasn’t an action film. They would all go on to a Catholic high school with a great reputation for sports, and I would attend the local public school. Clean break.
This is all necessary set-up for explaining why I fell so hard for Nirvana, and later Pearl Jam, and after that, the wider grunge and alternative scenes. I’d like to think that it wasn’t just me jumping on a desperately needed bandwagon. I heard Nirvana at the very beginning of their popularity, in a pre-internet age where I had no particular reason to think they were “the next band.” Nirvana, after all, was popular for a reason. Their songs were amazing, both simple and sophisticated.
By early high school, I was developing the musical sense that would later take me to Berklee College of Music, And maybe because of that, I could tell that Kurt Cobain was creating completely unique chord progressions and stringing them together with melodies that made sense of what shouldn’t make sense. (A musicologist articulates here.) Cobain’s melodies and harmonies were unconventional in the most interesting way. I couldn’t articulate any of that at the time, but I remember listening to songs over and over with an “Okay, what is THAT?” fascination. 
I don’t think I paid much attention to the lyrics, but I’m sure they added to my ultimate embrace of this music. In middle school, I molded myself to fit into a friend group who I still felt on the outskirts of, so hearing an invitation to “Come As You Are” was probably refreshing. To that point, the hip hop (and the hair metal which came before it) all had a pretense to it; you could tell it was in many ways an act. Nirvana didn’t feel that way.
Nor did the other bands that caught our attention in Nirvana’s wake. Though they were all quite different, there were two common themes, equally ironic. The first was a beauty that came from (and through) a lack of polish. The second was the exaltation of the down and out. Pearl Jam wrote a cryptic song about a school kid, “Jeremy,” who commits suicide in front of his class and sends a message (“Try to erase this from the blackboard!”). Nirvana’s biggest hit (“Smells like Teen Spirit”) ends with the repeated words “a denial!” before ending abruptly in guitar feedback, as if the singer was so uninterested that he just stopped. Alice in Chains wrote about a Man in a (metaphorical?) Box demanding that we come save him. Soundgarden wrote about “looking California” while “feeling Minnesota,” in a song, “Outshined,” whose odd pulse kept listeners appropriately off balance.
And as cliché as it is, grunge was less a style of music and more a style with a music attached to it. When these musicians (who were to us, gods) did tv interviews, they were soft-spoken, looked uninterested or embarrassed, and surely didn’t dress the part.
This filled a need for me and folks like me. For once, I could wear my teenage insecurity and awkwardness as a badge of honor, a sign of depth. I was never at risk of looking California, but if a hit song mentioned feeling Minnesota (as something worth singing about), I could feel okay about where I was.
If that wasn’t enough, it was almost as if grunge allowed us to turn the tables. It wasn’t just that grunge allowed us introverts, creatives, and always-on-the-periphery’s to feel more at ease. It allowed us to have an honest chance at being the cool kids and do the criterion-setting and excluding for a change. In an irony we liked to think only we understood, Nirvana scored a single (“In Bloom”) with a song whose chorus laughs at the jocks who “like all our pretty songs,” but “don’t know what it means.” In both song and video, Soundgarden’s “Black Hole Sun” poked fun at the suburbs that were all around us, where the singer can only “hang my head, drown my fear, ‘till you all just disappear” (whatever that was to mean). You could say it was a sort of collective Nietzschean slave morality: our self-confidence only came by doing to “them” what we thought “they’d” done to us, all while pretending we weren’t becoming a “them” in the process. Ressentiment.
Yet, there are two problems with this “grunge allowed us to be ourselves” narrative. The first is that looking back, it is not entirely clear which was the chicken and which was the egg, what preceded what. How many of us felt — and to what extent — like we existed on the periphery before these artists made such a thing okay? And how much did they induce that feeling? Were they giving voice to us or writing a script for us?
In my own case, I suspect it was both. I didn’t feel like the friend group I’d previously had was a good fit for me, and as this was pre-internet, I was limited in my options. I knew I didn’t and couldn’t live up to the models of masculinity I saw being valued around me until Eddie Vedder and Kurt Cobain came along with a softer and more vulnerable one. But it is also true that when you tell people over and over that it is okay to be a certain way until being that way becomes cool, you incent people to exaggerate how much they “really are” that way.
The second flaw in the narrative that grunge allowed the outsiders to feel welcome is that, well, this is a direct contradiction. You can’t both be an outsider and be accepted. (Accepted where? Inside!). And wanting acceptance means conformity to group norms of one sort or another. We wore flannel shirts because our favorite bands did, the same reason my white friend group wore Africa medallions in middle school, and the metal kids had Metallica patches on the backs of their faded jean jackets. These things deliberately point outward.
I depart, however, from the analysis that sees this contradiction — both rejecting and being the mainstream — as a fatal flaw of grunge. It’s far from a flaw. Rather, it’s a contradiction that seems inherent in the experience of modern youth. We resented all the awkward work we had to do to fit in, and that led us to say that we didn’t care about fitting in. A lie we told ourselves, fueled by a mix of resentment and self-pride. We surely wanted to fit in, but on terms that weren’t so awkward.
And for kids like me, that is exactly what grunge provided. Flannel shirts and long unkempt hair were still a signal of group membership. I would have denied it at the time, of course, but that’s because denying membership was the most paradoxical condition for membership. Flannel shirts and the like were criteria for belonging that felt more natural than wearing Africa medallions, mouthing raps about South Central, and working up enthusiasm for another pick-up football game.
I won’t say I was reflective about all of this, but on some level I did recognize and embrace the absurdity of it. Hence my argument in that grungish coffee house with the kid who played at being forlorn.
There’s one thing I haven’t mentioned about growing up grunge, and this is because it is somewhat unique to me, not easily generalizable. The grunge sound happened exactly when I was developing my own musical skills. Before Nirvana, I had already aspired to get my first drum set. Hearing Nevermind (and them Pearl Jam’s Ten) is what nudged me to rig up a makeshift drum set out of drum pads (the kind I’d practice on for my snare drum lessons). I’d play it for hours, rehearsing the records over and over again until, by the time I saved up for a real drum set, I was actually good. As the years progressed, I remember increasingly skipping school so that I could go home and learn new songs, particularly after a band would come out with their new album. I was the most delighted when Alice and Chains and Soundgarden would challenge me with new songs in odd (non 4/4) time signatures, which they increasingly did.
This is just one more way that grunge felt like something I could do. Joining a grunge band — and I joined many — required no theatrics, make-up, flashiness, or virtuosity. It required almost the opposite. Talent helped; I mean, grunge wasn’t quite punk, so self-conscious musicianship was involved. But grunge was about being raw, and as pimply teenage boys, raw was not hard for us.
Grunge largely came to an end in 1994, though there were reverberations after that. This was the end of my junior year, and what I remember are two things. In succession, they are Soundgarden’s release of Superunknown, probably the most musically sophisticated (and diversified) grunge album ever produced, and Kurt Cobain’s suicide weeks after that. Given that grunge (and alternative) music had produced several songs about suicide, death, and drug addiction (sometimes all three in one song), I remember listening to these, thinking about what Cobain’s life must have been like, and crying (in the way Cobain taught us we could do and still be young men). “What else could I be? All apologies… What else could I write? I don’t have the right.” I recall a wave of media concern that Cobain’s death would induce fans to follow suit. No one I knew of did.
By then, I’d begun listening to other forms of music too, from electronic artists like The Prodigy to progressive metal like Dream Theater.  But, okay, I’ll indulge a cliché: Kurt Cobain’s suicide was a regrettable but perfect symbol for the grunge ethos. Grunge was about rebellion, but a passive rebellion rather than an active one. It wasn’t about smashing, but bypassing. It wasn’t a fuck-you gesture, but about not having to ask permission to sit alone in your room and not give a fuck. Cobain didn’t go to prison, accidentally overdose at a party, murder anyone, or get murdered (well…); he took his own life seemingly because he couldn’t work his way through the contradictions of his life, and hence, of grunge.
Yet, we all moved on, either because we could work our way through those contradictions or we just grew out of their salience. I think I did the latter. Being a musician in a music college is being somewhere where everyone is guaranteed to get you.  Rebellion becomes unnecessary. When I look back at grunge, I can see the absurdity of it. I realize that those musicians who struck us as gods were mostly immature and taciturn twenty-somethings with a combination of talent, luck, and marketing they said they didn’t want but rarely refused. In 1992, I convinced myself that Singles — that movie by Cameron Crowe with all the Seattle bands — was something greater and wiser than what it really is, a cheesy rom-com.
But I can only say that now, from the rear-view mirror. Listening back to the songs that made up my grungy high school life, I can appreciate the parts of me that grunge helped create. I can see them clear as day. The man who doesn’t hold manhood too close to the vest. The budding philosopher. Of course, the musician. As Kurt Cobain wrote, “Teenage angst has paid off well. Now I’m bored and old” (“Serve the Servants”).
 For any music nerds out there, I can illustrate in musical jargon I only learned later. One song that fascinated me was “Breed.” I’d listen to it over and over to marvel at it, particularly the chorus (“Even if you have, even if you need…”) Note two things. First, the song is in F sharp minor, but the entire chorus stays away from the F sharp chord, the tonal center of the song. To make matters more delectable, the song is in F sharp MINOR, and the final chord of the chorus is a B5, a power chord that has no third. In F sharp minor, that chord should sound minor, but the melody Cobain sings over it is D sharp, the major third of the chord. Only now do I know why that chord sounded so unique, both out of place and in place, because technically, the chord itself fits the scale, but Cobain’s melody makes what should be a minor chord sound major.
 Dream Theater’s flashiness and virtuosity – basically a metal night at the opera – is in certain ways the opposite of grunge. But for those who know the reference, I like to think that Soundgarden’s Superunknown is the through-line what Dream Theater would sound like if they’d been a grunge band. At any rate, my love for the musicianship of Soundgarden primed me for Dream Theater, and that took my study of music in a whole different and more disciplined direction.
 It’s still intense and full of strife, though, but of a different sort. Now, you are doing what everyone else is doing, and where you use to be the best one in your area at that thing, you are now in a group where everyone was that person. A different challenge.