Growing Up Grunge

by Kevin Currie-Knight

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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.

Nirvana in their 1993 video for Heart-Shaped Box.

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. [1]

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.

Soundgarden playing at the Pinkpop Festival in 1992.

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.

Layne Staley on the cover of Rolling Strone for the February , 1996 issue. This was his last formal interview for a major outlet. By this time, Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain had been dead for two years, and Staley himself would die of heroin abuse in 2002.

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. [2] 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. [3] 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”).

Kevin (with his mother) off to Berklee College of Music in September of 1995.

Notes

[1] 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.

[2] 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.

[3] 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.

7 comments

  1. I’m a little bit older than Kevin so my formative years were spent in the wake of MTV and glam-metal, which while I wasn’t a huge fan of, totally surrounded me so it’s still my nostalgia. Being a guitarphile I also had, and still have a massive soft spot for the neo-classical shredders and speed metal. By the late 80’s I was well into my life-long pretensions common to the prog-rock fan.

    Two things seemed to define us Gen Xers. Our alleged love for pixie goddess Winona Ryder and our love for Grunge which typified the nihilistic, slacker mentality that was supposed to characterize our generation. Interesting that perhaps in the same way punk morphed into the catchy, but largely soulless phenomena of New Wave, Grunge might have devolved into the pseudo-introspective wuss rock of the Creed’s and Nicklebacks. Perhaps every generations pretension turns into their mockeries.

      1. I enjoyed Grunge to the extent that I enjoy any other genre I wouldn’t say I was a fan of, if the song is good I’ll listen to it, if not I’ll pass. Alice In Chains was the only band I would say I was a fan of.

        In reference to Cobain goes he never really had much of an impact on me. As far as plumbing the depths of my exquisite inner pain I don’t think Cobain’s lyrics could hold a candle to Roger Waters, Ian Curtis, Springsteen, or even James Hetfield.

  2. I’m an Xennial, a member of what has also been dubbed Generation Catalano. We are those born sometime between the beginning of the Carter administration and the beginning of the first Reagan administration. Our generation is small because of the acceleration of technology that took place roughly from our high school years through our undergraduate years. Like Gen Xers, we were old enough to avoid having our young souls molded by internet culture, but, like Millenials, young enough to easily absorb this new technology into our lives. So, unlike either, we move, free from the pain of contradiction, between offline and online frames of mind, even if each of us typically defaults to one or the other.

    One of the widespread marks of membership in my small, in-between generation is one’s having been greatly affected by Cobain’s suicide and Nirvana’s dissolution but too young to have seen them live. The juxtaposition of those two facts speaks volumes about us.

    Here’s what I mean. Consider the film Singles (1992). It featured characters who were a little bit older than we. We did not feel its relevance to *our* situation; we enjoyed it in part because we took it to speak to what our situation was *going to be*. We thought that’s what being out of high school would be like. The characters were only a handful of years older, but in those years lay everything that mattered to us who were then in our mid-teens: more independence, more experience, more life. Participation in the grunge aesthetic Singles portrayed, in whatever measure or with whatever degree of fidelity it portrayed it, required having precisely those years of living. The music appealed to us because of its laid-back, everyman promise. We combed the stacks of cassettes, bins of CDs, and racks of thrift-store clothes for all things grunge.

    So while grunge (or something like it) was something we were familiar with, it was not because of our going to or performing grunge shows with friends but because of grunge’s appearance in television, magazines, and film. We didn’t participate in the scene so much as we participated vicariously in it through its representations. (And increasingly marketable representations, at that. Having spent our teens through our thirties living through the unprecedented acceleration of identity aesthetization — commodifying the merely cosmetic features of identities — is what gives our Xennial souls their Millenial contours.)

    All of this is to say that, like Kevin and his friends, I and many of my friends wanted to be grunge. And, as Kevin describes the paradox, we wanted to be so because it was (increasingly made to look) vaguely “alternative.” We wanted to be in the out-group, which was actually the in-group. But unlike Kevin, we never got in, because we were always, and necessarily, going to be making-believe we were older than we really were.

    But none of this means we didn’t appreciate the music. We loved it. Through it, I lived out my grunge life in my imagination. It wasn’t so much the lyrical content as the mood, the feel, the texture of the music itself that I lost myself in. It was only later that I was able to articulate Cobain’s singular (and completely pre-theoretical) harmonic sensibility. The way beauty and melody were presented in the harshness and fuzz really grabbed me, too, and informs my tastes today. And, like Kevin, I played my drums to Nevermind, and trying to do what Grohl does taught me that, no matter what, even punk/rock musicians must have feel and must understand what the other instruments are doing. (Just check out how exquisitely in the pocket Grohl is in the chorus of “Smells Like Teen Spirit.”) Nirvana weren’t the first or only ones to do any of this, of course. But they were my perfect gateway drug.

    1. I consider myself an Xennial, but was born toward the end of the Nixon administration, so your mileage on that score may differ.

      I don’t have much to say about Grunge. I probably liked and listened to the music that made it to the pop mainstream and that I definitely wasn’t a part of that culture and probably didn’t know at the time that it existed.

      But I do want to echo what you said about the internet’s effect on us (or me, if you don’t consider me Xennial). I feel very fortunate to be conversant in both worlds. Or “mostly conversant.” There are things about online culture that I’m sure I don’t get or understand. In fact, I probably don’t know what I don’t know.

  3. The Courtney Love murderer link seemed pretty thin, but I enjoyed your personal reflection. My sister was in middle school at the time and deep into this scene, so I drafted on it, though I’d probably only go back to Nirvana Unplugged at this point. Maybe we can chalk up Cobain’s suicide to the currents of the movement. Probably also he was just a depressive guy with a painful condition who was disgusted with his own success in an industry he disgusted. Maybe part of that plays into what you’re taking about, but a lot of personal stuff fell in between.

  4. Not a badly written essay – except that I’ve been reading these “I was a conforming non-comformist” confessionals on and off for 50 years. Anytime a counter-culture shows up promising resistance of the individual to the norm (especially in music), someone has to point out the obvious – in a romantic capitalist culture resistance to the norm is part and parcel of the norm. It’s what is expected and defines us as belonging to various tribes. One can’t escape it anymore than one can escape having had a mother.

    The myth of ‘the individual’ is a good myth, beneficial in many ways, but it is only a result of the processes of socialization in Western culture. That’s why it is most intensely manifested in the young. They’re self-expression has been assured by all the ‘self-expressions’ expressed before them. “Everybody in this room is wearing a uniform, and don’t kid yourself.” – Frank Zappa, Burnt Weeny Sandwich.

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