"Here we are now, entertain us!!!" -Kurt Cobain, singer and guitarist of the band Nirvana.
The Early Rumblings
For all its intents and purpose, the American underground musical movement of late 80s and early 90s known as grunge was never meant to see the light of the day. Grunge as a musical movement was never aiming to be accepted by mainstream culture, but all that changed thanks to a handful of Seattle rock bands who mixed the distorted apocalyptic chords of heavy metal with subject matter such as alienation, apathy and angst. The grunge bands of those period were fiercely independent and idealistic and they despised mainstream success. So what exactly happened that dragged the grunge movement from its underground roots to the blinding lights of mainstream music.
To understand why grunge became popular and revolutionary in the early 90s, it is important to understand the musical atmosphere of the 80s in America and Europe. Artists like Michael Jackson and Madonna were King and Queen respectively of pop music, their best years already past them. Tame pop bands like Bon Jovi, Poison and Bryan Adams were stuffing the airwaves with their assembly line lyrics and safe sounds. With the 90s around the corner, the young and the not so young were getting tired of materialistic excess that was so typical of the 80s. They were restless for a new musical identity and most of them were looking at American underground music for inspiration.
Nirvana - Ground Zero of Grunge
Nirvana was a Seattle band who released their debut album, Bleach in 1989. This album had all the trademarks of the early grunge sound, but something was missing. Listening to it now it sounds terribly dated and badly produced. In 1990, Nirvana was signed to a big label and now they had access to resources which they were previously lacking.
After working for a year in the studio they came up with what is now generally acknowledged as the greatest modern rock album, 'Nevermind'. They released their first single from the album 'Smells like teen spirit', the video for which was heavily promoted by MTV. The album caught the imagination of the youth like no other with its molten guitar sound, thunderous drumming and anthemic choruses. The genius behind this was one Kurt Cobain, a tortured soul who struggled with drug addiction and indifferent childhood. His lyrics portray the dark side of urban youth with their direction-less life and impotent rage. He spit out his lyrics with mangled screams and the American public were more than glad to sing-along with him in concerts around America and Europe. Their 'Nevermind' album was super successful across America and Europe, which bought the band a lot of fame, something which Kurt Cobain was disillusioned with. At the same time another significant Seattle band called 'Pearl Jam' released their debut album 'Ten.' While 'Ten' was structurally different it was thematically similar to 'Nevermind.' So the grunge reached its apex of popularity with the youth across the world aping their idols torn jeans and plaid shirts.
The Decline and Aftershocks - Corporate Suits Take Over
In 1993 Nirvana released their final and rawest album 'In Utero', which was 40 minutes of emotional bloodletting. This album was thematically superior but with lesser known songs, although now its considered one of their best offerings. With another Seattle band Soundgarden releasing their monstrous 70-minute album 'Superunknown' the grunge fever continued unabated. While the young grunge bands taking their inspiration from their grunge idols were sweating it out in garages and clubs, corporate honchos in their well-furnished offices were making plans to mass-market the grunge phenomenon. What followed was the rash of second-tier grunge bands who imitated their idols but never bettered them; the cathartic power of grunge as a form of music was diluted. With the steady rise of Hip-Hop and with the suicide of then 27-year-old Kurt Cobain, the grunge died a slow and painful death. The public response to grunge was now muted and the grunge music now became soundtrack to parties around the world.
Although the grunge as a form of music made little or no impact in other countries, the philosophy of fiercely independent and uncompromising grunge bands inspired many other music movements. When I was studying in Wesley College in the late 90s/early 2000s, there were actual bands in my college who dressed similarly to Kurt Cobain with their unruly hair and torn jeans, who were playing gospel and rock music simply for the pleasures of it without expecting any rewards. By sheer chance me and my friends listened to Nirvana's 'Nevermind' blaring out through Maruti van of our college seniors and each of us decided to chip in and buy the cassette. We made copies for each one of us and it changed our lives forever. Maybe now more than ever Bollywood and Indian music needs a grungy makeover.
Thanks, Sandeep of Crack The Sky, for this incisive analysis of one of the most beautiful movements in contemporary music. Hope to have you back here at The Operative Note for more such enjoyable and informative posts.