What is Grunge Music?


A black and white photo of Kurt Cobain of Nirvana.

Kurt Cobain of Nirvana – What is grunge music? – Author Anne Erickson, Photo via Ken Settle

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen grunge music characterized and defined incorrectly. I mean, it’s music. It’s supposed to be fun and something that enhances your life. So, the labels aren’t really needed, and seeing bands improperly categorized shouldn’t be a big deal. If someone wants to say that Cher is grunge, they can go ahead and do that. It doesn’t bother me. But, when it comes to the actual term “grunge,” it does define a certain segment of sounds and bands, and no, Cher isn’t one of them. As a radio host and music reporter, I’ve written and talked about grunge music a lot, so I’m really familiar with the term.

What is Grunge Music?

If we’re speaking loosely, grunge is an umbrella-term for music that came from the Seattle, Washington, area in the late-1980s and early-1990s. But, there are some exceptions. Just like a few hair metal bands didn’t hail from Hollywood, a handful of grunge bands weren’t from Seattle.

But, I regress. Grunge, musically speaking, meshed the sounds of punk rock and metal. It’s funny, because most people think of grunge and metal being the antithesis of each other. But, they really weren’t. Soundgarden is probably the best example of a popular grunge band that had heavy metal leanings. Some call them the “Black Sabbath” of grunge. Still, grunge was, indeed, the antithesis of hair metal, which was so popular in the 1980s. While bands like Poison and Motley Crue were all about a perfect image and that over-the-top glam look, grunge acts looked like they crawled out of their basement. That was a good thing. As it turned out, music fans found it really refreshing to have musicians who were more about the music than image.

Sonics-wise, grunge often championed loud, distorted electric guitars (much like punk rock and metal), as well as electric bass, drums and vocals. But, grunge also bring in some experimental and indie influences. For example, Kurt Cobain often cited Sonic Youth as a huge influence. They were before grunge’s time, but their noise-rock sound made its way into that grunge sound.

Vocally, most grunge singers had a raspy, raw voice. Vedder stood out, with his full-bodied voice and strong vibrato. So did Chris Cornell, with his powerful, angelic pipes. Meanwhile, Staley had a delicate, very expressive croon, as did Cobain.

Finally, when it came to recording music, grunge was much more lo-fi than the hair metal of its time. It was something of a reaction to the perfect, polished, processed sound of hair metal. Although, Cobain had been known to say that he thought “Nevermind” was too polished a recording.

The Themes of Grunge Music

Thematically, hair metal was all about sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll. Grunge was the opposite. Vocalists such a Eddie Vedder and Chris Cornell wrote about their struggles and hardships. They had very personal, introspective and, at times, tortured lyrics. For example, as Vedder describes in the documentary “Pearl Jam Twenty,” he wrote the band’s hit “Alive” about learning that his father was not really hit father. Instead, his father was a man that visited the house a few times, but that he never knew was his father. His mother told him all of this after his real father passed away. So, you could say grunge music was therapeutic. Elsewhere, frontmen such as Layne Staley wrote about their struggles with drugs and addiction. Cobain wrote about his inner demons.

The Defining Grunge Bands

No, Stone Temple Pilots were not grunge. Either were the Smashing Pumpkins. Bush wasn’t grunge, either. Grunge was defined by bands such as Nirvana, Soundgarden, Alice in Chains, Mudhoney, TAD, Green River, Screaming Trees, Mad Season and Malfunkshun. The so-called early grunge bands, the bands that inspired Nirvana, include names such as Melvins, Sonic Youth and Dinosaur Jr.

Grunge in Fashion

We’ve talked about the music, but what about the clothes? It’s funny, because grunge artists didn’t want to start a fashion trend. They were totally going against the trends of the time. But, in the process, they did create a massive trend. Flannel was everywhere in the 1990s, and it’s still an enduring fashion today. Guys wearing long hair was also a popular fashion trend at the time.

Find 10 of the most underrated grunge albums here.

Anne Erickson
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Posted by Anne Erickson | Grunge, Music, Rock News