Grunge, as a coherent scene, peaked in the late Eighties and was long gone by the time Nevermind put the word into popular parlance. Most grunge bands barely sold, only the crossovers who had either left grunge behind or barely connected to it in the first place, so basically Nirvana, Soundgarden and Pearl Jam made it out. Even by 1991, Nirvana’s name was tied to a ghost and they have remained, in the popular view, the key exemplar of something that was already dead. It’s extraordinary in fact that such a minor scene should receive coverage at all.
The survivability of grunge as a form recognised and acknowledged in popular musical history was based on two, separate, but connected, events. The first was the power of the British music press and Sub Pop’s work in cracking open coverage thousands of kilometres away from the epicentre of the scene. With the best will in the world, alas, it’s reportage and repetition that creates perceived importance — in 1989-1990 the world was primed and waiting for something to come out of the Seattle scene thanks to the hammering of the topic by the music press. The second factor, the one that elevated grunge to a hallowed status, was its perceived role as the incubator for the band that breached the alternative/mainstream divide; Nirvana.
The two elements, grunge and Nirvana, are so intertwined that amidst the flurry of books on grunge that emerged between 2007-2011, virtually all featured Kurt Cobain on the cover. On Facebook there’s a similar sampling of the popular mind; dozens of memorial sites to grunge, hundreds to Nirvana, hundreds more to Kurt Cobain — the grunge sites are barely distinguishable from the Nirvana/Kurt Cobain tributes. Without Nirvana’s success pushing the origin myth of their emergence from grunge, without Nirvana’s success forcing the word grunge into every account of punk, alternative, rock, metal and post-1980 guitar music, grunge wouldn’t be mentioned as a scene anymore than a dozen other localised punk scenes of the 1980s. It’s similar to the way No-Wave has achieved some underground recognition on the back of the stature of Sonic Youth, Swans and, for a time, Lydia Lunch — a scene barely bigger than four bands is now a regular fixture in accounts of music.
The ‘icon’ mantle Kurt Cobain inherited has been hung over grunge also. The fact that grunge had disintegrated long before Nevermind made it out is barely registered; the arm’s length relationship between Nirvana and the grunge scene is only commented on among fanatics; the names and stories of the true grunge bands (Green River, Melvins, Soundgarden, Skin Yard, Mudhoney) something for music trivia fetishists. The immortal bonding between Kurt Cobain and grunge has created a mourning of the grunge scene. The difference was that while grunge was a very local, barely registering scene, Nirvana had a chance to connect in some way with the huge audiences who still exist for them whether on record or on MTV or as live event. Fans have been smothered ever since in memorabilia whether aural, literary, visual or tactile (*shudder* Kurt Cobain action figures…) The ‘big bang’ of Kurt Cobain’s suicide also created an emotional trauma of vast scale for fans setting a standard of significance that makes it impossible for another band to match.
Grunge, by contrast, melted away without any such mass audience, without MTV coverage, with records sold in such low amounts that Sub Pop was going to go bust before the Nirvana money flowed in; there was no mass connection. Grunge has gained its significance purely as a synonym for Nirvana. This means the harking back to a supposed golden age in Seattle is such an unusual mental phenomenon; it’s a desire to return to something that very few people saw, or heard, or had any part in — it’s completely divorced from any personal connection.
The amorphous identity of grunge also assists its assimilation into the music-based world views of fans the world over. It’s become a cliché of the Sixties generation to claim that you had to ‘be there’, a way of keeping out newcomers and preserving a sense of exclusivity around a set archetype to which followers must adhere despite lip-service to anti-authoritarianism; the result is that very few people hark back to the hippy era or ethos, few mimic or enthuse about it. The original wave of punk had a similarly strict mission statement and presentation, again, the rigidity of the identity created a limited life-span and shelf-life. Grunge, by contrast, had no vision for life, no projected purpose behind it. The result is that it can be used to cover a wide span of lifestyles and attitudes — it’s an appealingly broad church in which anyone can find what they wish. The pretence was that this fuzziness meant that Generation X had no commitment to anything at all, but that’s untrue. It was a generation that permitted individuals their own choice of ambition without imposing or demanding a single unified identity of its adherents.
The appeal of the grunge era only exists as a comparison, a longing for fresh possibilities that most of those who wish they had been there can never confirm even existed. The idea of the alternative nation, in reality little different from the pre or post-generations, appeals in the same way that the hippy or punk did — as something to hark back to when seeking something to put in opposition to whatever exists in the present day — without the weakness caused by a too uniform and defined presentation.
In actual fact, while the participants in the original scene wax lyrical about how enjoyable it was for them, the sense of open possibility and no responsibilities unburdened fun; it’s those components — youth in other words — not the scene itself that is being memorialised. Grunge consisted of extremely poor people, playing to limited appreciation, with limited futures visible, increasingly saturated with drug casualties and with a time-limit after which the usual college or steady job paths beckoned. What those people are eulogising and memorialising is the wild years of their youth when they didn’t know what they were doing perhaps but it felt good just doing it. What the fans of grunge are enthralled and inspired by is a wish that they had experienced their own mad years, or a wish that they could recapture that same directionless but ecstatic freedom.
Grunge, Seattle, the North-West scene…It’s so perfect because it’s no more real than the British tabloid vision of a mythical England of cricket, warm beer, social deferment, local employment, temperance — a world also, quietly, devoid of immigration, in which the working classes are invisible, where women keep their traps shut, where discomfort is locked away. It’s a different form of the golden era myth, the comforting kneejerk belief that “things were better” once upon a time whereas appreciating the beauties of the here-and-now, the conquered travesties of the past, or working/fighting to make this present era closer to what one wishes for — it’s all too much work. Easier to claim the fight is lost than to go for it.
Presence and absence are permanently intertwined. The appearance or discovery of a new shred of unheard Nirvana music, or a new piece of information, doesn’t salve the absence or make it go away, it emphasizes it — reminds one of the gap where something once lived. Grunge has a similar ghostly quality; it was absent long before 1991 but resurrected as, first, a genre label and explanation for Nirvana; secondly, as a tombstone for rock music or for the Eighties underground; thirdly, and presently, as a vision of dead desire, something that can’t be attained and therefore seems more appealing than what we actively possess.