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Distorted Guitars, Flannel Shirts, and Teen Angst - The Marketing of "Grunge"

Updated: Dec 1, 2023


They say music brings people together. I've personally witnessed how true that statement is thousands of times over. There's a kinship that's built with perfect strangers the minute it's discovered those strangers like and appreciate the same music. Once they realize how deeply a certain genre or artist affects them, those one-time strangers are now friends for life. Music does that to people.


I say all of that because this piece is a product of that description. In a conversation with Michele Mangiapane Gardner, the woman behind "The Grunge Legends" Facebook Group (over 35K members strong), it came up that a story about the term "grunge" might be an interesting idea. I hope you agree with us!


 

I don't necessarily like being the bearer of bad news, but I have a feeling I may be exactly that to some of you once you read the next sentence. Grunge is not a sound. I hope you're still with me.


In short, the term "grunge" was co-opted by advertising agencies, record labels, and the media in the early 1990s to sell and promote music coming out of Seattle, Washington. It's very difficult to sell something, music or otherwise, without a name and image associated with it. That's it. It's as simple as that.


Guess what though, you shouldn't care!


 

The terms, Classical, Country, Jazz, Blues, Rock, Motown, Disco, Punk, Heavy Metal, Hardcore, Pop, Alternative, and yes Grunge, all exist to identify sounds (and images) of certain styles of music so they can be easily discussed, categorized, and of course, sold. Each one of those labels conjures up ideas of what the music sounds like, the artists most associated with them, and the images they've established. None of that happens by accident. It happens because all of that music has been carefully marketed and packaged so we can buy it. We've been told what to call it, so we do. There are many subgenres each one of those types of music has spawned, and for the most part, in my opinion, the sound of the music belonging to each label (and subgenre) is easily identifiable. Except, that is, for grunge.


I'm willing to bet that depending on your age, level of interest in the grunge movement, and even where you're from, all play varying roles in how you feel about what you just read. For transparency's sake, I'm 50 years old (was 18 and a freshman in college in 1991), began consuming the music that would eventually be labeled alternative and grunge around 1987, and haven't stopped yet. I was born and raised in Brooklyn, NY, and have lived in the New York City metro area my entire life.


Those facts skew my perception towards what was written in earlier paragraphs one way, just as your age, interest in the music, and geography likely skew yours.


 


If there's a "Big 4" of grunge, I think it's been universally established that Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, and Alice In Chains, are in fact, the "Big 4". If you agree with this, you then have to agree that grunge is not a sound. If you have heard more than a handful of songs from each of those bands you know that the music each has written, recorded, and released, does not sound like the others. Before a few of you blow a gasket, some of the songs do have similarities. Let's be honest, it's rock music with guitars, bass, drums, and vocals so yeah, some of it will sound alike. Let's think about each band separately though. Nirvana, for the most part, is melodic punk rock with a Beatles-ish pop sensibility baked in. Pearl Jam is heavily influenced by 70s hard rock with punk leanings and folk and singer/songwriter-esque parts thrown in for good measure. Soundgarden mixed heavy metal with psychedelic rock, odd time signatures, and beautifully sung vocals to throat-exploding screams from one minute to the next. Lastly, Alice In Chains, used mood, atmosphere, and vocal harmonies in their version of heavy metal and hard rock. If the term "grunge" was meant to sound like anything, it would sound like AIC much more than it would the other bands mentioned.


It gets even trickier.


Screaming Trees, Smashing Pumpkins, Stone Temple Pilots, Radiohead, Blind Melon, and Foo Fighters have all, multiple times over, been called "grunge". Even the bands that started most of this music, Green River, Melvins, Skin Yard, Jane's Addiction, Dinosaur Jr., Pixies, and so on, do not all sound alike. There's a quote attributed to Sub Pop (the indie record label from Seattle that first signed many of these bands including Nirvana) co-founder, Bruce Pavitt while describing the music of the EP Dry as a Bone by Green River in 1987 as "gritty vocals, roaring Marshall amps, ultra-loose grunge that destroyed the morals of a generation".

Mark Arm of the aforementioned Green River used the term even earlier. In 1981, he wrote a letter under his given name Mark McLaughlin to the Seattle zine, Desperate Times, criticizing his band Mr. Epp and the Calculations as "Pure grunge! Pure noise! Pure shit!".


Wherever the term "Grunge" came from, its meaning was meant to describe noisy guitar music with a very low bottom and groove-laden bass sound, which may or may not have been meant to be all that appealing to listen to. It was very specific to a few bands. It was never meant to be anything else.


 

If you were around in the early 90s, you heard the term "grunge" incessantly and you also heard how the musicians associated with the music hated it. Trust me, folks, culture changed when Nirvana took off and all the bands that were out before them were suddenly thrown into a global spotlight that burned hotter than the sun. Most of these artists never once imagined that their loud, "grungy" music would be heard outside the city of Seattle, let alone all over the world. It was a scene in the truest sense of the word. The planet wanted to know everything that grunge and Seattle had to offer and for a potential sale that big, the scene needed a name. Ladies and Gentlemen, let me introduce to you...Grunge.


The media and marketing blitz that followed was something the world hadn't seen since Beatlemania. Just like the British Invasion, it started with one band (Nirvana) but led to a society-shifting bevy of bands that would go on to rule the music industry for nearly a decade. Things got so out of hand at one point, the vaunted New York Times would reach out to the tastemakers themselves, Sub Pop Records, and report what they had learned. And boy was that a mistake.


In late 1992, a reporter named Rick Marin, while working on a story about the global "mainstreaming" of grunge for the Styles section of the NY Times, was put in touch with a woman named Megan Jasper. Jasper, at the time, was a 25-year-old Sales Rep at Caroline Records who was put in touch with Marin by Sub Pop's other co-founder, Jonathan Poneman, because Poneman was tired of dealing with press like this and thought Jasper would have some fun with it. What ensued became legendary.


Marin had mentioned to Jasper that he wanted to put together, along with his story, a "Grunge Lexicon", because you know...this weird music and these crazy kids must have their own language, right? Right??


Jasper, knowing "grunge" didn't mean anything in Seattle and was just a label used to mark and identify what the advertising agencies and record companies were selling, humorously obliged to Marin's request.



The simple fact that anyone could take Jasper's phrases and definitions seriously, and go so far as to print them in the NY Times of all places, shows you how thirsty people were to jump on this bandwagon and profit from it. Grunge may have been used to describe a very specific sound made by a small handful of bands in the 80s, but it was never intended to become a genre. If you want to be extremely literal, based on the people who first used the term in Seattle, there may only be about four or five "grunge" bands in the world. It's not a genre of music, nor is it a sound meant to describe thousands of bands, it's a marketing term, with mass and emotional appeal, to sell a style and a scene to hundreds of millions of people. And it worked.


And you still shouldn't care! If you love the music from the early and mid-90s, regardless of what people call it, then love it. If you want to refer to it as "grunge", that's fine too. It helps with identifying the time period you're speaking about and most of the bands from said period. I wrote a book called SLACKER - 1991, Teen Spirit Angst, and the Generation It Created (due out 2024) and the term "grunge" was used frequently. It's fine to use but it should also be understood where it came from and why it's used. It's one of the only genres of music that I can think of, and probably the biggest, that has this unique naming discrepancy. For music geeks like us, it makes for great conversation, for the rest of the world, I doubt anyone cares.


Oh, and I'm not sure what happened to the NY Times reporter, but Megan Jasper is the long-time CEO of Sub Pop Records. This is not a trick this writer is playing on you the reader, this is completely true.



 

If you'd like to reserve a signed, 1st Edition copy of SLACKER, you can do so here.


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1 Comment


Kevin Alexander
Kevin Alexander
Dec 01, 2023

Jasper's interview is (still) the stuff of legends. Had The Onion existed at the time, I'm sure most of us would've mistaken it for something coming from their brain trust, and not the NYT. As for the term Grunge, I think it just became too easy not to use. "Alternative" was already being overused, "College Rock" was on it's way out, " and DIY didn't fit. Moreover, it became sort of an umbrella for a whole ecosystem (music, style of dress, etc.).

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