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It Was Time For Anger

Why the Grunge movement exploded when it did



Pearl Jam at the Pinkpop festival in 1992 as the grunge and alternative music movement was picking up steam.
Pearl Jam/Pinkpop Festival 1992

Sometimes, as things age, important pieces get left out of the stories that are told. When people discuss music from the early 90s, specifically what was known as grunge and alternative, the story almost always begins with Nirvana. To be fair, Nirvana put that scene on the map commercially with their second album, Nevermind (1991), but the story started about a decade before that release.


I go into a very detailed discussion of this in my forthcoming book, SLACKER - 1991, Teen Spirit Angst, and the Generation It Created (Inspired By You Books 2024) which you can reserve a signed, first-edition copy for here, but this particular article is about something a bit different.



 

Many things come together to define culture. One of the most important as far as I'm concerned is popular music. Sometimes culture influences music, and sometimes music influences culture but they are certainly attached at the hip. Seeing as 1991 was the year that grunge "broke", we would need to go back in time and analyze what was going on in culture before Nirvana changed everything.


This is also discussed in SLACKER, but I want to shed some light on it here as well. I mentioned that music is an important determining factor as it relates to culture and which direction it goes. In addition, and equally important in my view, is the state of the economy, social issues of the day, education, and the political climate, both nationally and globally. When you mix all of these ingredients and look into the cauldron of boiling water that is society, you will see the type of culture you're living in.


In the following excerpt from SLACKER, you'll see what music was like one year before Nirvana's Nevermind was released. If you know the bands and artists on this list, you'll understand where music was at the time and just how unexpected a band like Nirvana was. If you don't know the music on this list, do a quick search on your favorite streaming service and you'll see where I'm coming from. Or just keep reading.


"The year prior to Nevermind coming out, during the very same week, the Top 10 artists (in order) whose albums topped the Billboard  200 were as follows:


Week of September 22nd,1990:


M.C. Hammer, Wilson Phillips, Jon Bon Jovi, Mariah Carey, Bell Biv DeVoe, Prince, Poison, Anita Baker, Keith Sweat and Michael Bolton. 


If you’re not familiar with some or all of the artists on this list, here’s why I wouldn’t have them fighting my revolution. You may feel otherwise…who knows? M.C. Hammer, the Oakland A’s ball boy turned rapper, wore baggy pants probably three sizes too big and shuffled across the stage while performing his gigantic hit, “Can’t Touch This”. Great for him, not so much for my infantry. Jon Bon Jovi, successful beyond all recognition, but musically, not exactly the bulldog I’d want on the front lines. Wilson Phillips, a supergroup of sorts, was the offspring of the legendary Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys and the daughter of John and Michelle Phillips of the Mammas and the Popas. Pop music gold, but edgy is not in their vocabulary. As far as Michael Bolton is concerned, well, you can just figure that one out for yourself.


Let’s head back to September of 1991 now, shall we? During that same week, just one year later, (the week Nevermind was released), the Top 10 artists, in order, on the Billboard 200 were:


Week of September 21st, 1991


Metallica, Natalie Cole, Rush, Bonnie Raitt, Color Me Badd, Boyz II Men, Bob Seger & The Silver Bullet Band, Van Halen, Michael Bolton, C+C Music Factory.

(If you’re wondering where Nevermind landed, it debuted at #144.)


As you can see, there wasn’t much of a difference between the charts from 1990 and 1991. One can certainly make a case that Metallica should be included in the heavy rock explosion that was 1991 but they were already very well-known and the self-titled (most people refer to it as the “Black Album” due to its all-black cover) record they released was largely dismissed by longtime Metallica fans for what they deemed as “selling out” because the new songs were much shorter than the seven-minute plus marathons from past albums. In addition, they wound up with five singles paving the way for the band to ultimately sell more than 17 million copies of the “black album” in the U.S alone. So although there were four rock artists in the Top 10 as opposed to just two the year before, there’s nothing all that earth-shattering here. Bob Seger was from decades earlier, Rush was respected but looked at as old progressive metal/rock and not what teenagers in 1990/91 were excited about, and Van Halen, with their infamous in-fighting and lead singer swaps, represented the old-school of cool rock music."


As you can see, grunge/alternative music wasn't a blip on the radar...yet.


 

If you study society at any moment in time, you'll find that you can put your finger on the pulse of where civilization is. Are people comfortable, happy, prosperous, and breaking new cultural ground? Or, does life feel stale, uninspired, and hopeless with little to look forward to? Music (and most forms of art) can be a telling barometer of what life looks like to most people. You saw what the U.S. Billboard Top 40 charts looked like in September of both 1990 and 1991. I think it's fair to call the popular music during those times safe at best, and soulless at worst. At least that's how I felt at the time.


Let's go back just one more year to get a sense of why, in late 1991 and into 1992, the youth culture was ready for a massive, loud, and honestly, angry change. Another excerpt from SLACKER:


"With the Seattle music scene still segregated from the rest of the world, commercial music was bathing in a sea of uninspired mediocrity. The Billboard 200 Number One Albums chart of 1989 points to this. Number-one albums throughout the year by artists such as Anita Baker, Bobby Brown, Debbie Gibson, New Kids on the Block, Milli Vanilli, Billy Joel, Phil Collins, and others aren’t exactly the type of artists that would be natural lead-ins to heavy, dirty, sludgy, metal/punk rock bands that would take over these very charts in a few short years. The heaviest rock music that enjoyed commercial success were albums by bands like Motley Crue, Guns N’ Roses, The Rolling Stones, and Aerosmith. The Red Hot Chili Peppers did make it to 53 with Mother’s Milk but it didn’t make enough noise to signal to the world what was on the horizon.


"Smells Like Teen Spirit” was officially released as the first single off of Nevermind on September 10th, 1991. It was given to radio shortly before this on August 27th. Record companies typically release songs with a solid plan and strategy in mind, this release was no different. Nirvana’s label DGC Records, (their first major label after beginning their career with a small, at that time, indie label called Sub Pop Records) had the intention of releasing “Teen Spirit” to both strengthen their current fan base in the Pacific Northwest, and expand on it. Then, the plan was to release “Come as You Are” as the main single due to what the record company saw as its “crossover to the mainstream” potential. Well, you know what they say about the best-laid plans of mice and men...The reality is, despite “Smells Like Teen Spirit” being an all-time great rock song, its timing was impeccable. A perfect storm was brewing and Nirvana, along with their debut single off of Nevermind, were destined to become the eye of that storm. If you think about it, great music by itself, rarely, if ever, can start a cultural revolution. So many outside factors, most having little or nothing to do with music itself, play massive roles in birthing that revolution. The world is a strange place with many strange things happening in it. When those strange things get stranger or just played out, and the youth of any generation decides it’s time for a change, things tend to happen. Add a corrupt political and societal climate, and oppression of any kind to a group (or groups) of people, as well as the stifling of true creativity, and finally, radio towers blasting soulless music to the masses, that my friends, is a recipe for a cultural revolution. All of this, in one form or another, was occurring just as Nirvana had released Nevermind and the kids responded the way they always do during times like these, with raised fists and screams of rebellion."


 

Back in those days, radio airplay, along with a music video in heavy rotation on MTV (yes, they used to play music videos 24 hours a day) was what was needed to turn musicians into icons. In the case of Nirvana, the dark, grimy-looking video for "Smells Like Teen Spirit" appeared on televisions worldwide, and the images within that video mirrored the angst and frustration of the song so perfectly that kids everywhere clung to it for dear life. The revolution was televised and the rest, as they say, is history. I write at length about the impact of this video in the book, but this should give you an idea of why it was so monumental in defining this new and angry youth culture.


 

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Reserve your signed copy of my forthcoming book, SLACKER — 1991, Teen Spirit Angst, and the Generation It Created (Inspired By You Books 2024) here.





























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