I wasn’t yet born when Kurt Cobain died.
Technically, I was still in my mother’s belly, not yet ready to meet the world until nearly the tail end of 1994. So needless to say, I never experienced grunge at its forefront; during its heyday, when alternative rock dominated mainstream charts and flannel shirts and Doc Martens were gracing the likes of Vogue (no seriously, that happened). Nor was I there when the flame that had been fanning the ferocity of the grunge movement dimmed, in a harsh and heart-crushing swoosh, on April 5th, 1994.
To those who were there, the day signified the end of an innocence that had been thriving within the alternative subculture. To others, it marked the end of an era of un-tethered self-expression, “true” grunge, and the leaders that had pioneered it.
Many argue that grunge died the day Cobain died, but others claim it held out for a little while longer, slowly diminishing under the light of bubblegum pop and boy bands that dominated the late 90’s, until finally—tragically—in mid 2017, it puffed out in a poignant finale, with the death of Chris Cornell.
But, before we get to that, I feel we must go back a bit to the beginning.
And so, let’s start with a brief Music History Lesson:
Before there was grunge, there’s was 80’s hair metal: Def Leppard, Guns N’ Roses, Mötley Crüe, Poison, White Snake.
Before 80’s hair metal, there was 70’s arena rock: Queen, Led Zeppelin, Grand Funk Railroad, Jimi Hendrix, AC/DC, Black Sabbath, Pink Floyd.
And before that, there were The Beatles, Rolling Stones, The Beach Boys, The Who, The Doors.
Go even farther back and we’ll hit Chuck Berry, Muddy Waters, and even Elvis Presley and Buddy Holly.
Let’s not forget that intermingled in these decades of rock were several movements that drastically altered the evolution of the genre in iconic ways; for example, punk by way of the Pixies, Ramones, The Clash, Sex Pistols, Black Flag, The Stooges, and New York Dolls (to name a few), female empowerment à la Joan Jett and The Runaways, Janis Joplin, Stevie Nicks, Ann Wilson, Debbie Harry, Siouxsie and the Banshees, and so much more.
All of this is to say that rock has always been an evolving genre. Bands and musicians have played with technical ability and interpretation countless times to re-imagine the genre in a multitude of ways, influencing the generations that listened with a narrative that would define them for years to come.
For example, 70’s rock was all about “sex, drugs and rock n roll”, emboldened in part by the rise of the “baby groupie” (which truthfully is a subject that merits an entirely separate piece in itself), while 80’s rock focused on theatrics, and the grandiose appeal of making it big and “taking over the world”.
90’s rock deviated from this standard drastically, by eliminating the fairy-tale like quality and appeal of the “rock band that made it big” and instead stripping down all the glitz and glamour to create a sound that was raw, gritty, and unabashedly honest in its “no fucks” delivery, and permeating angst.
And so, “Grunge” was born.
And it had appeared seemingly out of nowhere. After the near-hysteric popularity of hair bands in the 80’s, the sharp deviance into a low-key, “garage band”-esque movement of rock seemed to perplex the greater public. Grunge combined the harsh, raw viciousness of punk and the darker elements of metal to create something that was entirely its own. Early bands of the time emphasized this idea, mockingly labeling their brand of music as “dirt”, “scum”, and “just plain grunge”.
But regardless of what they thought, grunge struck a nerve. And boy did it strike deep.
The Melvins were one of the first bands to truly take hold as part of the grunge movement. Along with Screaming Trees, Mother Love Bone, and Mudhoney, they paved the way for the DIY aesthetic and punk/metal influence that made grunge so novel to take root in the Seattle underground music culture.
And importantly enough, Melvins front-man Buzz Osborne shared a strong friendship with Kurt Cobain, taking him to shows and no doubt being one of the many influences that inspired Cobain to take up the craft and make his own mark in the music culture.
Whether or not Osborne ever envisioned Cobain would rise up and make as big of a mark as he did, it cannot be denied that by the time 1992 rolled around, Cobain had pioneered the path for grunge to take over and be a permanent fixture in the public’s eye.
Nirvana, the band fronted by Kurt Cobain, had made waves when their debut album Bleach dropped in 1989, but it was their sophomore album Nevermind in 1991 that truly turned the music world on its head. “Smells Like Teen Spirit”, the iconic anthem that remains relevant in public awareness today, shattered records when it premiered. The album itself toppled “King of Pop” Michael Jackson’s Dangerous off the number #1 spot in music charts.
And more importantly than that, it changed the face of pop culture itself by shattering old, tired societal standards and propelling the fierce movement of counter-culture.
Before Nirvana, rock music had been losing steam in popularity among the youth. Gen X’ers didn’t identify with the overly flamboyant culture of “classic rock” and 80’s power bands. Nor did they identify with the pristine standards of music culture that focused on superficiality and embodying a “fantasy” version of yourself. There was a disconnect, and a desire to be heard and taken seriously in an era that no longer seemed relevant.
Once Nirvana came into the limelight, propelling grunge along with it, that cry had seemingly been heard. People identified with the bare-bones, “come as you are” values of grunge, and most certainly, they identified with the brutal, no-holds barred persona that was Kurt Cobain.
Before Nirvana, there had also been a significant disconnect between the “underground” and the mainstream, the “alternative” and the “conformist”. Anything deviating even slightly outside of the “status quo” was deemed alternative, fringe, or just plain strange.
Nobody cared much for things like flannel, Doc Martens (which ironically were worn to combat the rainy weather of Seattle) until grunge brought it to mass appeal. Same with other “alternative” styles, like long hair on men, piercings, tattoos, and worn-in, near-ragged clothing. It wasn’t cool, nor was it acceptable. Until it…was. Looking as torn-up as your teen angst became the new fashion statement.
Nirvana also allowed room for other bands to thrive in the forefront: Alice In Chains, Pearl Jam, and Soundgarden were also propelled to the mainstream as their albums took hold of public love.
Pearl Jam most notably continued to embrace the no fucks attitude and DIY aesthetic of grunge by refusing to do music videos (save for their sole song “Jeremy”), interviews, or sell tickets for their shows on Ticketmaster.
Soundgarden and Pearl Jam were also well known for their high-energy sets that embraced getting close to the ground and unleashing their power by way of distorted guitar rifts, power-laden drum beats, and soulful croons and wailing screeches.
Alice In Chains took hold of public appeal through their gritty, visceral interpretation of grunge that would influence many aspects of metal today.
Cobain’s appeal, I believe, that made him stand out in collective memory for far longer than these other bands, was found in his unapologetic, scowling persona and artistic creativity. He was the manifestation of what many youths were feeling at the time; he wore their anger on his face, he scoffed at society’s standards through his appearance, and he unleashed their angst in his songs. Of course, people took hold of Eddie Vedder, Chris Cornell, Layne Staley, and others just the same, but Cobain’s appeal would prove to be far-lasting simply out of his unexpected and tragic death.
Kurt Cobain died at the absolute peak of his fame; even though he battled with health issues, mental health, and marital troubles with his wife Courtney Love, there was no denying that at the time Cobain took his life, he was one of the biggest rock stars in the world.
And it’s this loss of potential, of what could have been, that continues to bring interest in his legacy today, and influence those who’ve come long after him.
There would be no Stone Temple Pilots, Seether, Weezer, or Arcade Fire without Nirvana. There wouldn’t have been such a potent rise of “post-grunge” bands, or pop punk. Nor would there have been such a strong “Emo Renaissance” or emergence of such metal subgenres like “screamo” or “metalcore”. The entire face of alternative music today would have looked very different were it not shaped by the influence of Cobain, Nirvana, and the countless other grunge bands that defined a generation.
Alternative music’s continued rise and evolution proves that very thing today. The genre’s spread into several different subcultures now, from Hip-Hop/Rap, to pop. The rise of lo-fi and grassroots music aesthetic into the mainstream is another example of Cobain’s influence manifesting in contemporary society today. Billie Eilish, “bedroom pop” and “Soundcloud” culture all encompass the mantra of “come as you are, be as you are” that defined Cobain and the grunge genre.
In fact, I dare say grunge has been making a resurgence through a different face: Emo Rap.
As Hip-Hop and Rap continue to thrive and evolve across several music genres, so have the subcultures within it . Several of the pioneering artists in emo rap have all seemed to have met similarly tragic ends, like Lil Peep, and XXXTentacion. Like grunge was in the 90’s, emo rap is emotionally raw, visceral, and nearly disturbing in tone and imagery. Artists like Scxrlxrd, Lil Uzi Vert, and countless others evoke the same sort of powerful tone that made Cobain and grunge so relevant to collective youth identity.
And certainly, it doesn’t seem to be going anywhere. Despite its problematic elements, emo rap continues to propel itself to mainstream perception as it explores its avenues and grows as a genre. No doubt in due time, we might just as well be getting the same sort of iconic figures that grunge gave with Cobain.
In 25 years’ time, a lot has changed in both the music-scape, and pop culture as a whole. There is no longer the disconnect between the “alternative” and the “conformist”, the “underground” and “mainstream”.
Alternative fashion—from flannel to docs, to even septums, chokers, and dyed hair—are so mainstream and prevalent in fashion that it can barely be argued to even be “alternative” anymore. Nirvana and Kurt Cobain prevails in public memory, from clothing apparel to countless song covers, to parodies and tributes.
While grunge might have “died” after 1997, it cannot be said that it is gone forever. Many people, those who most likely would have been unable to make their voices heard during the era, have now taken hold of the genre, and the message it conveyed at its essence, and are redefining it for this generation.
Now, you can see people from all races, gender identities, and sexual orientations making a name for themselves in alternative culture and music. While it cannot be denied that the grunge of the 90’s was overwhelmingly white (and, until the Riot Grrl movement, overwhelmingly male) it still opened the opportunity for marginalized voices to rise up and make their own statements on their own terms.
Grunge itself was so popular in part because it wasn’t trying too hard. It just was.
Much like Kurt, Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Tads, The Melvins, Soundgarden, and all the other bands of that era were. You didn’t need grand theatrics to hold a concert. You didn’t even need to play your instrument well, or sing all that nicely. If you had something you wanted to say, you said it, and you said it without apology.
Grunge brought the garage back into “garage rock”, and broke it down to the core of its essential message. In 90’s terms, it was the teen angst and disillusionment that Gen X youths were feeling in that current place and time.
Now, in our own social and politically charged era, it’s empowerment, representation of marginalized groups, and empathy for the greater good of mankind.
Now, you have things like Afropunk, the rise of people of color and LGBT+ presence in alternative spaces, and an overwhelming willingness to be inclusive and mindful in ways that were previously not seen until grunge reinvented the punk mindset into a modern era.
Whether or not one was a fan of the genre, or Kurt Cobain himself, it cannot be denied that the nerve they struck with their brand of music is still being reverberated decades later, in a good way.