Armagideon Time

Smells like day-old bullshit

February 22nd, 2018

I didn’t care much for “grunge” music, even though we shared a cold climate slacker-punk wardrobe.

In the fall of 1989, the ex-punk audiophile I worked with in the Choate Hospital kitchen spun Soundgarden’s Louder Than Love CD on a car stereo that cost more than the shitty hatchback that housed it. “It’s the ‘Seattle Sound!’ It’s gonna be the Next Big Thing!” he insisted, but I couldn’t feel it.

I picked up a promo cassette of the album for three bucks at Mystery Train a few months later. It got a few plays as I tried to work out if I’d missed anything the first time around, but all I heard was next-gen cock rock — affected lo-fi production married to the old familiar sounds of Zep worship.

My introduction to Nirvana came from a kid in the college Sci-Fi Club who tried to offset his old school geekdom with whatever shit was getting hyped in the current issue of CMJ or the Boston Phoenix. “I bought the latest albums by Ned’s Atomic Dustbin and Nirvana this weekend. Nirvana was kinda an afterthought, but I liked it more than the Ned’s tape!” From his lips, it was an anti-endorsement.

Punk appealed to me because it was a past-tense affair by the tail end of the Eighties. Yeah, there were still hardcore kids slamming to Slapshot and mohawk-sporting holdouts going through the motions, but it was an exotic anachronism in the suburban wilderness northwest of Boston. As much as I might’ve longed to be part of a bigger subcultural community (especially one with punked-out ladies present), I enjoyed the feeling of having this abandoned headspace all to myself. I could socialize with the thrash metal kids or upmarket bohemian types yet still stand apart from the herd. Punk — or what sad remnants were left of it — was tailor-made for my mindset, especially in those days when it was still shackled to adolescent obnoxiousness.

The grunge thing, and the “mainstream alternative” shit that followed in its wake, was nauseating to behold. Every high-hair and mullethead I knew in high school traded in their Benetton and Esprit wear for leather jackets and Docs and tribal tats. Out went “Pump Up The Jam,” in came “Black Hole Sun.” The open landfill of retro-kitsch gave way to a marketable canon of received references.

That might come off as a bit snobby on my part, and that certainly did factor into it. Yet my disdain was less about gatekeeping than about how utterly bland it all was. It was co-opted out of the gate, an depressing epitaph for the fast-fading myths about Gen X as standard bearers for a paradigm shift. What Bill Clinton’s disappointing politics didn’t kill was lost in such utterly novel developments as heroin addiction, affected irony, and third-hand Black Sabbath riffs. Every grunge act cited an impeccably suspect list of influences which somehow never managed to be reflected in their actual output.

In hindsight, it was just a lateral shift from hair metal, pitched at a more upscale demographic and a new class of lifestyle accoutrements to purchase. Yet it was packaged as something revolutionary…and predominantly white (unlike the actually groundbreaking and revolutionary shit going on in the hip-hop scene). Once it served its purpose, it was discarded in favor of a more distributed approach to marketing “alt-culture.” The process was unfolding even as grunge hit its commercial peak, though apparently Spin didn’t get the memo. Its September 1992 issue featured a hyperbolic paean to grunge’s rise to dominance, complete with optimistic projections about its future and a list of hot new bands destined for super stardom…

…or not.

2 Responses to “Smells like day-old bullshit”

  1. Mike Loughlin

    Yeah, but when you’re 13 in 1991 and everything sounds like Poison and you’re starting to realize that that’s lame…

    Nirvana sounds like the Real Deal. Alice In Chains is almost scary. Soundgarden is freaking heavy. Pearl Jam has that Big Rock sound but takes itself so very seriously. That’s what we responded to, the self-seriousness and the emotional honesty (real or manufactured), not to mention Nirvana’s cynicism and snottiness.

    I can’t argue with any of the criticisms you level at the sub-genre, but for a lot of us a half-generation younger than you, grunge felt revolutionary. Of course, when Stone Temple Pilots and Bush xeroxed the Seattle sound while Nirvana came to a tragic end and Pearl Jam got boring, I realized that maybe I should turn off the radio and start sniffing around the local scene I’d started hearing about…

  2. Timm Davison

    As someone who lived in Seattle prior to and during the ‘grunge’ era, I can tell you that not everyone in Seattle saw this as something revolutionary – that was mostly marketing hype. I felt the music was too predictable and overly disingenuous – not at first, but once it broke mainstream and people changed out their big hair for flannel togs. Plus, it really did turn the frat boys from metal and pop kids into these ‘rebels without a clue.’ I didn’t buy into the hype because that’s exactly what it was, and I still have to argue with people in regards to the ‘greatness’ of Nirvana.

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