Music Industry

A very good point: It’s time for grunge to die

Before 1991, the world of alt-rock was a rich and diverse place. The number of sounds, textures, scenes, and genres that fell under the umbrella of music that qualified as “alternative” was almost endless.

For example, take a look at the top fifteen albums of 1987 at CFNY-FM (now 102.1 the Edge):

  1. U2, The Joshua Tree
  2. New Order, Substance
  3. REM, Document
  4. Depeche Mode, Music for the Masses
  5. The Cult, Electric
  6. The Smiths, Strangeways Here We Come
  7. Sting, …Nothing But the Sun
  8. Cure, Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me
  9. Echo and the Bunnymen, Echo and the Bunnymen
  10. Blue Rodeo, Outskirts
  11. Pink Floyd, A Momentary Lapse of Reason
  12. INXS, Kick
  13. Pet Shop Boys, Actually
  14. Northen Pikes, Big Blue Sky
  15. Housemartins, The People Who Grinned Themselves to Death

Scrolling further down the list, we find Level 42, Suzanna Vega, Sinead O’Connor, The Grateful Dead, Rush, The Proclaimers, Yello and even Run-DMC. See what I mean about variety?

But when grunge appeared in 1991, there was a contraction of the alternative sound. Things quickly consolidated around big grunge guitars, ushering in a golden age for the Alternative Generation.

The problem, though, is that alt-rock–certainly alt-rock radio–has never really been able to move on from grunge. It continues to linger, with songs like “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and “Jeremy” still forming the foundation of many an alt-rock radio’s gold library.

Question: When does this music become eligible for as classic rock? As much as I love big guitar rock and the great grunge of the 90s, when is it time to move on? Shouldn’t we be looking at bands like the Black Keys and Royal Blood as the heirs to Pearl Jam, Nirvana, and Soundgarden? Or has there been such a paucity of material to replace the grunge gods that we have no choice but to keep going back to that well again and again? asks the same question.

1991: the year Grunge broke. Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” was released as a single in September, and everything changed. A manifesto for dissatisfied Reagan-era youth.

2018: Rock music is still in the remission its been in for a vague number of years. Everyone yearns for the glory days of rock to return. You still get some solid releases from legacy guitar acts like Foo Fighters, Pearl Jam, STP. There’s plenty of quality underground guitar rock acts who never really make that leap outside of indie rag buzz, and we get some solid new acts like Royal Blood and Highly Suspect on a mainstream level. However, it seems like they never hit their career zenith and release an album the likes of TenSuperunknownNevermind.

Something happened along the way that put a cap on rock music. We’ve had some little movements along the way (nu-metal, and the early 2000’s garage rock wave spearheaded by The White Stripes and The Strokes), but it just seems as though the rock scene is dead as a doornail in public eyes. We’ve haven’t experienced a “moment” in the vein of the British Invasion, or the Glam Metal explosion (maybe for the better), or the Grunge movement. Those three sweet years, 1991-1994, made as much noise as they possibly could before burning out with Kurt Cobain’s suicide.

In the years since, we’ve had a disgustingly hollow echo of the Grunge movement in the post-grunge craze, a scene that made such a vapid mockery of itself by 2010’s “Porn Star Dancing”, by My Darkest Days.

Keep reading.

The good news is that texture and variety began to return to alt-rock with the rise of groups like Mumford & Sons starting in about 2008. A quick look at today’s charts features artists as different as AJR, Nathaniel Rateliff, Death from Above, Sheepdogs, Imagine Dragons and Walk the Moon. We’re not quite where we were in the late 80s, but we’re getting there.

Maybe grunge is dying off. It’s just taking a lot longer for those musical glories to pass on.

Alan Cross

is an internationally known broadcaster, interviewer, writer, consultant, blogger and speaker. In his 40+ years in the music business, Alan has interviewed the biggest names in rock, from David Bowie and U2 to Pearl Jam and the Foo Fighters. He’s also known as a musicologist and documentarian through programs like The Ongoing History of New Music.

Alan Cross has 38403 posts and counting. See all posts by Alan Cross

6 thoughts on “A very good point: It’s time for grunge to die

  • I just want to go back to the summer of 1987 and stay there

  • Grunge was just navel gazing for middle class, suburban white boys, and was dead within 3 years. No way in hell was Kurt Cobain a voice for me. I’ll take 1987…or 1997 for that matter.

  • This isn’t a rock world anymore. A couple of my kids listen to it but most of them listen to hip hop. I’m finishing up a college diploma at age 57 and when I refer to classic rock, my classmates thing Nirvana, REM, even Radiohead. I lived the punk explosion in the seventies and I welcomed grunge after rock was slowing down in the early nineties. Today it’s pop and country and hip hop that rule the airwaves and the playlists. Rock is still here but it’s clearly a minority selection, a niche.

    Why? Lots of reasons I suppose but nothing lasts forever and times change. In the old days, changing times meant new rock but since the nineties, change means new genres entirely outside of rock. I think it sucks but then my mom thought losing the crooners was the end of civilization. I still listen to rock, mostly newer stuff but I still play Nirvana and Soundgarden and Black sabbath and the Stones. Rock used to be at the centre of contemporary culture and now it’s not. It’s still there; I love Shame and Wolf Alice and Death Valley Girls but the guy working the McDonald’s counter has never heard of them. Thirty years ago grunge was gearing up, thirty years before I was a kid folks were listening to the Andrews Sisters. What are you going to do?

  • “Or has there been such a paucity of material to replace the grunge gods that we have no choice but to keep going back to that well again and again?”

    This. I think it’s this. Just like classic rock, grunge hangs around because the people who grew up on it are still alive and are in or are nearing their peak earning years. And when modern alt-rock radio wants to cater to them, what options do they have? Maybe it’s too many years of Democrats in the white house, but contemporary alt-rock feels kind of wimpy compared to grunge. Which doesn’t mean it isn’t good, but it doesn’t fill the same niche. As the article says, there are a few contemporary mainstream acts which come close but even Black Keys and Royal Blood don’t have that same low-down grunge crunch. So to capture that late 30s-late 50s market, radio has to keep going back to those classic 90s albums.

  • It’s not time for grunge to die (we need more grunge bands today more than ever), but it is time for stations to stop playing so much Nirvana and Pearl Jam. I don’t know why stations think listeners wanna listen to the same Nirvana and PJ songs everyday, year after year. That’s something that stops people from listening to a station.

    In response to your eligibility of classic rock question, classic rock stations have been playing grunge bands like Nirvana and Pearl Jam for a while now, so they’re obviously eligible.

  • Well said! I started my own music journalism journey one day after work when all I wanted to do was crank some loud, aggressive and new rock music a touch over 5 years ago. Sadly, when I turned on my car not only was it the same group at a so called…ahem…New Rock/Alternative station, it was the same song, at almost the *exact* same point in the song! (Local H-Who I do love but come on, the song was at least 15 years old!)

    I said, “ENOUGH!!! I’m going to start looking for some new music on the internet “this” weekend!” It took a bit of time, sweat, and clicking on hundreds of bad sites/videos/links, but I suddenly got the hang of it and started finding new music. Then I started finding new music sites introducing mostly regional acts. After interacting with a few, one put out a call for writers. It wasn’t until 3 months later for my birthday that I went and saw Reignwolf. It inspired me and I wrote my first review. This May will be my five year anniversary of writing and I now cover up and coming national acts. Who knew I could take my passion and knowledge of music and actually write? I write for a number of sites now actually. I’ve been told I have a good ear for new music/talent.

    Again, great article above and so true! (BTW, I’ll be 50 this May so I remember a lot of these acts and that time!)


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