The Impact of Grunge

An interesting thing happened between 1980s-America and 1990s-America: the music got real depressing. Actually, let’s be more clear. The music in the mainstream (i.e., what the majority of people hear) got real depressing. Or you could say it became more in-tune with what humans, especially young people, were feeling in day-to-day life.

This shift begs multiple questions. Why did it happen? What were the long-lasting effects? How did it change society, or was the music changed by society? Were the kids any better for it? Did you connect to it? It’s been 20 years; are we overdue for another shake-up?

I don’t have delusions of grandeur that (any of) these questions will be answered by this single post. I am looking to start further conversation on the matter, especially from a 2009 frame-of-reference, as we look back and ponder why the cultural shift ever occurred.

I am not of the incorrect notion that “in-tune with human feeling” music started in the 90s; far from it. There has long been music that actually touches a deeper level, but the influx of (Seattle-sound) bands like Pearl Jam, Alice In Chains, Stone Temple Pilots and Nirvana in the early 90s made for a very interesting changing-of-the-guard. 

Donna Gaines wrote a fascinating book called Teenage Wasteland (Suburbia’s Dead End Kids) that I just finished reading. It starts by telling of a suicide pact (4 teens) that took place in Bergenfield, New Jersey, in 1987. The book does an amazing job of looking into the lives of “outcast” kids in the town of Bergenfield, as Gaines spends quality, one-on-one time with some of them. The book delves deep into the effect social mores are having on American teens by the late 1980s, and it’s not good. A large portion of the book discusses music, and the way the book’s characters identify with the tunes of the day.

After reading this book, one thing is clear to me. It is no wonder the Grunge-era occurred.

Cultural evidence is usually years in the making. In other words, a switch wasn’t flipped as the calendar turned to the 1990s. From Gaines’ book Teenage Wasteland,

When kids in America learned anything about right and wrong in the brutal 1980s, they learned it from their bands. If they were able to express themselves openly and honestly at any time, it was in their scenes. Of course there were people who exploited themes as trends, but those bands didn’t last. They were dismissed as poseurs, teenybopper bands.

In the Great Crossover there was above all a cultural exchange. You had bands like Metallica hanging out with the Misfits, and after a while everyone started writing songs about the real things that threatened kids: drug pushers, Army recruiters, spiritual isolation, nuclear holocaust, child sexual abuse, mental hospitals.


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