Popular Culture - Grunge
By Bernie Howitt (Narara Valley High)
1) The nature of popular culture
This is undoubtedly the section which has caused the most grief to teachers and students alike. Take comfort from the fact that it is impossible to derive a universally accepted definition of popular culture. The experts don't agree on what it is, so HSC markers are certainly not expecting you to suddenly have all the answers. Rather, concentrate on trying to show that you understand the nature of it through explaining why your case study is popular culture.
There are probably a few key points to consider. I believe that access is vital in allowing popular culture to develop. Access is what permits something (Mr Bean and The Three Tenors are excellent examples) to move from cult status to being icons of popular culture. For Grunge, it moved from being a local cult sound in Seattle through national to international success, because more and more people had access to its products. The changeable nature of popular culture is also important, and its icons, as John Fiske has suggested, may mean different things to different people. Thus Kurt Cobain was an icon of Grunge popular culture who could be equally recognized by a 15 year old, a 30 year old and a 45 year old, but he would mean different things to each of them. The very term "Grunge" can have a variety of meanings, and it is a worthwhile exercise asking people of varying ages and backgrounds what they understand by the term.
It's important not to get too hung up trying to discover the ultimate pithy definition of popular culture. Examiners will be much more impressed by the student who can show why their case study is popular culture than the one who simply recites a sentence from a text book. As you study or revise your case study, keep asking yourself the question "why is this popular culture?"
2) The creation of popular culture
Its been well documented that the subculture known as "Grunge" started in Seattle. To most teenagers it started when Nirvana released "Nevermind" in September, 1991. That single record release was undoubtedly the key event in moving Grunge from subculture to popular culture. To study Grunge as a case study for the creation of popular culture though, requires a bit more historical perspective.As Spin magazine proclaimed in December, 1992, "Seattle...it's currently to the rock world what Bethlehem was to Christianity". Seattle in the north western United States is rightly regarded as the launching pad of Grunge, but why? The journey from the local scene in Seattle in the mid 80's, through Nirvana's national number one with Nevermind in 1991, to the global success of Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Soundgarden et al is a classic example of the emergence and subsequent exploitation of popular culture.
According to those who were there, Seattle in the early 80s was a fairly isolated place culturally. Major bands often didn't bother adding Seattle to their west coast American tours, and the live scene was awash with derivative bands doing their best to sound like someone else. It wasn't an environment which seemed immediately conducive to an explosion of original musical vitality. Yet environment seems to be a key concept in explaining the 1985-95 decade.
The physical environment is one of great beauty, with trees and water in abundance. It has consistently been voted the most livable city in America, for what its worth. It does, however, rain a lot. An awful lot. As a result, in the words of pioneering local record producer Jack Endino, "when the weather's crappy you don't feel like going outside, you go into a basement and make a lot of noise to take out your frustration." The psychological environment is also important. Seattle is the major city of Washington State, the furthermost corner of the contiguous United States, the last stop before Canada or the Pacific Ocean. For many Americans it is the symbolic end of the line in the journey of westward expansion which is so integral to the way Americans perceive themselves. Art Chantry, graphic designer who was a key figure in the early grunge scene pointed out in "Hype", "the north west is weird. It's the flying saucer capital of the US, serial killer capital of the US, the Manson family used to vacation here." From this environment emerged a music scene of real vitality.
It's easy to see the musical ancestry of British punk in the Seattle music of the mid eighties. It was a style which had never been popular in mainstream America, but had obviously found a niche in the youth of the isolated north west. Bands formed, playing gigs they arranged themselves, to an audience that Kim Thayil of Soundgarden pointed out, was "usually just other bands". It was a friendly, incestuous scene powered by an everchanging collection of bands playing for the main reason, fun, an escape from an America dominated by the socially barren policies of Ronald Reagan. It's the classic local scene, thriving completely independently of any corporate power structure.
Local photographer Charles Petersen, who chronicled the emerging scene with his camera summed it up best in "Hype", "we were all so f...... bored out of our heads it was get drunk, fall down and throw your body around. And all the bands that came through Seattle at that time said Seattle had the most exciting live scene, and they loved to play here because the audience would get drunk and go nuts."
It was this excitement which was the pinnacle of the local element of Grunge's emergence as mainstream popular culture. Along with the excitement of a self produced local live scene came the local entrepreneurs. Small, independent record companies sprung up sealing deals with friends on a handshake to produce a vinyl record of the six months they may have been together. Fanzines were the other great explosion of subcultural access, as those who couldn't play in bands showed their allegiance to their chosen favourites by producing cheap, enthusiastic magazines which helped glue the scene together.
The first step towards a national level of success came with the emergence of Jonathan Poneman and Bruce Pavit, who founded their own label Sub Pop. Unlike their contemporaries in Seattle, they had a grander vision which spread beyond the north west. They were unashamed admirers of the 80s Motown approach to having "hit factory". After starting with the simple desire to get Soundgarden onto vinyl, they soon proved themselves masters of self promotion.
In November 1988 came one of their masterstrokes. They established a "Sub Pop Singles Club" producing strictly limited editions of singles from local bands, released monthly. It started with
1 000 copies of the then totally unknown Nirvana's "Love Buzz/Big Cheese". It stimulated an artificial demand by creating an aura of desirability because the releases were so limited. As other local bands like Green River, Mudhoney, Tad and Soundgarden found themselves on Sub Pop singles, the idea of a "Seattle Sound" clearly emerged as an ideal marketing tool.
The key event in Sub pop's elevation of the Seattle scene to national and global recognition came in 1989 when British journalist Andy Catlin was brought over to Seattle. Poneman and Pavit took him to a Mudhoney show, introduced him around and loaded him up with Sub pop singles. The result was a major story in Britain's influential Melody Maker on March 11, 1989, headed "Seattle, Rock City". The emergence of a Grunge popular culture was now underway as Americans clamoured to know what was happening in this remote outpost of their own country.
Art Chantry described the next few months as "an explosion of subculture", while local journalist Dawn Anderson saw everything "suddenly buzzing with activity". Many locals felt it was a short term fixation fuelled by the national media, and Anderson remembered that "about 1990 we thought good, it's over". Even Sub Pop were falling on hard times, with Poneman and Pavit creating a now legendary T shirt in 1991 which proclaimed "WHICH PART OF 'WE HAVE NO MONEY' DON'T YOU UNDERSTAND?"
Then in September 1991 they released Nirvana's second album, "Nevermind". Nirvana were still a small scale local act, mainly recognised for emerging from the mind numbingly boring small red-necked logging town of Aberdeen. Local record promoter Susie Tennant remembered that "the record came out in the fall. The video, I remember when I first saw it I thought this is so cool, but there's no way MTV will play this, and when they started going with it, it reached millions of kids instantly".
The song MTV had placed on high rotation was "Smells Like Teen Spirit". It became the anthem of a generation, and gave the mainstream media a focus point to categorise that generation with. Kurt Cobain suddenly found himself not only the financial saviour of Sub Pop, but more disturbingly for one who's psyche was so fragile, the spokesman of a generation. As he said in his last major interview (US Rolling Stone issue 674, Jan 27, 1994), "Everyone has focused on that song so much. The reason it gets a big reaction is people have seen it on MTV a million times. It's been pounded into their brains." Thus in the rock world of the 1990s, the key to national and global success was high rotation on MTV. In the age of satellite TV that was enough to guarantee a global profile. "Nevermind" knocked Michael Jackson's "Dangerous" off the top of the American album charts, Nirvana toured Australia as part of the Big Day Out, and Grunge was now a global popular culture. The merciless exploitation was about thirty seconds behind. As Eddie Vedder of Pearl Jam explained, "when commerce is involved, everything changes".
3) The consumers of popular culture
Once Nirvana arrived on the global scene, teenagers everywhere became the potential consumers for the explosion which followed. The Seattle bands were proud of their ordinariness. Van Conner from Screaming Trees summed up the attitude of the Seattle bands to their image better than anyone in "Hype", "We were the guys in high school who got beat up-we couldn't even get to talk to the pretty girl-we're nerds god damn it!".
It was an image millions of teenagers could identify with. "Smells Like Teen Spirit" with its "Here we are now, entertain us" became described as "the slacker's anthem". It was the time of George Bush and over a decade of conservative Republican administrations in the US. In Britain youth had suffered under the "profits before people" social policies of the hideous Margaret Thatcher, and in Australia young people hadn't really rated under a Hawke government which had costed up to entrepreneurs like Skase and Bond. Once mainstream America cottoned on to Grunge, the market for consumer exploitation just opened up. Conrad Uno, owner of PopLlama Records, summed up what was going on in "Hype". "Rolling Stone called, they were doing a fashion spread on what the indies were wearing. I said I wasn't what they wanted, but I had a fellow here, Scott McCoy from Young Fresh Fellows, who was just what they were looking for. They came and interviewed Scott briefly, and then got out these clothes and made him put them on....They got him to take of f his flannel shirt and wear their flannel shirt. The caption below said 'flannel shirt:$85". When muzak versions of"Smells Like Teen Spirit" started appearing as background in shopping malls and lifts, the corporatisation of Grunge popular culture was complete. Vanity Fair magazine did a "Grunge fashion spread, and it appeared on the runway of 7th Avenue New York fashion shows. Chain stores advertised grunge wear for children and grown ups. The consumers had moved on from being simply the kids who related to the music to those who simply wanted to be with it.
4) The interactive process between individuals and aspects of popular culture
At the local level, interaction with the Grunge scene was limited to gigs in local halls and clubs, record releases on small, local labels, and the production and consumption of fanzines. There were plenty of opportunities in Seattle and nearby cities such as Tacoma and Olympia, but as Kurt Cobain's life in Aberdeen showed, by the time you were that far out, individuals started to feel pretty isolated from the excitement of the "Seattle scene."
As Grunge emerged as a legitimate popular culture, complete with heroes, paraphernalia and a mythology created by those in Seattle for consumption by the mass media, interaction came much easier. As stated earlier, Grunge fashion turned up everywhere from fashionable New York catwalks to the humble K Mart or target store. Pearl Jam and Soundgarden joined Nirvana as major league chart successes, and Kurt Cobain and Eddie Vedder started appearing on T shirts. Geffen Records brought Nirvana's contract off Sub Pop, Alice in Chains ended up with Columbia and Pearl Jam signed with Epic. There was a feeding frenzy as the major labels descended upon Seattle looking for the "next Nirvana".
Major labels meant international promotion, and in the MTV age, the Seattle sound and associated cultural attachments soon became an international phenomenon. For Australian kids, JJJ, now a national youth network, and Rage, another national show, enabled you to see and hear what all the fuss overseas was about. Whether you lived in Gosford, Grafton or Geelong, you knew how you were supposed to look and act.
5) Control of popular culture by groups, institutions and organisations
You could probably argue that once Sub Pop emerged on the Seattle recording scene with their vision of international success, and a willingness to hype their label shamelessly, control of Grunge as a popular culture had begun. Until then, it had been a purely local scene. Small labels like PopLlama, Estrus and K Records were there for local bands. In Jack Endino's words, "nobody was too worried about success, because this was Seattle, not LA, nobody was going to come up here and sign us".
Once mainstream success was achieved, control of Grunge was gone from local hands. National magazines like Rolling Stone, Cream and Circus, and international magazines like Q in Britain and Juice in Australia championed the "new sound". The major successes like Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Alice in Chains and Soundgarden were in demand around the world, and it was no longer possible to see them on a Wednesday night thrashing it out in a small hall in Seattle.
Of course in the America Reagan and Bush had tried to create, any movement which allowed youth a voice and identity of their own had to be mistrusted. Conservative pressure groups such as the Parent Music Resource Centre (PMRC) and national Parent-Teacher Association (PTA) condemned the new music.
They needn't have worried, as the commercialisation of Grunge exhibited a control all of its own. In "Hype", Kim Thayil of Soundgarden makes the point that, "that's what makes pop culture so significant to all the little consumers out there-they have no interest in history or economics...they're interested more in gossip and the nature of celebrity". As Kurt Cobain found out, Grunge became trivialised as it became popular culture. The mass media hounded Cobain and Courtney Love, trying to work out just what sort of baby they could possibly raise. The media assassination of Cobain and Love as parents showed where the control of Grunge now lay. Not in the music, but the perceived celebrity status of its purveyors.
6) Different perceptions of popular culture
This has been inherent in much of what I have said today. Once "Nevermind" topped the charts and opened up the commercial floodgates, perceptions of "Grunge" varied widely. To those who had grown up with it in Seattle it was something which had once been special. For a generation of teenagers world-wide, it was a voice of recognition. Massive international sales figures can never be explained away purely in terms of hype. Cobain and Vedder in particular, mean a lot to many, many people. They certainly never sought recognition as spokespeople for a generation, but the fact remains that many young people recognise something of themselves in the Iyrics of Nirvana and Pearl Jam.
The reaction to Kurt Cobain's death reveals differing generational perceptions of Grunge. For many of the older journalists covering the story, Cobain was simply the latest in an illustrious line which included Jimi Hendrix (also a Seattle native), Jim Morrison and Janis Joplin. It was a view which gave no integrity to Cobain's life, music or career. Kathy Bail discusses this issue very clearly in an article called "Boomer Fogeys" in The Independent Monthly, November, 1994. P 38-9.
Grunge also showed how easily perceptions can be created. "Hype" documents the way the members of the Seattle scene just made things up as they were bombarded by the mainstream media. The classic example was when the New York Times rang Sub Pop to get some inside scoop on "Grunge". Employee Megan Jasper just started creating a whole series of words which were allegedly the Grunge translation of common terms. It was a total fabrication, yet was given national prominence in a highly respected and prestigious national paper.
7) The contribution of popular culture to social change
Has Grunge changed the world? Even if it has helped its followers make sense of themselves and their world, it has contributed to social change. Eddie Vedder stated in "Hype" that "it would be a tragedy if the Seattle scene gets to the top and doesn't do anything with it". So how much have the Seattle musicians been able to contribute to social change?
Certainly Vedder and Pearl Jam have done their best to live up to their ideals. Their long standing battle with the ticket selling monopolies in the United States has endeavoured to create a genuine alternative way of promoting and presenting music to its fans. Pearl Jam's last Australian tour was characterised by ticket prices around a third that of other major acts like U2, Madonna and Michael Jackson.
Kurt Cobain's very public rejection of the Axl Rose school of rock manipulation and machismo also did a lot to enlighten his audience. Never comfortable with the trappings of success, Cobain did an enormous amount to challenge male rock stereotypes. As Phil Sutcliffe wrote in Q Magazine No 93, June 1994 (P 74), "although party politics didn't engage him, sexual politics did. In interviews and song Iyrics, he espoused feminism and opposed homophobia." Cobain's relatively brief musical legacy is summed by David Fricke in Rolling Stone No 683, June 1994 (Australian edition), "Never mind all that standard issue babble about Generation X. There was nothing blank about the way Cobain articulated his broken dreams and wrapped up his discontent and, by extension, that of his audience, in roughshod song. When the s--- hit the fans, they knew it for what it was -the truth".
That was probably Kurt Cobain's lasting legacy, the ability to sing honestly about his own life. While doing that he connected with a generation who were also struggling to make sense of it all, the divorced parents, the low self esteem, the lack of employment prospects, and a government which seemed totally disinterested in considering the needs, dreams or aspirations of young people. It's probably too early yet to really ascertain the full contribution of Grunge to social change. Certainly the genuine outpouring of grief at Kurt Cobain's death indicated that he was as important to his generation as Presley and Lennon had been to theirs. The final image of thousands at the Seattle vigil commemorating his life, and the ever present TV cameras devouring every moment of private anguish to package into two minute bites to send across the world was probably a fitting summary of Grunge as a popular culture. As Jack Endino said, "symbolically, it (Cobain's death) represented the death of something".
And where is it heading? The last word goes to Seattle record producer Steve Fisk, "there'll be no shortage of disaffected youth in America over the next 50 years, so there'll be some great rock'n'roll coming down the line".
This is not meant to be a definitive history of Grunge music or culture. Hopefully it will help you get the idea of Popular Culture into some sort of perspective. Grunge is simple one of an infinite number of case studies. I would've liked to have time to compare the rise and fall of Grunge with the formation of early rock'n'roll, or particularly with the rise of The Beatles and the "Liverpool sound". That is something you could do. Also worth exploring is the rise of the local grunge scene. Silverchair are another text book example of the rise from local to national to global, and as "Freak" shows, have been able to rise above the local jibes which were content to write them off as "Nirvana in Pyjamas".