Strum As You Are: How the flannel brigade saved and killed rock in one fell stroke
And so in 2007 I find myself thinking about the genre known as “grunge” more than any sane person rightly should. Popularized by Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, Alice in Chains and, of course, Nirvana, grunge was based entirely on alienation, nostalgia and loud/soft dynamics. It was joyless, self-righteous and predicated against a demonized mainstream. As a teenager, I sucked the stuff up; revisiting it now feels like stumbling over a yearbook picture of myself with zits and a rat-tail.
Kyle Anderson, an editor at Spin, knows the feeling. As someone who cares enough about grunge to write a book about it, even he acknowledges that grunge has not aged well, and so instead of trying to redeem the genre, his book wisely sticks to chronicling its history and examining its cultural significance.
If rock ’n’ roll is a genre for the people, it was hard to tell in the late ’80s, when the airwaves were ruled by plasticized hair metal so divorced from the average rock fan’s reality that it seemed more fantastical than any Lord of the Rings fantasy Led Zep could have cooked up. Like any gilded Babylon, hair metal’s foil would have to be its opposite: something dark, messy and utterly average.
A constellation of young Seattle-based musicians answered the call. They dressed down in flannel, favored unglamorous heroin over flashy cocaine and presented themselves as politically aware yet economically indolent. They packaged all this anti-glitz ideology into loud, sludgy music that took its cues from Black Sabbath-style metal and wanky ’70s rock. Pace-setting grunge bands like Green River and Mother Love Bone, with their working-class mien, unwittingly sparked the “accidental revolution” that would topple the towers of hair while screwing up rock music for a good long while. Anderson’s book does a solid job of navigating the details of grunge’s brief lifespan. Like the ascent, the burnout happened remarkably quickly: Cobain committed suicide; imitators like Candlebox diluted grunge’s claims to authenticity; the genre’s testosterone-fueled alienation metastasized into Nickelback’s grunge-lite and Limp Bizkit’s abominable rap-metal.
Anderson correctly argues that the grunge explosion paved the way for the greater phenomenon of 1990s alternative music. He has some interesting things to say about how grunge was one of the last mainstream genres to play out before the ’90s Internet boom changed the way we think about bands forever. He makes a fine point in noting that grunge’s sexless introspection doomed it from the start, since rock ’n’ roll has always been about sex. And he occasionally pierces the crystallized view most of us hold of the genre, noting, for instance, that the grunge scene’s prolific use of Ecstasy is mostly forgotten because heroin fits the narrative better.
Would that more of the book offered such canny insights. As a summary, it’s helpful, but Anderson’s occasionally sharp analysis is marred by incoherent argument. For someone so aware of “the shifts of historical significance over time,” he seems awfully unconcerned with penetrating myths. For instance, he neglects to investigate Nirvana’s backstory, claiming that “Historical details don’t matter to legends—when you are immortal, the past becomes wholly irrelevant.” Unlikely propositions and circular arguments pepper the book—like this one, on idealism in the movie Singles: “Though it seems naive today, it made perfect sense in 1992. The fact that it did make sense and the sense that those ideas ultimately failed is why it seems so naive now.” Aroo?
In the end, you wonder if this book might’ve been more useful written by someone who doesn’t have such a blindly adoring view of rock music. Anderson makes no effort to disguise his disdain for genres not played on guitars by white people. One glaring example: “While there are ideas and concepts to be analyzed in hip-hop, trying to draw hidden meaning from Dipset songs just seems like a massive waste of time.” (This from someone who regards Soundgarden titling songs “665” and “667” as a “tremendously high-concept joke.”)
This bias makes Anderson seem obtuse—he’s constitutionally incapable of recognizing rap as the unified mainstream craze that grunge once was. His analysis might have been more sound were he willing to acknowledge the possibility that his rock-hero vanguard is obsolete, and that grunge was its last gasp. But no: “There will always be a need for guitar-based music,” he writes in his conclusion, as if the statement were self-evident. But given the prominence and expressive possibilities of other genres, given that music naturally evolves over time, given that guitar-based music has had a good run, is it really?