Why Grunge Matters (part 2)

After reading the news of Dave Grohl's injury, I watched a few clips of the show after he returned from the hospital. They played an unplugged version of 'My Hero' while Grohl balanced on crutches - defiant of the orders to keep his casted leg elevated. The song was dedicated to the medical technician that helped in the aftermath of Grohl's accident. I was enraptured by the simple spectacle of it and the crowd’s echoing vocals, "There goes my hero, watch him as he goes. There goes my hero, he's ordinary."

The dedication reflected the original intent of the song, lyrics written as a tribute to the average working man. Unfortunately, that message was lost when first released. Recorded three years after the death of Kurt Cobain, many fans (myself included) assumed that Grohl wrote the song as a tribute to his former friend and band member.

While watching the Foo Fighters performance in Gothenburg, and later listening to Pearl Jam's performance at Pinkpop, I was hit with waves of nostalgia. Within those memories, my mind deliberated why grunge matters. Not just why it was important 20-25 years ago, but why it is relevant today.

1. There was a power behind the grunge era that had rarely been seen in earlier generations and has not been replicated since. I realize that most everyone will claim music recorded and released during their junior high, high school, and college years as the best music ever recorded. I am not that naïve. While some of my favorite songs are from the 90s, I will not dare to say those songs are the best of all time. I recognize and give credit to far superior musicians: renaissance era composers, old hymns and spirituals, early 20th century delta blues, The Beatles and The Beach Boys. Even today, there are phenomenal musicians creating some amazing music.

However, musical revolutions are rare. We don't often see the birth of a new genre completely change the landscape of popular music. Elvis did it. He brought black music into the forefront of the predominantly white masses. Lennon and McCartney did it and heralded the British invasion. The CBGB did it, giving a platform to countless punk and new wave bands. Then there was Grunge and the Seattle music scene. It arrived with feedback from Marshall Amps, abused drum sets, and growling vocals. It demanded attention and the world complied. Everyone took notice. New grunge bands were signed to lucrative record deals with major labels at a rate that was previously unheard of.

What has happened since then? Post-grunge styles followed one of two paths: the radio friendly jangle of bands like Hootie and the Blowfish and Counting Crows, or the underground alternative that eschewed mainstream appeal like Sunny Day Real Estate and Built to Spill. We have seen new genres appear and disappear (nu-metal, dubstep) but none have matched the grandeur and widespread acclaim of grunge.

2. My kids will never understand what it was like to come of age in the middle of the grunge era. Granted, there are certain things that I will never comprehend. I will never know what it was like to drop several coins into a jukebox diner and program it to repeat The Surfaris' Wipe Out over and over again like my dad once did in the mid 1960's. I will never experience the feeling of bringing home a brand new Black Sabbath album like my mom did back when Ozzy was still young. I can only view the performances of Woodstock through historical lenses. The day Elvis died was two years before I was born and I was too young to remember when Mark David Chapman shot John Lennon. Likewise, there will be events and musical landmarks that my kids will live through that their kids will never understand.

But grunge is the hallmark of my generation. We are the ones who can recall where we were when we heard the news of Cobain's suicide. We are the ones who sat in awe when we first heard the opening notes of Yellow Ledbetter and insisted everyone around us shut up so that we could decipher the mumbled lyrics. We are the ones who attached correlation between Interstate Love Song and our first experience of heartbreak. We are the ones who still get chills when we hear the line "That's one more kid that'll never go to school, never get to fall in love, never get to be cool" from Rockin' in the Free World. We are the ones who claim Nearly Lost You and Far Behind as personal anthems and were reduced to tears the first time we heard Hunger Strike. We are the ones who wanted to swing from the rafters like Eddie Vedder, who wanted to scream like Chris Cornell, who identified with the Man in the Box.

These are the moments and emotions that I will never be able to explain to my kids. I can teach them to appreciate the music of a time before they existed, but I can't show them how it felt.

3. Within the ugliness of the distortion, violent drum beats, and lyrical release of pent up rage, there was a beautiful simplicity to grunge's style. It kept the minimalist structures of punk rock with the dissonance of metal. The fundamental basic power chords and fuzzy tones gave it an allure that the novice musician could appreciate.

Sure, there were complexities within the genre. Soundgarden and Smashing Pumpkins both had guitar solos that would punish the fingertips and fret boards any anyone brave enough to replicate their sounds. Technically proficient compositions aside, there was something out there that anyone could play. I am not a talented musician, but I can pluck out the intros to Today and Come as You Are, I can play the main riff to Smells Like Teen Spirit, and I will occasionally strum along with Elderly Woman Behind the Counter in a Small Town.

4. They looked like us, dressed like us, and acted like us. Cargo pants and flannel shirts. Uncombed hair. Slightly crazy expressions. Angsty, alienated, disenchanted, skeptical. Actually, they weren’t just like us. They were us.

Prior to the grunge explosion, popular music was divided into four categories. 1. Glam metal. Even if we enjoyed the music, we couldn’t imagine strapping on spandex and teasing our hair into gravity defying structures. 2. Rap. Even though Run-DMC and Beastie Boys created hip-hop for suburbia, rap music was still an urban art form. 3. Country. Prior to the crossovers of Shania Twain and Lonestar, country was the music of rednecks, not something those of us in the Seattle suburbs understood. 4. Lite rock. This was the music our parents listened to: Phil Collins, Paul Simon, Eric Carmen. Grunge was a needed deviation from the norm.

5. They made us believe that we could do it too. Grunge was easy to play, easy to learn. You didn’t need to be a good musician or pleasant sounding singer to be in a grunge band.

I’ve mentioned before how singing along with Pearl Jam was the only time I felt like I could be a rock star. And I’m not alone in the sentiment that we could do what they were doing. We could relate to the themes, the style stirred our emotions, we could play the music, and they looked like us. This is why so many of my friends in junior high and high school started their own bands. Never before had we seen something that made us believe that we could do what they were doing.

This is an anomaly that has not yet been recreated.

We still need grunge. We need music that will remind us of the magic in creating art, that convince us we could be famous too.

photo found on fanpop

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