By Todd Easterbrook
Many of us are too young to remember much of the 1990’s. When in 1991, the music world was changed drastically by one song, and subsequently by an entire scene of music by a little corner of the world in the Pacific North West. The song was “Smells Like Teen Spirit” by a little known alternative band from Aberdeen WA, and this song was successful in many musical extremes; but one in particular, is most notable: it put an abrupt end, a Townsend-esque guitar smash on the contemporary pop music which was controlling the charts, and a much needed end to the image-centred style of Hair Metal shit-rock that had long outstayed its welcome. The final nail in the coffin was Nirvana’s rise to number one on the billboard music charts with their “Teen Spirit” single about teen angst and insecurity, knocking off none other than the King of Pop, Michael Jackson. Nobody, not even the shy and reclusive Kurt Cobain, saw it coming.
Seattle was the birth place of grunge music, a scene very punk in demeanor and origin, yet with too many varied influences to justify a label as specific and assuming as grunge. There were bands like Nirvana, influenced by punk, metal, and classic 70’s and 80’s pop; Pearl Jam, influenced by arena rock and anthemic classic rock sounds, but with a hint of metal and punk; Soundgarden, a metal band with psychedelic influences, layered, textured sounds and a singer, Chris Cornell, who had the uncanny ability to send shivers down your spine with both his banshee scream and wallowing croon; and Alice in chains, a sludge metal band with, at the beginning, influences (though subtle)of hair metal with a much more meaty sound and later, dark trudging guitars and lyrics surrounding a common theme of Seattle-based rock: drugs and addiction.
These four bands made up what was called the “Big Four”, and they single handedly ruled the music world for a short time, showing pompous record execs that the punk rock mentality of the late 70’s was not dead, and that rock was again receiving its just desserts; and also, that art in music was alive and could make it into the mainstream, affecting millions of teens worldwide and regaining the sodden angst that had long since been dead in not only the music world, but in the rock world as well.
Unlike the image-focused, decadent hair metal scene of the 80’s, with gigantic hair and stale, hair-sprayed lyrics focusing on pre-Madonna-ism and self-indulgence, the grunge scene was the anti-thesis, focusing rather, on art. They didn’t care about the clothes they wore (hell yes flannel and Doc Martins), they didn’t need that, and, at the time, we didn’t either. They were artists; many, most notably Eddie Vedder of Pearl Jam, denounced fame and fortune, yearning to go back to his former life as a surfer and gas station attendant in San Diego, almost quitting the biz entirely in the early-mid 90’s if not for the coaxing and reassurance of his friend, Who guitarist Pete Townshend.
This was a time when bands were not even remotely focused on money, for in the mid nineties various bands, again one being Pearl Jam, decided to embark on a three-year legal battle with the most monopolizing corporate giant in the ticketing industry: Ticketmaster. These bands claimed Ticketmaster had a stranglehold on the ticketing biz and could arbitrarily raise ticket prices at the venues they chose, with service charges doubling, tripling—escalating on a whim, giving bands and fans no choice but to belly up and pay. Pearl Jam especially, stopped touring in many large arenas, opting to play free outdoor shows by renting various parks themselves, on their own dime, just to avoid Ticketmaster. This was truly a fans band, a band that ultimately spent millions of dollars in a lost cause against a corporation that, in comparison, spent mere change to sweep the case under the door. This corporate giant still skips in obscenity, hand-in-hand with the record giants in the sky-scraping cavernous dwellings of L.A. and New York, most of whom are surely business men and have no real taste or desire for music or art at all—unless it can provide their younger, plastic wives with a green thumb (not that one) and platinum records on their walls by “musicians” that can’t play their own instruments or don’t write their own shallow, trite, panty-friendly lyrics. The bad thing about plastic—much like this plastic society— is that it does not seem to decay…
In an age of limitless media at one’s fingertips, and with pop music on the decadent, image-sex-obsessed decline—with songs equaling in scope the incoherent ranting of a street hooker bleeding, foaming at the mouth, consumed by money or her next fix of skin in an overcrowded alleyway—something, anything must come along and break this dark travesty that has held such a monopoly over the dull, unprovoked, zombie-frothed minds of youth today. It has happened before, but with all the various forms of blood-thirsty media, can it happen again? Or are we all just quiet vampires content to sink our teeth into whatever mainstream, ass-flogging, auto-tuned bitch that comes our way? Or, like the stretch marks of Britney Spears’ grotesque and artistically undesirable bust line, has it all been stretched too thin?