Why Did Grunge Music Die Off in the American Pacific Northwest?

Instant image

For the longest time, any mention of the place name “Seattle,” the instant image that comes to mind is quite predictable. Either the first thing in your mind is the quintessential post punk band Nirvana, or Pearl Jam. Those are the only options.

It seems that for all the many dozens of musical acts that came from the American Pacific Northwest, Pearl Jam and Nirvana captured the American imagination. Now, it’s easy to see why the grunge got really big when it did.

You have to understand that the alternative rock or alternative music scene prior to that time was leaning heavily towards a synthesizer sound. A lot of people from the 1980’s had big hair and there was this synthesizer sound and matching beat.

A lot of people were thinking that this was the natural evolution of music for the 1990’s. In fact, there were many bands that were poised to become really big that married the traditional drums, bass and guitar sounds of earlier periods of rock with the beat-heavy, synthesized and synthetic syncopations and sounds of the 1980’s.

This was the trend that was forecast by all sorts of music industry professionals. A lot of money was being bet on things evolving in this direction. And then all of a sudden, as if by accident, grunge broke all the rules.

You have to remember why this is a big deal. For the longest time, if you were wearing a plaid shirt, and you look unkempt, with long hair, and you look dirty, people would automatically assume that you’re either into heavy metal or punk.

Punk was the kiss of death for many record labels. They would not touch it with a ten-foot pole. There were all sorts of negative media images and associations with punk. So it really blew everybody’s mind when Nirvana became really big because of grunge.

Grunge, ultimately, really is just a repackaging of the punk attitude with a little bit more musicianship. But by and large, it had all the angst, energy and threatening menace of punk. So you can say that it was like a polite version of the punk of the 1980’s, but its punk DNA, so to speak, was unmistakable.

And that’s why grunge became big because it allowed punk and the punk sensibility of doing it yourself, being a renegade and a rebel and standing up to society, the whole nine yards, fashionable.

So it unleashed all of that and it totally aborted the commercial trajectory of music up to that point. And grunge was so devastating and so all-consuming that, for the longest time, any kind of popular music had to have guitars in it.

Now, grunge is essentially dead. Not because people no longer play grunge-type music, but because it had become mainstream. In other words, it had become co-opted, and it has been absorbed into the DNA of the music industry after the dawn of streaming media.

Make no mistake about it, the rise of file sharing on the internet killed the music industry, and now it’s been reborn, thanks to streaming services like Spinnr and Spotify. But its reincarnated version is very different from its old self. Now, independent artists can make a name, thanks to social media like Instagram and Soundcloud.

Also, keep in mind that creating images and brands for bands have gone through a sea change. And that’s why I could say with a straight face that grunge never really went away because its attitude still remains. It’s just more distributed.

It relies a lot on peer review and validation, but it packs a lot of punch. In other words, its DNA has merged with the infrastructure of the internet to survive to our very day.