BY: JOEY REAMS
Last week, the world was reminded of the deaths of Kurt Cobain and Layne Staley, two musicians who tragically passed away early in their careers but left a mark that would last forever. Cobain was the lead singer of Nirvana, while Staley was the lead singer of Alice in Chains. Both of them led grunge bands out of the Seattle area, and both died on April 5. Their legacies left an impact on the music world forever, but not everyone is aware of how great that impact was. For fans of indie music, the influence comes even greater than imagined. In honor of these two musicians, we’ve decided to take a deep dive into how the grunge genre ultimately influenced and help create the indie and alternative genres that we all know and love today.
From Glam Rock to Grunge
Rock is a very challenging genre because it is filled with dozens of sub-genres that can be categorized with other sub-genres. Alternative rock can also mean grunge and indie, so how can you really tell where the lines are in those timelines? Well, rock is understood in waves of reactions. Fans and musicians react to what is being heard at that moment and react to it, either supporting the current trend or going against it and trying to start their own thing. Rock is defined through reaction.
To better understand this, one would have to go back to the 1980s, when rock thrived. During this time, glam rock was all the rage, with bands like Motley Crue, Bon Jovi, and Guns N’ Roses were stealing the spotlight for most of the decade. These hair metal bands were rocking the lights off every stadium around the world. This, to many rock fans, is what rock was all about. It was the over-the-top guitar riffs mixed with the crazy hair-dos, and all the pyrotechnics one can handle. These bands were glamourous, hence the name, glam rock.
A handful of emerging artists weren’t fans of this style of rock, who felt it didn’t have to be a giant production every show. Instead, they wanted their music to reflect the emotions they were feeling. Often these messages were of social alienation, abuse, self-doubt, betrayal, and desires for freedom. This wasn’t heard from these glam rock bands, who were singing about drugs, sex, and rock and roll.
This new genre would become what is known as Grunge, an alternative rock sub-genre that combined elements of punk rock and heavy metal. Bands such as Nirvana, Soundgarden, Alice in Chains, Pearl Jam, and Stone Temple Pilots all helped popularize this genre. The music world shifted its preferences from glam rock and focused on this new raw-sounding garage rock pulsating out of the Pacific Northwest.
Grunge became the mainstream rock preference during the early to mid-90s. Although the genre gained global recognition by this time, the genre was still regarded as an alternative to mainstream radio music, such as Backstreet Boys, Brittney Spears, and Whitney Houston. Unfortunately, grunge began to die out in the late 90s, as many bands disbanded, including Nirvana, who broke up after Kurt Cobain’s death.
Grunge Died for Other Sub-Genres
When grunge eventually died out by the late 1990s, rock fans were desperate to find a new alternative rock genre that wasn’t constantly on the radio. By now, rock fans were dealing with a cacophony of music from all over the place. Grunge had influenced the creation of post-grunge and nu-metal genres, which resulted in bands such as Creed, Nickelback, Korn, and Limp Bizkit. Simultaneously, other sub-genres related to rock began to form, such as emo, math rock, and slowcore.
On the other hand, hip hop and R&B were starting to really take off in the mid-to-late 90, the early 2000s, with artists such as Justin Timberlake, 50 Cent, and Jay-Z stealing the ears of many. Rock was still alive, but it was struggling to survive next to these new and thriving genres. Fortunately for rock fans, no matter what’s going on in the music world, there will always be an alternative.
While grunge was alive and well, other bands were taking notice. They realized they could be true to who they were and still gain attention from fans without having to sell out stadiums every time. A few of these bands to notice this concept was Sonic Youth and Pixies. Both of these bands formed in the 1980s but remained quiet, mainly due to experimentation and limited exposure.
These bands survived and adapted as rock progressed, even influencing bands such as Nirvana, Radiohead, and The Smashing Pumpkins. This further proves that rock music, and music as a whole, is fluid. Once grunge came and went, music fans looked for an alternative to the mainstream and fell back on alternative rock. By the early 2000s, some of the biggest alternative rock bands include The Killers, Foo Fighters, and Red Hot Chili Peppers.
The Rise of Indie Music
It’s clear how alternative and grunge music are related, but what about indie? How did bands like Modest Mouse, Arcade Fire, and The Shins emerge from Kurt Cobain’s ashes? You have to look at the meaning of the words to get a better understanding. Indie is short for independent, which is the classification of bands without a major label. These bands went back to the basics of guitar rock that consisted of a more stripped-down sound. This is very similar to grunge in that both of them were breaking away from the mainstream or how things are normally done. In the early 2000s, four bands were considered to bring commercial success to the indie-rock genre: The White Stripes, The Strokes, The Hives, and The Vines.
Since these bands broke mainstream rock barriers, more indie bands emerged and further structured the sub-genre. Today, the sub-genre is classified as the simplistic rock that isn’t too heavy on the ears. Some bands that have gained success as an indie band include Neutral Milk Hotel, Bon Iver, and Bright Eyes. Fans would agree these bands are all calm and almost borderline folk-rock. When you rewind the timeline, one could easily see how grunge and indie music are so disconnected based on sound.
When you look at it closer, you realize rock sub-genres, such as grunge, alternative, and indie, revolve and influence one another. These sub-genres have in common that they dedicated their musical existence to the rebellion against mainstream music and expressing their true feelings and emotions. Some bands, like Dinsosaur Jr. and Yo La Tengo, have managed to survive through the different rock preferences by influencing and being influenced by the sounds around them. In the future, a different rock sub-genre will emerge as the popular version of alternative rock, and it will be a reaction to the indie rock we know and love today, but it will still be alternative rock.