What killed grunge?
Seattle was the capital of grunge until grunge was no longer a thing. So what happened?
KUOW's Bill Radke asked Ean Hernandez, former frontman of the band Sicko, Eric Magnuson, guide for the Seattle Grunge Redux walking tour, and Gretta Harley, frontwoman of the band Love and Fury as well as the co-writer and producer of the rock music play "These Streets."
Did the pop-punk of Green Day have anything to do with the end of grunge?
Hernandez: Yeah, I think to a certain extent. Grunge was really a local phenomenon in a small, regional scene. It lasted maybe 8-10 years if you really want to stretch the borders.
Punk is sort of like a pack of coyotes that just keeps poking their head up at the herd over the years. It started in the late 70s, resurfaced again in the 80s, and again in the late 80s.
By the time that the grunge herd was a bit thin and wobbly, in the 90s, punk came through to finally have its day. So I think that grunge probably did a lot to wear itself down, but punk was sort of waiting in the background to swoop in.
Magnuson: I am not a musician. I'm somebody that tried to take on the role of someone who tells stories. I moved out here kind of when grunge was over in '93, and continued to watch the evolution from the inside.
But I see there was no real passing of the baton. If you look at what happened in 1994 when Green Day's album "Dookie" came out, you have the four major Seattle bands (Nirvana, Alice in Chains, Soundgarden, Pearl Jam) with number one albums that year.
So I think it's really hard to define when the baton was passed [from grunge to punk], because I don't think it was.
Harley: I also think of grunge as being an era. Many of us who were playing music during those days didn't embrace the term 'grunge' — we laughed at it. So it's one of those things that historians and other types of people who need to put a label on something will call it 'grunge', but I think of it as more of a culture.
We were very anti-establishment, and the idea of selling anything that was remotely related to your music or your identity was foreboding. I think that what happened in the 90s was bands starting to look to get money and sponsorships were in direct violation of the culture we were part of and the mentality we had.
Why is that punk seems to have always reinvented itself? Hip hop seems to change and morph, too. What was it about grunge that was different?
Hernandez: The sounds and ethos of punk got its start much earlier, by the mid to late 70s.
Punk is like a much stupider version of jazz or blues or something like that, and at the time it took off, it suddenly seemed like everyone everywhere was doing it.
Literally every dad band you know can play a couple songs off "Dookie." Punk has become an American art form; grunge wasn't so universal.
Harley: I argue that there was a Seattle sound. I think we were all just here playing rock and we had a culture. People were making a living here — they had record labels, and zines, and silkscreen companies.
We were just doing our thing and bands would go out on the road and they'd find communities in different cities around the country until the major labels started finding out about this underground scene and then they wanted it.
Magnuson: The idea of having a scene in itself was something that didn't start here. You had scenes prior like Minneapolis, St. Paul, Athens — and everybody knows those scenes just like everybody knows the musical genres we refer to.
More than anything Seattle was marketed like an adjective.
Harley: As soon as we were marketed, it killed it.
Hernandez: It's hilarious, if you're from Seattle, that anyone would think this place is cool. It's raining all the time here.
Why didn't we stay loving the Seattle sound? Why was America and the world not into the Seattle sound anymore?
Harley: Well there's still people playing rock music all over the place, but the pop-culture microscope looking at it hasn't stopped. But who's looking at it? Just because the magazines aren't writing about it doesn't mean it doesn't exist.
Hernandez: Look at just what happened with Maroon 5 and the Super Bowl, right? Pop has to eat itself. You can't get giant without people descending upon the previous generation's sacred cows.
So I think when a group gets huge, as huge as Maroon 5 — meaning everybody has one of their records, they've been on all the radio stations — eventually people have to look back at their own past and their own relationship with band, and what those associations mean for them.
Any band that goes gigantic like Nirvana — they got so big, they were everywhere, just so saturated that there was no way people weren't going to start getting tired and sick of it.
Eric Magnuson: For a long time, the isolation of the Pacific Northwest kept touring acts from coming up here. Then once all these bands from here were discovered, and Seattle was on the map, the place became less influential. Seattle just folded into everything else.
Maybe grunge just depressed everybody?
Hernandez: Kurt Cobain did sing a lot of real mopey songs and there were some real downer lyrics, and maybe more than average, but there were a lot of perky and peppy fun songs in there.
Harley: Perky and peppy is overrated! One thing that came to my mind as you were speaking was that 80s butt rock was dead, but now "Rock of Ages" is playing at the 5th Avenue Theatre. I went the other night and people were having a good time dancing down the aisles.
Magnuson: Nostalgia is a really important motif in "Rock of Ages," and I find that with people that come through Seattle looking to see some of the cultural geography on the walking tours that I do. We're largely walking around Belltown, but we take it out broader to see some of the institutions like MoPop and KEXP and it's about nostalgia — it's what's driving people to come and see what music was here in Seattle.
I think maybe that nostalgia will grow or maybe it will fade, but it's an important part of the history of the city.
Produced for the web by Brie Ripley
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