It seems like every generation has their own music growing up. In particular, every person seems to have their own personal favorite decade of music. The Baby Boomers fondly remember the good old rock and roll of the 1950s and somewhat newer rock of the 1960s; slightly younger folks are fans of the "progressive rock" and "New Wave" music scenes of the 1970s, and there is a significant portion who remain true to the big-hair rock/heavy metal and dance music of the 1980s. There are also those who prefer the music of the 1990s, and while that decade isn't quite old enough yet to count as "oldies" rock, it will probably become such in a few decades. What will the 1990s be remembered as? In all probability, they'll be remembered as the grunge decade, the age when scruffy young guys from Seattle making downcast music took the spotlight from big-hair rock.
I began seriously listening to music in the 1990s because of the grunge scene. I stopped taking the music industry seriously when grunge ended. So you could call me a grunge music fan, but today I would hesitate to apply that label to myself, simply because most people who think of "grunge" seem to think of something rather specific that doesn't describe me very well.
To me, good grunge music is about sadness. Many people think of grunge music as sloppily-dressed, angry guys singing about sex and drugs. While it's true that this was part of the grunge scene, it was never the part that really appealed to me. I was always interested in the sad aspect of it, because the saddest music also tends to be the most beautiful.
For most people, grunge burst onto the scene in 1991 when Nirvana released their best-remembered album Nevermind. If you trace the history of grunge, however, it has many roots in both the heavy metal and the punk-rock music of the 1980s; at the time of Nevermind's release, grunge was therefore still largely big and loud, and overall more angry than sad. This was also reflected in the other "grunge" albums which happened to be released at around the same time and drew their respective bands under the grunge umbrella: Soundgarden's Badmotorfinger and Pearl Jam's Ten were also released in 1991, and Alice In Chains' Facelift happened to come out a year prior, in 1990. These four albums made these four bands the founding fathers of grunge music. Yet all of these albums were primal and of dubious quality; their success was largely a fluke of the music industry trying to draw some sort of conclusion and form a "music scene" around Seattle.
It wasn't until grunge became well-recognized that it was able to shed its 1980s trappings and become more of its own style. The truth is that grunge was always more quiet and sad at its heart than most people realized, but it had trouble revealing its inner soul because of pressures from both fans and the music industry. Yet for a few years after grunge was thrust into the mainstream, it was popular enough that it became free to be itself. During this period, grunge produced perhaps the most genuine rock music ever made. For once in rock and roll's history, rock music wasn't all about trying to show off; it wasn't about trying to attack someone or something; and it definitely wasn't about trying to just feel as good as you could. For one brief shining moment, genuinely sad music was made by genuinely sad people who were able to make the music that really expressed how they felt.
The results still stand as pillars among the music industry today, more than 10 years later. Nirvana released their best album, In Utero, in 1993. (Tragically, it would be their last before Kurt Cobain died.) Soundgarden released among the most achingly beautiful music CDs ever made, Superunknown and their best album Down On The Upside, in 1994 and 1996, respectively. Just like the first time, Alice In Chains was about a year ahead of everyone else, releasing their best album, Dirt, in late 1992.
As with any large media exodus, sad grunge gained many copycat acts, but for once, the copycats were actually good, because the music of that era encouraged people to be real instead of fake. You didn't have to be beautiful or trendy or stylish; you just needed to make music that spoke to the soul. The results may be the only time in modern history that copycatting has produced a slew of good art; Beck released his excellent (and very sad) album Mellow Gold in 1994. Silverchair released their excellent debut album Frogstomp (powered by the single "Tomorrow") in 1995. Filter released their excellent debut album Short Bus (powered by the awesome single "Hey Man, Nice Shot") in 1995. The Eels released their excellent debut album Beautiful Freak (powered by the brilliantly gorgeous and melancholy single "Novocaine For The Soul") in 1996. Even bands which were already popular well-known acts got onto the grunge bandwagon, yet the results still managed to be good: The Tragically Hip released Day For Night--an album slower and more pensive than their previous work--in 1994, and the result was arguably their best album. Even Metallica, the most successful of all the big-hair thrash-metal bands of the 1980s, released the much gentler and more thoughtful Load in 1996, although their fans predictably lambasted the result as a sell-out.
For anyone born in the 1970s or 1980s, who were too young to have really gotten into the music scene until the late 80s, this period marked the only time in that generation's youth that truly produced good music. It was great while it lasted. Predictably, however, too many people with nothing to do with themselves except complain started to fuss about how they were "tired of being sad", and intended to turn the music industry around by producing a backlash of forcedly happy music. This, combined with a few other events like the 1997 breakup of Soundgarden, the unexpected surge of popularity in electronic music acts like the Chemical Brothers and Prodigy, and the continuing strain placed on the grunge scene by the death of Kurt Cobain and the internal conflicts within Alice In Chains combined to make grunge effectively a has-been by 1997. A couple of years later, the next big thing was so-called "hardcore" music based on a fusion of rap with rock, and "emo" punk rock. The music industry has yet to recover from either of these train wrecks.
This leaves Generation Y with not even a decade of listenable music. At best, we have about a half-decade in the early-to-mid 1990s. This is why I say the only good time for music was from 1993 to 1996. It was a short trip, but oh boy, what a trip it was. That time period still remains in our collective memory to remind us that when people get together and intend to produce something heartfelt and genuine, it can still become a success if you believe in it. Sad music may never make a comeback because "grunge is so 1990s", but the music from that era still remains, and it's still just as good as ever.
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