Tuesday, March 25, 2014

The Life and Death of Grunge

Get ready for a doozy of an entry, readers. This week, I’m going to tackle an entire genre of music: grunge (the genre part is questionable). So let’s take a close look at the ‘90s phenomenon we all know and (possibly) love.

Where Did Grunge Come From?
Grunge (or the Seattle sound) emerged in--you guessed it--Seattle in the mid-‘80s. The term was first used in 1981 by Green River vocalist Mark Arm in a letter he wrote to Seattle zine Desperate Times. Mark was “criticizing” his first band, Mr. Epp and the Calculations, calling them “Pure grunge! Pure noise! Pure shit!”

But Mark admitted that he had snagged the term from Australia, and didn’t use it as the official name of the genre. It was Sub Pop founder Bruce Pavitt who actually popularized the term by dubbing the bands on his label as “grunge.”

Grunge as a genre was a result of Seattle’s isolated music scene. It evolved from the punk scene, inspired by bands like The Fartz, The U-Men and the Fastbacks. Bands outside the Pacific Northwest (Sonic Youth, Pixies, Dinosaur Jr.) also influenced the grunge scene, along with Black Flag’s change of pace on 1984’s My War.

How Would You Describe Grunge?
This genre definitely has a specific sound. It’s kind of a mix of hardcore punk, heavy metal and the general “alternative” sound.

Grunge is typically characterized by sludgy guitars, fuzz pedals, a ton of distortion and growly, almost incomprehensible vocals. It shares more in common with punk than anything else. The only differences between punk and grunge are tuning and tempo. And like punk, grunge puts on this air of not giving a fuck about melodies while still having discernable melodies.

Most grunge songs address some form of alienation or apathy. There isn’t much rebellion behind tunes like “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and “Black Hole Sun.” But of course there’s some humor behind all that lethargy. Soundgarden’s “Big Dumb Sex” satirizes hair metal (fairly accurately, too).

Jon Wiederhorn of Guitar World once wrote, “So what exactly is grunge? Picture a supergroup made up of Creedence Clearwater Revival, Black Sabbath and The Stooges, and you’re pretty close.” And you know what? That’s a pretty accurate statement.

So Who’s Grunge Again?
Some of the first bands labeled as grunge were Green River, Soundgarden, Melvins, Malfunkshun and Skin Yard. Notice that Nirvana is nowhere in that lineup because they came after the establishment of the genre.

At first, the term “grunge” only applied to bands from the Seattle area, including Alice In Chains, Mudhoney, Screaming Trees, Pearl Jam and yes, Nirvana. As the Seattle sound began to creep out of the Pacific Northwest, similar-sounding bands (not necessarily copycats) fell under the same label, including Babes in Toyland and Stone Temple Pilots.

People like to argue over which bands are really grunge and which bands are “posers.” (Do people still use the term “poser,” or is that just a middle school thing?) Though I believe it’s just plain silly to be so concerned over a certain band’s genre, it’s my understanding that only bands that came out during a specific time frame (and a specific area, to a certain extent) can be classified as grunge.

As a serious ‘90s scholar (can I put that on my résumé?), I would put the official grunge reign between 1984 and 1994. It all started with Green River and Soundgarden, and officially ended with Kurt Cobain’s suicide in 1994.

Anything after 1994 is post-grunge, a more radio-friendly version of its gnarly predecessor. Post-grunge bands include Bush, Collective Soul, Foo Fighters and Creed (all of which I enjoy, so sue me).

Is Grunge Dead?
Yes. Yes, it is.

Grunge as a music genre has been dead since 1994 and I will fight anyone who disagrees with me. Though I don’t really like to make it seem as if Kurt Cobain was the only guy in the scene who mattered, his death definitely marked the end of an era. Sure, other Seattle bands went on to release more albums (Pearl Jam has had a pretty lucrative career), but grunge was done for.

So what happened?

Well, the alternative music scene of the ‘90s was exploding with a variety of bands hitting it big. As grunge’s popularity began to wane, it was usurped by post-grunge, Britpop and pop-punk. Everything suddenly became more radio-friendly and much less angsty. Britpop bands brought back keyboards, post-grunge bands asserted some masculinity and pop-punk bands picked up where The Ramones left off. Nobody was jamming to songs like “I Hate Myself and I Want to Die” anymore.

Blur frontman Damon Albarn commented on grunge’s decline in a 1993 interview, saying, “If punk was about getting rid of hippies, then I’m getting rid of grunge.” And a year later, it was all over.

Another contributing factor to this genre’s demise is its quick and ruthless commoditization. By the time Nirvana found its way into the mainstream, Kurt’s hobo-chic style was already being sold to Generation X. When the dress code becomes more important than the music, you’ve got a problem on your hands.

MTV also had a hand in destroying the scene. The rise of music videos meant the rise of exposure, and ultimately the rise of an entire culture based on television. MTV sold a product, and that product was alternative culture. (If you’re interested in a more in-depth analysis of MTV in the ‘90s, take a peek at this entry.)

☯✞ Follow for more Soft Grunge ✞☯
Nowadays, grunge is kind of a punch line. Even I tend to joke about feeling “grunge” on a daily basis. And with the rise of Internet culture and the burgeoning market of ‘90s nostalgia, we’ve strayed so far from the original meaning behind the term. There’s even this weird subculture lurking on Tumblr that labels itself as “soft grunge.” (Spoiler: it has nothing in common with ‘90s grunge and it’s kind of hilarious.)

Grunge was a fad that ended at an appropriate time, as most fads tend to do. You don’t have to like it, but you have to admit it had a huge impact on popular culture. So don’t cry because it ended, dear readers. Smile because it happened. And maybe cry a little because Kurt Cobain died 20 years ago this month.

-- Sam Boyer, reporting from the ‘90s

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Lead Singer Syndrome

Welcome to another special ‘90s entry! This week, we’re going to discuss what many music fans refer to as “lead singer syndrome” (this is not something I made up, I promise). This is a disease that has affected plenty of frontmen (and women) over the years, and it’s not strictly a ‘90s phenomenon. However, there are a number of ‘90s bands that struggled with a temperamental lead singer, and many of them called it quits because of that one person’s sour attitude.

So let’s take a look at three notoriously asshole-ish lead singers (that I also happen to like a lot) and find out just where they went wrong.

Scott Weiland (Stone Temple Pilots)
Status: Fired

Why Is He an Asshole?
His highly publicized substance abuse problems led to multiple arrests, which constantly derailed STP’s attempts to tour and even release new material. Over the years, he became more and more withdrawn from his bandmates and began showing up to his own shows late or not at all (I know from experience because Scott was late to an STP show I attended a few years ago).

After STP went on hiatus in the early 2000s, Scott joined the supergroup Velvet Revolver. Much to no one’s surprise, his bad habits followed him, and Velvet Revolver eventually dumped him. He reunited with both bands later on, but that didn’t last long. Scott got a little cocky about the Velvet Revolver one-off reunion, claiming he was back with the band for good (a claim Slash immediately shot down).

STP went on another hiatus, during which Scott began a solo tour. The tour was branded the “Purple at the Core Tour,” and basically consisted of Scott performing STP songs with another band. The rest of the original STP lineup accused Scott of and essentially touring under the STP brand without permission. They warned him to cease and desist, but Scott refused, so they fired him and replaced him with Linkin Park singer Chester Bennington.

In Scott’s Defense
I made my opinion on Scott Weiland clear in my Stone Temple Pilots entry, but I’d like to go into more detail here.

Like I stated above, I happen to like the three singers discussed in this entry. Out of all three, I like Scott the most (see my embarrassingly intense crush on him in middle school). He’s an incredible songwriter and his voice is heavenly. Though I honestly believe he was a better frontman in Velvet Revolver, his work with Stone Temple Pilots is still impressive.

Unfortunately, his skills as a musician are overshadowed by his rampant drug use in the ‘90s and his increasingly anti-social behavior. For those who don’t know, Scott was diagnosed with bipolar disorder a while back, which explains a lot. Now, of course that shouldn’t be an excuse for some of the bad moves he’s made career-wise—he’s still done some asshole-ish things to his bandmates, both in STP and Velvet Revolver. And I don’t think his admittance of his mental illness was a move to elicit pity from anyone.

His autobiography, Not Dead & Not For Sale, goes into detail about some of his deeper issues (if you’re curious about his life, please give it a read), but ultimately, drugs did him in. Like Kurt Cobain, Scott found solace in heroin, and it obviously fucked a lot of things up for him. I don’t think he’s completely blameless in terms of relationships with his former bandmates, but he’s still a human being who makes mistakes and maybe doesn’t know exactly how to deal with them.

Verdict: 60% asshole (40% misunderstood)

Status: Solo

Why Is She an Asshole?
Her boisterous attitude and tendency to speak before she thinks have gotten her into many scuffles with other musicians (she once punched Bikini Kill’s Kathleen Hanna in the face for supposedly no particular reason).

But perhaps her most prominent claim to infamy was her tumultuous relationship with Kurt Cobain. Because of Kurt’s absurdly exaggerated legacy, Courtney has continuously been viewed as his ultimate downfall. She’s been called everything from a “Yoko Ono” to a murderer.

In Courtney’s Defense
Courtney Love isn’t exactly the easiest person to like, but she has a lot of qualities I really admire.

She challenges mainstream expectations of how a woman should look and act. It seems to me that people who find Courtney’s obnoxious behavior more off-putting than similar behavior from her male counterparts are perhaps caught off guard by her unwillingness to adapt to traditional feminine roles. Or people just find her annoying, regardless of her gender. I can’t assume everyone who hates Courtney is a misogynist.

She also gets far too much shit for her history of substance abuse. Scott Weiland followed almost the exact same path, yet he gets off easy compared to Courtney. But alas, rock ‘n’ roll is a boys club and girls will almost always get the short end of the stick.

But the one thing I really admire about Courtney is her ability to move past the tragedy of Kurt’s passing. No matter what you think of her, you have to admit that being in her shoes at that point in 1994 must have been incredibly difficult. But she prevailed. That takes a hell of a lot of strength.

Sure, she’s made mistakes, and yes, her public image is one of the worst in rock history, but she’s a strong woman (and she probably doesn’t give a shit what you think of her).

Verdict: 75% asshole (25% badass bitch)

Billy Corgan (Smashing Pumpkins)
Status: Only original member left in the band

Why Is He an Asshole?
A notorious perfectionist, Billy insisted on playing all the guitar and bass parts on both Gish and Siamese Dream, which caused early internal drama with the Pumpkins.

The original Smashing Pumpkins lineup began to disintegrate by the late ‘90s, and the band eventually broke up in 2000. Billy reunited with drummer Jimmy Chamberlin to form the band Zwan, but that didn’t last long due to the rift forming between the two.

In 2004, Billy basically ruined any chance of getting the original Smashing Pumpkins lineup back together by badmouthing everyone. He blamed James Iha for the breakup and called D’arcy Wretzky a “mean-spirited drug addict.” And on top of that, he slammed his Zwan bandmates, calling them “filthy, opportunistic and selfish.” (And he did this on LiveJournal, for Christ's sake. LiveJournal.)

Though Jimmy did reunite with Billy for the album Zeitgeist in 2007, he quit two years later. Billy decided to continue releasing music under the Smashing Pumpkins name.

In Billy’s Defense
Like Scott and Courtney, Billy Corgan has his own personal issues that played some part in his behavior. He is apparently obsessive-compulsive, which explains the need for the first two Smashing Pumpkins albums to be perfect (and they are perfect). But that’s still not an excuse to be an asshole about it.

His tendency to badmouth his former bandmates (along with Courtney Love, whom he was involved with for quite some time) is definitely problematic, and unfortunately, I can’t really defend him on that.

My only defense for Billy is his musical skills. The man is a creative genius. Just listen to the perfection that is Siamese Dream. His more recent stuff is okay at best, but he knows exactly what he wants and he makes damn sure everyone hears it.

Verdict: 85% asshole (but 100% musical genius) 

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Sonic Youth

Sound Familiar?
“Kool Thing,” “Dirty Boots,” “Bull in the Heather”

Who Are They?
The band that redefined what a guitar can do (and one of the most important bands in alternative history).

The story behind Sonic Youth is a long one, as this band has more albums than Lady Gaga’s had hairdos (is that an accurate form of measurement?). Since the entries on this blog have been running a bit long lately, I’ll try to keep this history short and sweet so we can get to the fun part (where you read my fangirly account of this band).

Thurston Moore had a few bands before forming Sonic Youth with his soon-to-be ex-wife Kim Gordon in 1981. The name came from combining the names of MC5 guitarist Fred “Sonic” Smith and reggae artist Big Youth. After seeing guitar virtuoso Lee Ranaldo perform with an impressive guitar ensemble, Thurston and Kim snagged him for their band. Each member took turns playing the drums until they met Richard Edson, and by December 1981, Sonic Youth had released its first EP.

After some shuffling of drummers, the band went on its first tour with fellow noisy New Yorkers Swans, and released its first studio album, Confusion is Sex, in 1983. Sonic Youth and the rest of the noise rock scene was well received in Europe, but largely ignored in the US. When the press here in the states finally began to take notice, Sonic Youth (along with Big Black and Butthole Surfers) was lumped under the so-called “pigfucker” label, coined by Village Voice critic/curmudgeon Robert Christgau.

(Fun fact: Thurston and company didn’t appreciate the “pigfucker” label thrust upon them, which led to a little feud between the band and Christgau, culminating in the song “Kill Yr Idols” being renamed “I Killed Christgau With My Big Fucking Dick.” Both parties have since sorted out their differences.)

But thanks to hate from the critics and a destructive London debut show, Sonic Youth returned to New York in 1984 with a cult following and a gig practically every week.

After another drummer switch to Steve Shelley, Sonic Youth signed to SST Records and released two slightly more accessible albums, 1986’s EVOL and 1987’s Sister.

The band didn’t achieve universal acclaim until 1988’s masterpiece, Daydream Nation. The album’s lead single, “Teen Age Riot,” found its way on to modern and college rock radio rotations, catapulting Sonic Youth into the mainstream.

Based on Daydream Nation’s success, it really didn’t come as a surprise that the band made the decision to sign to a major label in 1990. Sonic Youth’s first release on Geffen Records was 1990’s Goo, followed by 1992’s Dirty. Both albums were noticeably more accessible than the independent label releases, and with singles like “Kool Thing” and “100%” (plus the band’s highest charting album of the decade, 1994’s Experimental Jet Set, Trash and No Star), Thurston and company quickly became alternative icons.

After a few more studio albums and an appearance at Lollapalooza and on The Simpsons, Sonic Youth released a series of highly experimental albums on its own label, SYR.

(Fun fact: The experimental album SYR4, subtitled Goodbye, 20th Century, features works by avant-garde classical composers such as John Cage, Yoko Ono, Steve Reich and more.)

Where Are They Now?
Disbanded, but their legacy lives on.

After most of their instruments were stolen in 1999, Sonic Youth was forced to start from scratch on what would later become NYC Ghosts & Flowers. The following two albums, 2002’s Murray Street and 2004’s Sonic Nurse, marked a return to form for the band, and received mass critical acclaim.

(Fun fact: Sonic Youth was heavily influenced by William Gibson, author of the groundbreaking cyberpunk novel, 1984’s Neuromancer. Several of the band’s songs reference his novels, including “Pattern Recognition” on Sonic Nurse, which is named after the Gibson novel.)

Six years after getting their gear stolen, Thurston and the gang got most of their equipment back in 2005 and used it to record Rather Ripped the following year.

Sonic Youth ditched Geffen after fulfilling its contract and signed to Matador Records to release The Eternal in 2009. Little did we know, this would be the final album from the band.

On October 14, 2011, Kim and Thurston announced they were separating after 27 years of marriage. In an interview later that year, Lee confirmed that Sonic Youth was done for a while.

Two years later, Lee admitted that Sonic Youth would probably never get back together, citing the progressively uncomfortable dynamic between Kim and Thurston after the two finally divorced.

But Why Sonic Youth?
Because this band is incredibly important, even if they’ll never get back together.

What Does Sam Think?
I put off listening to Sonic Youth for the longest time. It was one of those bands that everyone kept talking about, but I never really understood the significance. When I went through my intense Nirvana phase, I kept hearing about Sonic Youth, as Kurt Cobain cited them as a major influence. Like with Bikini Kill and PJ Harvey, I didn’t give this band a chance until I got to college. And I’m kind of glad I waited because I don’t think I would have appreciated Sonic Youth in high school.

To me, Sonic Youth basically picked up where The Velvet Underground left off. This band’s experimentation is staggering. From the odd guitar tunings to the avant-garde reinterpretations of classical pieces, Thurston and the gang definitely weren’t afraid to step outside the box.

Even if you don’t enjoy post-punk or noise rock, you have to appreciate the impact this band left on the alternative scene. Without them, we probably wouldn’t have Nirvana.

The underground scene will always remain underappreciated. Even though Sonic Youth made it into the mainstream, they had already established themselves as underground heroes. Most people (including myself) get into Sonic Youth through Daydream Nation or the first few major label releases and discover the earlier albums much later. There’s nothing wrong with that. The most exciting part of discovering a band with a long history is going back in time to hear that band’s progression.

Though I’m incredibly biased when it comes to hyping my favorite ‘90s bands to non-listeners, I honestly believe Sonic Youth is required listening. If you consider yourself a music fan at all, you’ll give this band a chance (I recommend starting with Daydream Nation). You may not like it, but you have to realize how important Sonic Youth was to the popularization of alternative music. Of course Nirvana is up there, too, but Sonic Youth did most of the legwork for them.

I wish Thurston and Kim could get along so the band could possibly reunite, but divorce is tough on everyone. For now, we have an impressive discography to appreciate and a ton of individual projects from each member.

Sonic Youth is dead, long live Sonic Youth.

-- Sam Boyer, reporting from the ‘90s