June 22, 2017
The recent death of Chris Cornell of Soundgarden saddened a lot of people, myself included. For many of us, the music that he and his Seattle-based contemporaries made defined the early half of the 1990s, particularly for those of us that were teens at the time.
That music those Seattle bands made, usually called grunge, spoke to a generation. But it also seems to have been cursed with its most famous vocalists dying from actions of their own, whether with intent or without.
To give you an idea, of the four biggest acts of the genre — Soundgarden, Nirvana, Alice in Chains and Pearl Jam — only Pearl Jam’s vocalist, Eddie Vedder, is still alive. Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain killed himself in 1994 at age 27. Layne Staley, the singer for Alice in Chains, died of a heroin overdose in 2002 at the age of 34. Now Cornell, whose death is an apparent suicide, was 52. All had drugs of some sort, either illegal or prescription, in their bodies at the time.
In 2009, an article was printed in the Sydney Morning Herald titled “How Eddie Vedder survived.” That was a question I had asked myself after news of Cornell’s death. What did Vedder do differently, if anything? I found one particular paragraph pretty insightful.
“He was grateful for Pearl Jam’s success, for the way it had changed his life. But he didn’t want all his life to change. Vedder was not one of the ‘industry kids who they groom on the f—–g Disney channel and who do what they are told,’” Simpson says. “He wasn’t prepared to be America’s in-demand rock star — it was like ‘being strapped to a rocket ship. But some of us weren’t built for speed.’ He hated that he had lost control of his own identity, his face cropping up on billboards and magazines, crowding him. At the 1992 Roskilde festival in Denmark, he found himself attacking bouncers (who were attacking a fan); he’d forgotten he wasn’t in the crowd anymore. Cobain, similarly alienated, retreated into heroin and killed himself. Vedder retreated into himself.”
I think this gives us a good look at not only what it was like to be someone who went from unknown to famous overnight, but also why grunge was so appealing.
It felt real.
Why was that important?
Well, in the early 1990s, popular music was dominated by two things: Glam rock and boyband/mall pop.
At the time, we not only had New Kids on the Block seemingly everywhere (even Saturday morning cartoons), but they also inspired a number of clones. By “inspired” I don’t mean people with artistic ambitions of their own — I mean music companies seeing dollar signs. All of them were so similar that it seemed they were made via assembly line. Sure, it had a lot of fans, but the “fans” usually knew one or two songs, usually the ones on MTV or the radio.
Glam rock on the other hand may not have come off the assembly line, but beneath the big hair, flashy clothes and women-props there wasn’t much there. All the songs were pretty much about the same thing and the music on the most part was boring and shallow. The performers performed, but there didn’t seem to be anything deeper to it. No love of music. No intent to make you feel. It was sort of like boy bands for girls who wanted to make their parents angry.
Now, prior to 1990, we had gone nearly a decade with this. Rock music was getting stale. If you lived in bigger cities, you probably had the opportunity to be exposed to more variety. But in Smalltown, Arkansas, you only got what was on the radio or MTV.
So, when grunge hit the airwaves big in 1991, a lot of teenagers said, “Hey, there’s music for me.”
What is grunge, you might ask?
Well, throw in a little punk rock, a little heavy metal with often-angsty or dark lyrics expressing a desire for freedom of the conformity you see around, and you have it.
Almost overnight, a lot of the world’s nerdy kids switched their button-ups and slacks for flannel shirts, ripped/faded jeans and Doc Martens.
The four core bands released a constant stream of successes from 1991-1994. It seemed like the genre would go strong for a while.
Then April 8, 1994, happened. That was when Cobain’s body was found. He had died from a self-inflicted shotgun blast.
After that, the genre largely faded from the national consciousness, though the other three of the four of the scene remained. But, it was never quite the same; no new acts came to carry the flame.
For us that were teenagers back then, the music remains alive. There’s not a classic rock station now that doesn’t play a Nirvana or Pearl Jam song at least once a day. Too bad it’s usually the same two. I’ve heard the Pearl Jam song “Jeremy” so many times that I change the channel in hopes of finding something different.
See, the deaths of the singers might have killed the bands, but it’s overexposure that probably killed the music. I mean, how many people actually say, “Yeah, ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ is on the radio” now? Probably not very many. Instead, when the song hits the airwaves, you probably think “Again?”
And that’s also what the deaths of the grunge singers are starting to feel like.