Genres are always a sensitive topic of debate. You get those who believe people should just take the music for what it is, and you get those who endlessly classify and delicately arrange their music in folders like a deranged squirrel storing nuts. Whichever you are, there is no way of avoiding genres. Everything in our lives is labelled in one way or another, from the clothes we wear to the food we eat. So when someone labels a band you love, isn’t it normal to question whether that tag is correct?
The media turned Nirvana into the poster boys of Grunge in the early 90s; they became the forerunners in the Seattle music boom. And although the media uses genres as a marketing tool, there is no denying a real movement occurred.
Here’s the issue, from the big four of Grunge, being Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Alice in Chains and Soundgarden, the former stick out like a sore thumb. Musically speaking, their sound and style were in a totally different direction. The 1996 documentary Hype! directed by Doug Pray introduces many of Seattle’s underground residents and a general feel and ideal shines through.
During the 80s, Seattle was a fairly isolated city in terms of music; bands wouldn’t tend to tour there as it was quite some distance from any other major city. This meant that the only shows the youth of the area would get were the big corporate Hard Rock bands of the time. To many, this wasn’t an option and they got together to create the music they wanted to hear. This music was generally inspired by Hard Rock before the corporate shift of the mid-70s. Of course, most of these bands lacked the technical training needed to create an elaborate replication of their influences, so the end product ended up being a sloppy noisy punk orientated version of the music they were imitating.
This Hard Rock influence is easily felt in bands like Pearl Jam, Soundgarden and Alice in Chains, but also in the lesser known names that are Green River, Mudhoney, Stone Temple Pilots, Tad… Nirvana on the other hand had very little of this Hard Rock vibe. Kurt Cobain’s musical influences were a far cry from Zeppelin, Skynyrd or the Country Rock of Neil Young. And this is where the question comes into play. Was grunge a sonic genre, meaning a genre based around a certain sound aesthetic? And if so, where do Nirvana fit into this?
It is clear that Nirvana’s sound was much closer to that of bands like Sonic Youth, Pixies or Husker Du and Cobain’s immediate influences were bands like Wipers, Flipper, Melvins and Meat Puppets. He found inspiration, at least when it came to the pop sensibilities of his songwriting from The Beatles, The Bay City Rollers and The Velvet Underground. In short, Cobain’s ears were on a whole different playing field to his local counterparts. With such differing sources, it is only normal Nirvana would stand-out from the rest on a sonic level.
The other option would be to consider Grunge a localised genre. In this case, any band from the Seattle area that made Rock music from the late 80s to the mid-90s would be considered Grunge. This creates a whole load of other issues. If Grunge is a genre built on location, where would Aussies Silverchair fit into the wider scheme of things? It’s easy to hear the similarities between the music of Silverchair’s debut Frogstomp and the music of Pearl Jam and Stone Temple Pilots among others, but it owes very little to Nirvana. This also raises an issue with the Post-Grunge movement of the late 90s. If Grunge was a genre based on a local scene, then Post-Grunge should be the follow-up to that local scene. However, most of the prominent Post-Grunge bands do not come from Seattle or the surrounding region.
This article does not aim to rewrite history; it merely aims to set things straight. When the media and music industry create a term to market a scene, they must consider how these acts can be grouped together. If Grunge was meant as a word to describe a sonically led movement, then Nirvana are either not Grunge like their counterparts Pearl Jam, Soundgarden and co. or bands like Sonic Youth and Pixies are themselves Grunge. If instead it was merely a term used to describe an Alternative Rock movement from a specific geographical zone, then we must discard many a band from the genre. Or we can simply chose to look at Nirvana as a natural progression of the Alternative Rock movement, taking the sound of Sonic Youth, Pixies, Husker Du and others and incorporating elements of Sludge Metal, Grunge, Punk, Noise Rock and a host of other styles, a progression that ran parallel to an actual sonically inspired movement we have now come to know as Grunge.
Whatever the outcome, shining a new light helps to understand why most fans of Rock enjoy Nirvana more than any Grunge band and why most Grunge fans dismiss Nirvana as being the weakest link.