I just wrote a piece on a book about a fictional band, time to write one about some real bands.
I picked up this book in New Westminster and the cover reminded me of that other pop music history book that I really liked (and mentioned in this article). Grunge was never a genre that appealed to me or that I understood. As a young Gen-X’er I was just a bit too young and (like so-called Britpop) found it all a bit poser-ish, pretentious and not very fun. Standing now on the Pacific Northwest and having visited Seattle myself, I thought it might be interesting to read about something that seems kind of silly in retrospect (proto-Hipster lets say) and treat it seriously as something that happened – as history. Something deep enough in which to find something to like and understand.
Kyle Anderson’s book is basically exactly what I wanted. Unlike Sara Marcus‘s book, this is written by somebody who absolutely views Grunge as distanced pop music history, not something that really ages well and not something that the author even seems to like that much (except Mudhoney, he loves Mudhoney). Anderson isn’t saying, “I was there,” or even “I wish I was there,” but somehow manages to come off just as endearing by being enthusiastic about treating the scene seriously and with respect (which doesn’t mean he avoids snarky comments for those who deserve it, in fact he sounds like he’s aiming for exactly the same kind of writing style that I aim for with this blog). That Anderson makes himself a kind of historian is something that as a history graduate myself, I can definitely respect.
The book itself is kind of controversial. Look it up on basically any website and you’ll see that the reviews are bad (does liking it and hating Forrest Gump make me a contrarian? – if you think so I disagree, but if you don’t then it must be true). The main criticisms seems to be that it doesn’t contain any interviews with important figures, it doesn’t chronologically list exactly what happens and jumps around a lot, that it focuses mostly on the big names and neglects the small but really scene-stealing bands, that the author isn’t from Seattle, that he doesn’t know the scene personally or care, that he doesn’t offer anything new on the subject and most of all he concerns himself first and foremost with what Grunge meant in hindsight, not what it meant at the time.
While I think that every single one of these comments is totally valid, they don’t mean much to me. As someone new to the music, I was honestly happy without there being any new discoveries or insights – I was quite happy for someone to entertainingly write up and nicely summarise what many suppose that everyone already knows. As a deep text for someone to whom Grunge is important I can see how this is disappointing, but as a primer for a neophyte it works pretty well. As a newcomer, I was thankful that the book covers only the most important small bands, who it’s fairly clear were small for a good reason. Grunge only became a thing people talked about when it took over the world and got people’s attentions so structuring the book around the biggest luminaries worked fine for me and the crib notes on the early scene and small bands was enough of a summary for me. This is exactly the opposite of Girls to the Front where every last scrap is lovingly interred in a museum of affection, but like I said at the start, the book succeeds in being endearing in it’s own way, which is to be a little distant and sniffy (much like our stereotypical image of a grunge musician). Similarly, I was glad that the book didn’t try to collect quotes and make heroes out of dirty rockers that I don’t feel like worshipping much. I didn’t mind that the author wasn’t from Seattle and clearly hadn’t made himself into a local expert – I’m not from Seattle either and I appreciated his ability to write well from research. Most of all, I liked the approach of judging the movement with true historicity.
Being there may have felt a certain way (and Anderson gives you an idea of that) but in focusing on the big events that happened and how people remember them you get a much better sense of cultural meaning. For certain musical genres this type of treatment wouldn’t have worked but for Grunge, which desperately, achingly aimed to be deep and meaningful and clever, how it actually is remembered and how that differs from the image the bands were trying to create is really the whole mystique and by far the most interesting element.
Anderson comes at the history with essentially a single thesis. Anderson is a rock n’ roll fan and sees Grunge as the last great rock n’ roll movement (what he means by “revolution” in the title – I’d argue this word is too strong to describe what he means however). Anderson argues that Grunge was the last time that a single type of rock music from a geographical area exploded from the underground and overnight redefined what rock music should sound and look like in such a way that it completely overrode the mainstream. Anderson charts the start of Grunge really from a vacuum left by the death knell of hair metal, which he portrays as the last great rock movement before grunge that met it’s nadir when Guns ‘N Roses’s Use Your Illusion desperately underwhelmed, leading to further implosion of the band. Grunge was essentially counter-metal. As metal was flashy, sexy, masculine, polished and ultimately looked like it was designed to make money (think Gene Simmons), Grunge was pretty much the opposite. Rock swung back towards a dirty punk aesthetic but this time with a heavier sound.
However, as with most local scenes that get co-opted into the mainstream, they aren’t really about anything organised enough to survive large scale scrutiny. Grunge was about being allowed to be different without trying to be someone else – and became as much a fad and a fashion as anything. The bands looked like they got together by and large to play music, not chase arena rock (largely a myth outside of Cobain reckons Anderson) but were still mainstream bands, making money on mainstream labels. Grunge seemed introspective and to and extent college -intellectual….but it wasn’t really about anything at all. Grunge was a snake eating it’s own tail because as soon as it was popular, it was something else. When Grunge came to an end, another mainstream rock movement seems much less likely because of all the internet hype making it impossible for any subculture to develop separately, bubble under and explode fully formed without anyone hearing about it. More than that, if the last defining genre of rock music laid down the law of not being cool to follow mass movements, how can there be a new rock revolution?
Anderson’s thesis is fun and I can see the pros and the cons. On the negative side, I think the theory overstates how much Grunge changed any existing notions of rock music (not everything was metal, plenty of bands before then would have fitted right into the scene) and seems short sighted (because mainstream bands since then haven’t been as similar or represented any kind of movement, rock can’t be mainstream and never will be). On the other hand, another factor nowadays is that with the internet, popular culture movements are just plain more articulate than they used to be, meaning that something as vague as grunge just wouldn’t have been a compelling form of expression to a social media generation who don’t need vague fashion implications to communicate their thoughts because they can say exactly how they feel on their blogs or in 140 characters.
Note that we haven’t talked about the music at all yet. Anderson goes through band by band and it seems to me that his argument for grunge having any kind of coherent sound is shaky at best. It seems to me to be an, “I don’t know what it is but I know what it isn’t” situation as key players like Soundgarden and Pearl Jam really just weren’t that similar…..or dissimilar from metal. The same can be said of most pop genres (in truth, the Ramones never sounded like punk to me, but then again I’m British and so everything American sounds less punk to me).
Anderson’s snarky put downs of the search for the next wave or the aftermath of copy-cats, nu-metal and electronica is pretty much on the money. Maybe I was behind the times but even as nu-metal stormed through as a mainstream genre (and don’t get me wrong, as commercial as the day is long, Hybrid Theory is still pretty damn good) it didn’t really seem like anything anyone was going nuts about, especially when Rage Against the Machine made everyone else look like children. Nevertheless, I never remember Grunge being anything else than dead drawling, the definition of boring rock music. Anderson pretty much agrees in retrospect for the most part (as if you have to read between the lines, his grunge discography includes so many songs that aren’t grunge).
The book is pretty entertainingly written and feels mostly on the money but I can see a few criticisms that some would find off-putting. The editor’s red pen seems to have been applied to each chapter but not to the book as a whole. As a result, there are a few details that are repeated three or four times as if he wrote the chapters as completely standalone essays. Anderson would also do better to avoid a few glib observations that don’t help criticisms of not being the most informed voice on the subject (Seattle is rainy so music there is grungey, which does nothing to explain music that has nothing to do with its surroundings like Northern Soul or Bowie). Finally (another detail that makes me suspect a lazy or absent editor), the book does cut corners somewhat. Anderson observes that it is difficult to separate what grunge is from the cult of Nirvana but essentially opens his Nirvana chapter by saying you all know who Nirvana are so let’s look at their legacy. Because there’s lots of detail about Nirvana and it is complex is no way to skip the chapter structure and miss out the formation and roots of the band. In one of the final chapters, Anderson talks about how Grunge was unlike other Rock movements because it never sold a sexual image (and was occasionally pretty feminist in outlook) and it’s a very entertaining suggestion that the separation of Rock and Sex is the death of Rock. Nevertheless, it felt like such a crucial detail was slipped in at the end, under-explored and absent from chapters that went into detail about the plaid shirted heart of the movement.
But then again, you don’t write a book about Grunge expecting people to praise you. You expect to make some money and for everyone to call you a sell out. In that respect, a few one star Amazon reviews are the most fitting salute.