It’s Time to Look Back On the Grunge Era
Chris Cornell's suicide last week has many talking about the grunge era again. Shown: Pearl Jam's Eddie Vedder in 2011.
The original gist of this article was to be something along the lines of, “well, at least we still have Chris Cornell.” With the grunge era long gone and many of its most notable figures gone with it, and with Soundgarden scheduled to play Revention Music Center this Thursday, it seemed a great time to look back on one of music’s most notable eras while paying tribute to one of its elder statesmen.
But it was not to be. Cornell – one of the more rangy, generation-spanning front men you’ll find in the annals of rock – was found dead in his Detroit hotel room last week. The death was ruled suicide via hanging; Cornell was only 52.
Now, the grunge era is no stranger to loss. Kurt Cobain battled substance abuse and eventually committed suicide in 1994. Alice in Chains lead singer Layne Staley overdosed in 2002. Scott Weiland (who was indirectly affiliated with the grunge era) did the same in 2015. Shannon Hoon of Blind Melon – also cut from the early-mid 90s cloth of tortured rock frontmen – overdosed after a tour stop in Houston in 1995.
The list goes on, and unfortunately, Cornell is now a member of it. Certainly, he far outlived many of his contemporaries, but 52 is hardly old, even by rock-star standards. Plus, Cornell was by no means winding down his career. Soundgarden released a pretty solid album in 2012’s King Animal and was reportedly working on new material. The tour was met with favorable reviews; perhaps Cornell would have ventured back into solo territory at some point as well.
By now, anyone who held Cornell in high regard has read any number of tribute pieces, each of them deserved. But we come here today not to look back on Cornell, but rather, the era from which he spawned. Twenty-plus years after it invaded the public consciousness, swept the nation and was gone just as swiftly, how are we to feel about the grunge era anyway?
For starters, the term “grunge” seems silly in hindsight. It made sense at the time: a bunch of shaggy, flannel-clad twentysomething scruffy types that all emanated out of the Pacific Northwest. They all join bands and make really popular music. It was a catch-all term for a pop-culture phenomenon that many didn’t really how to quantify. Take a little metal, sprinkle in some punk, call it, um, grunge? Sure, why not.
And while it was comprised of a number of bands – many of whom will never get their just due as quality music outfits – in popular circles, grunge was a four-band deal. There was Nirvana, the sullen, rebellious punk types (in reality, that was really just Cobain’s mindset). There was Pearl Jam, which also seemed the most mature of the era; this probably explains why they’ve outlived their contemporaries – both literally and musically. There was Alice in Chains, the darkest of the four and the one with a tinge of '80s hair metal; fitting, considering AIC began as a glam-metal band. Then there was Soundgarden, which was always a weird fit, considering Soundgarden’s sound didn’t really fit the grunge genre at all.
But this was the primary myth of the grunge era; namely, that all these bands sounded the same. Sure, when they were all in major rotation on early/mid-'90s radio, it was easy to confuse these bands, mostly because they were all played so much it all began to run together anyway. But, some 20-plus years after grunge came and went and taking their regional proximity out of it, the primarily culprits of the grunge era don’t really have all that much in common.
Nirvana’s punk roots were always on display, and Cobain played the part of reluctant anti-hero quite well, even though those close to him insisted he secretly relished the fame. Alice in Chains were a bunch of '80s metalheads who found fame with morose tales of depression and substance abuse. Pearl Jam seemed like a bunch of good, normal dudes who made really good music that just so happened to kinda sound like other really good music coming out of Seattle. As for Soundgarden, they were – and remained, until Cornell’s unfortunate passing – simply a really good hard-rock band.
As the years have gone by, it’s ironic that the band that left the biggest imprint on grunge at the time is the one whose music held up the least. Yeah, Nirvana put out a couple of really good albums in the '90s, but it could be argued drummer Dave Grohl has since outpaced the band with Foo Fighters. Elitist grunge diehard types scoff at this notion, mostly because Foo Fighters have the gall to embrace their success and come off as affable guys; those critics are wrong.
Pearl Jam’s early output has been somewhat diluted by the fact that the band has continued to put out solid material to this day. Is every album Ten or Vs.? Of course not, but that doesn’t negate that Pearl Jam has changed with the times and become a, gulp, classic-rock outfit of sorts. Hell, Eddie Vedder’s low-key solo material is some of the finest music released this past decade.
Alice in Chains? Underrated, mostly because no one – save perhaps Cornell – could wail like Layne Staley. Same for Soundgarden, which never quite got its just due and always seemed a reluctant member of the grunge movement to begin with.
But this is what happens when years pass and legends move on. We reassess how we felt about something, and how we may view it differently today. Did grunge, in its immediate aftermath, seem a bigger thing 20 years ago than it does today? Sure – the collective memory is a short one, and 20 years is a long time anyway.
How will we look back upon grunge 20 years from now, as more time passes and memories continue to fade? That’s to be determined. But we’ll remember that the movement gave us Chris Cornell. And that alone is worth celebrating.
Get the ICYMI: Today's Top Stories Newsletter Our daily newsletter delivers quick clicks to keep you in the know
Catch up on the day's news and stay informed with our daily digest of the most popular news, music, food and arts stories in Houston, delivered to your inbox Monday through Friday.