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Why Grunge Mattered

November 12, 2009

A few days ago Tobi Vail (Bikini Kill, certainly other things) posted on one of a few blog she writes for about a new book on Seattle’s music scene in the 1990s. She doesn’t like the book much because she feels it leaves out a lot of things, and in particular it doesn’t offer enough context for the happenings in Seattle. Also,

[The book is] not really that exciting, but neither was that particular scene/era of music if you ask me…not a lot of conceptual ideas and nothing that great really happened…some people got famous, a few of the bands were good, one of them was great and they got more famous then everyone else, that impacted the local economy/music scenes and then things got weird/bad.

I haven’t read the book but that’s not really what this post is about. I want to offer a counter-point to her understanding of that era and the mainstream fallout as not all that important unto itself. Because for me, it really, really was.

I think it’s hard for people who came of age in places that already had an established underground music scene (whether it’s Seattle, D.C., or Halifax) to appreciate what it was like for kids in rural towns. Before everybody got the internet, mainstream sources like Much Music and glossy American magazines were the only way you could even hear about new music if you lived out of range of a campus radio station.

The mainstream success of grunge inadvertently opened up this whole world for me and a lot of kids like me. Like, I’d been really interested in the only aggressive rock music I’d heard to that point, which was a lot of hair metal and bands like AC/DC and Guns N’ Roses. I was a nerdy teenaged girl and I was really creeped out by a lot of their lyrics and posturing, but basically, my choices for music were cheesy cock rock or Mariah Carey and Garth Brooks. These were dark times, friends.

But then this other kind of rock music came along, and it was totally different. Nirvana were all over the tee vee and they weren’t even seen beating the shit out their fashion model girlfriends. I read about zines and learned what riot grrrl was all about in Sassy magazine, and all of this made a lot more sense than Mötley Crüe’s cocaine-fuelled shenanigans.

Suddenly, people in bands I liked were saying things along the lines of, “We’re just regular people like you. If you want to be in a band, start one. Put on your own shows. We didn’t wait for permission or rely on other people to do stuff for us, and neither should you.” That’s a huge deal when you’re a weird kid in a little redneck town and you’re used to everybody telling you to shut up and wait your turn.

The idea that it was possible to make music that belongs to you and exists largely outside of mainstream promotion and distribution methods was not new in the early 90s, but that era was the first time in a long time (or maybe ever) when the message got out on such a grand scale. Tons of bands had been slogging away in obscurity for years already when MTV put “Smells Like Teen Spirit” in rotation, and though there was an established itinerary of places where touring bands would go or where local underground scenes might subsist, that list sure as shit didn’t include Sussex, New Brunswick. But suddenly it seemed possible for there to be punk bands in my vicinity, and within a year or two, there were. And that was definitely both new and exciting.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. Panik permalink
    November 12, 2009 11:59 am

    Thank You!

  2. November 12, 2009 12:52 pm

    yep, some of us rednecks didn’t have cable either. Instead we read about bands in magazines and then tried to hunt out CDs and tapes when went to the city.

    • November 12, 2009 1:00 pm

      Yeah, that too. I remember a very specific incident wherein my parents decided to go shopping in Fredericton and I found a Black Flag CD (I believe it was Slip It In) at Purple Haze. I’d been trying forever to find anything by Black Flag, but I couldn’t buy it because it was like $26 or something and I only had $20. It was heartbreaking.


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