As human beings, it is natural for us to try and attribute meaning to things, particularly art. We think of our high school English classes and the hundreds of analyses of a particular river in a particular moment of a particularly outdated novel. The same goes for music. Essentially, music is our voice. Dare I go further, music is our political voice. The argument that all songs are political will always be debated, just as literary critics argue over the symbolism of a river. However, I would argue that our concept of the political song is flawed. A song does not have to have specifically political lyrical content to convey a singular thought or representation of society. For example, one could reappropriate a love song through singing it in the context of an oppressed state. (somehow “Somewhere Over The Rainbow” isn’t about Oz, but possibly the asylum of immigrants when sung at a rally). What, then, is political? I define political as anything that advances a message of or relating to the government or the state of society and individuals’ roles in these constructs. When it comes to politically-charged genres of music, academics praise Punk for its working class defiance, but Punk is not the only political genre. So is Folk, so is Pop, and so is Country, even if they are not “praised” as being political. In this article, I will provide a case study of Grunge, the rare moment in American music history where Alternative Rock was mainstream, as an example to prove that, despite general consensus, music inherently contains political dogma.
From the baggy jeans and battered flannels to the screeching guitars and moaning vocals, Grunge created not only a distinctive sound, but revitalized and modernized its own version of the punk identity. Although short-lived, it is arguably one of the most iconic rock music movements in recent history. Kurt Cobain is practically a household name. Grunge is traditionally associated with Generation X, the slacker youth, or more importantly, the forgotten youth (hence its X label). In accordance with this slacker status, Gen X is often labelled as politically apathetic. Likewise, their music, Grunge, is also reprimanded for its lack of politicism in comparison to its punk predecessor. In terms of authenticity, the genre also comes under attack due to its wide commercial success. However, as the Grunge subculture transitioned to the mainstream, it recognized a cultural consensus that exhibited the dominant political rhetoric of the generation: they were nihilistic, fed up with government stagnation, and longed for a more centrist rather than polarized political ideology. Grunge music embodies the “forgotten” connotation to Generation X. This music does not necessarily align itself with militant political activism, but rather represents the shift in attitude among youth in modern politics. Just as Grunge’s ascendance to mainstream music, despite its alternative sound, represented a shift in the music industry, its advent supplanted the transition from direct political involvement of youth to unconventional forms of political participation.
In her book, Grunge: Music and Memory, Catherine Strong defines Grunge as “a musical genre and a cultural centre that existed in the late 1980s and early 1990s, with associated fashions and ideologies, as well as political and musical alliances” She acknowledges that Grunge has a political component as well as representation of a cultural movement. In general, Grunge may be described as a style of hard rock with “high levels of distortion, feedback, fuzz effects, [and] a fusion of punk and metal influences.” However, this resulted from the majority of Grunge bands being produced by the Sub Pop label and originating primarily in the Seattle area, hence its nickname, the Seattle Sound. Grunge has the aggression of punk and the melodies of pop, but its main distinction is its complete antithesis to the 1980s hair metal that came before it, which to Grunge artists, represented the hyper-masculinity, selling out, and conservatism of the 1980s that it wished to oppose (remember Reaganomics?). In other words, to Grunge artists, Hair Metal bands like Mötley Crüe and Def Leppard were inauthentic. Grunge, at least in its founding, prided itself on its rejection of the mainstream. However, as it grew commercially successful, its authenticity was questioned.
Grunge’s attempt to disrupt the dominant culture through negation as well as purity and authenticity seems hypocritical when considering their ascent to mainstream music, but the fact that the music became mainstream speaks to its resonance with Generation X. It might be really cool to be part of an exclusive subculture with a few underground records, but the ability for albums like Nevermind to resonate with a large audience and be easily available confirms the notion that this was the music of the youth (particularly white working and middle class). As Strong describes it, “the sound became less important than the feeling – it didn’t matter if there were distorted guitars and anguished vocals as long as it seemed real,” and to many it did. The lyrical content of the music still remained true to its intentions despite fame. In comparison to Punk, Grunge lyrics and content were more introspective than militant. Themes included social commentary like homelessness (Nirvana’s “Something in the Way,” Pearl Jam’s “Even Flow”), youth suicide (Pearl Jam’s “Jeremy”), drug dependency (Pearl Jam’s “Deep”), and issues of conformity (Nirvana’s “In Bloom”),” but they were delivered in a more poetic format. Strong also comments that “songs were more likely to be about more generalized negative experiences or feelings, sung in a collective rather than individual voice”. Gen X’s agenda was represented through these songs, and this “collective voice” itself was their political platform. Particularly the theme of alienation – fitting for this forgotten generation – is very prevalent in Grunge music.
If we look at Grunge’s poster single, Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” it is clear that its popularity does not undermine the commentary it makes about homogenized culture and the youth experience in the early 1990s. Looking at its music video particularly, which was aired on MTV, the symbols of resistance are so overt as to slap the viewer in the face. The video is set in a dingy, dilapidated high school gym equipped with worn down bleachers and a basketball hoop. Shots fade in and out of the band to cheerleaders adorning Anarchy A’s on their tops to an old, creepy janitor and even a dunce-hat-wearing kid in the final shot. Undoubtedly, high school is symbolic of American culture and is supposed to represent the highlight of youth existence (or in most cases – four years of your life you would rather forget). This dirty representation of high school in the music video acts as a rebellion against mass culture. Bassist Krist Novoselic recounted, “Kurt really despised the mainstream. That’s what “Smells Like Teen Spirit” was all about: The mass mentality of conformity.” It exposes high school not as the carefree experience we often dream of based on teenage films and television, but as a period of identity struggle among youth. This band and their music not only falls outside of this commercial 1980s atmosphere, but rejects it. The chorus blairs, “With the lights out, it’s less dangerous/Here we are now, entertain us/I feel stupid and contagious/Here we are now, entertain us.” The first line is a contradiction which expresses their lack of faith in society. The second and last lines reference the tendency for youth to crave attention. The third mocks the idea of a “trend” associated with mass culture. The music video also increasingly cuts to close up shots of Kurt Cobain screaming, “A denial.” This visually depicts a man caged in his own thoughts, and alienated from his surroundings. While this song criticizes mass culture, it also recognizes the sense of Generation X’s desire to be taken seriously. Their voices are shunned and are in “denial” of their identity and ability to affect change in the world. Therefore, this song is inherently political and its origin validates that. The title came from the comment, “Kurt Smells Like Teen Spirit” referring to his relationship with Bikini Kill’s drummer Tobi Vail who frequently wore the deoderant. Kathleen Hanna (also of Bikini Kill) wrote it on the wall after spending a night with Cobain defacing a fake abortion clinic (a center that instead of providing abortions, persuaded their clients to keep their children).
Overall, Nirvana’s body of work has this nihilistic and pessimistic criticism of the accepted values of the dominant culture of the late 1980s and early 1990s (an attitude that most youth identified with). Nirvana’s producer, Butch Vig, recalled in an interview with NPR,
“Even though we’re not really sure what Kurt is singing about, there’s something in there that you understand; the sense of frustration and alienation. To me, “Smells Like Teen Spirit” reminds me a little bit of how Bob Dylan’s songs affected people in the ’60s. In a way, I feel the song affected a generation of kids in the ’90s. They could relate to it.”
Equipped with “guitar rants” and vocals sung by a “tortured heart” as it was called by Rolling Stone, the song’s sound was raw, aggressive and ultimately appealed to this generation for its authenticity, like the 1960s folk revival mentioned above. In other words, people related to the song because lyrically it opposed all of the things they hated about society and sonically expressed the frustration they felt. The song even recognized the generation’s apathetic label. Cobain said when writing the album that he felt, “disgusted with my generation’s apathy, and with my own apathy and spinelessness.” This sense of detachment from society surely conceived lyrics like “Oh well, whatever, nevermind” and offered a title that encompassed a general consensus of youth in only three syllables: Nevermind. Therefore the music uses its own generation’s criticisms to make a statement about the hypocrisy of society. While paradoxical and ironic, recognizing the apathy – their faults – and using it in this context inherently opposes the dominant culture, and provides a political statement. Most people saw this self-critical subtext to the song and realized how accurately it captured their sense of being fed up and their feeling of being crippled by their need for belonging.
Grunge remains a shining example that, despite the tendency of academics to ridicule genres for apathy, there is no such thing as pure apathy regarding politics. In a society in which the commodity-bearing capitalist economy lurks in every corner – or a society in which there is imperialized hegemony – it is nearly impossible not to be political. While music itself can be political, the political involvement of the artists themselves also adds to its inherently political nature. Nirvana bassist Krist Novoselic went on to form a non-profit, FairVote, that aims to increase voter participation by increasing eligibility for traditionally obstructed communities. So whether it is the musician or the music itself that endorses political preference, music is just another mode of expression, and our way to cope with the perils of the world. It is our style, our sense of individuality and therefore our meaning. For Punk it was leather and for Grunge it was flannel, but the concept is the same. If you looked different, you were different; your music taste represents your nonconformity. What is more political than that?