2013 has been a banner year for grunge. The deluxe, 20th-anniversary reissue of Nirvana’s In Utero was unleashed in September to universal acclaim. Pearl Jam’s surprisingly robust Lightning Bolt and Mudhoney’s equally decent Vanishing Point came out over the past few months. And the last two months of the year will see an expanded reissue of Soundgarden’s seminal, late-’80s EPs Screaming Life and Fopp; the release of The Melvins’ respectably heavy Tres Cabrones, made by the group’s original lineup; and the publication of Experiencing Nirvana: Grunge In Europe, 1989, a book about the band’s first foray into world conquest written by Sub Pop co-founder Bruce Pavitt.
Grunge, it would appear, is back. Or is it?
Twenty years ago, grunge looked like the future. That was an ironic way to view it, considering grunge drew from classic rock as much as it did punk, and neither was even remotely new in 1991, when grunge hit big. But irony is what grunge was all about. In the late ’70s, bands like Black Flag sprang up as the opposite of—and antidote for—bands like Aerosmith. Yet Nirvana purposefully mashed the two together. Not just sonically, either. Kurt Cobain embodied the appreciation of both populism and obscurity, the harnessing of cock rock toward more clever, sensitive, and subversive ends. If that impulse for paradox also wound up contributing to self-sabotage and, ultimately, self-destruction, the best we can take from it is a truly incredible album like In Utero.
In Utero, though, was grunge’s death knell. As soon as Cobain grumbled, “Teenage angst has paid off well / Now I’m bored and old,” it was all over. The rise of post-grunge following Cobain’s death in 1994 has nothing to do with his absence. Post-grunge didn’t rush in to fill the void he left; it had been there from the beginning. The original wave of grunge bands had its fill of opportunists along with idealists, and part of Cobain’s success is owed to the fact that he was a bit of both. The ideals, though, were window dressing. So when Bush and Creed appeared on the scene, they weren’t pretenders; they were just paying homage to the grunge tradition of Candlebox and Collective Soul.
Lack of ideals doesn’t make or break a song, a band, or even a whole genre. But grunge’s hypocrisy became so glaring so quickly that no amount of irony could hide it. The age of grunge produced tons of great music, but following Cobain’s death, idealism became embarrassing. After all, look what it had wrought. All lip service to Black Flag was wiped away, and grunge became the new Aerosmith.
Which makes this year’s wave of grunge nostalgia so much sadder than nostalgia can sometimes be. Fondly remembering an era of pop culture is a wonderful thing, but grunge comes with a bitter aftertaste. Not because Cobain killed himself and not because Nickelback picked up the slack, but because grunge, what seemed at first like the bold sound and stance of tomorrow, so swiftly turned into a cul-de-sac. Punk has gone through similar waves of idealism and disenchantment, but it survives—and it is thriving to this day, unstoppable almost 40 years after its advent—because it spent its unpopular years laying down a solid infrastructure, a true subculture. Grunge never had that chance. Even ska, that black sheep of ’90s alternative subgenres, has a far healthier presence today than does grunge.
Grunge became an evolutionary dead end. It stood for nothing and was built on nothing, and that ethos of negation was all it was about. Even the best music of the original grunge era is hard to hear for its potency. In Utero is an exception, mostly because it was Cobain’s last, desperate gesture to retain his ideals—and as such, it’s a rare moment of grunge transcendence, especially since the notions of “grunge” and “transcendence” are mutually and essentially exclusive. Soundgarden’s Screaming Life and Fopp are incredible examples of a genre in gestation, but now they sound like little more than some dark, weird metal jams. The Melvins existed before, above, and beyond grunge, and the group’s role in the history of stoner rock and noise rock keep it strong, up to and including the cheeky, ZZ Top-paraphrasing Tres Cabrones. Those of us who were around when grunge first exploded into the gestalt can, at best, remember how powerful it seemed at the time. But no amount of books, reunions, or deluxe anniversary reissues can rekindle that full power.
A few years back, there were hints of a grunge revival. Not post-grunge, since that term had already been taken, but a fresh, youthful re-examination of the sound by musicians who were little kids when “Smells Like Teen Spirit” came out. That revival never happened, and it doesn’t seem like it will. There’s no denying we’re in the midst of a ’90s revival overall, including a bunch of new bands that sound like, say, Pavement or The Jesus Lizard. But a respect for Dinosaur Jr.—a band that’s only peripherally grunge-related—is as close as most young indie bands get to grunge. Who can blame them? A handful of recent groups like Yuck and Dead Confederate have trafficked in a certain amount of grunginess, but they’ve wisely sidestepped any kind of grunge-revival pigeonhole. Not that anyone seems to be in a hurry to build them such a pit.
If there are any post-grunge success stories to be told, they belong to two related bands: Foo Fighters and Queens Of The Stone Age. The stadium-rousing songcraft of Dave Grohl is certainly the main reason, but there’s no denying that, at his best, he’s accomplished that impossible feat: grunge transcendence. Grohl’s songs retain the grit and angst of grunge while aiming for something higher and brighter, and being a survivor of Nirvana only adds to that. His long association with Josh Homme’s Queens Of The Stone Age helped catapult that band into the limelight in the early ’00s, but on QOTSA’s latest album, this summer’s …Like Clockwork, Homme takes a detour toward sultry prog and new-wave. Like Grohl, his ’90s pedigree is always hanging over his head; in Homme’s case, it’s his tenure in the seminal stoner-rock band Kyuss. But even the other former members of Kyuss have managed to make a retro-’90s album—Peace, the debut by their new outfit Vista Chino—that draws on the well-worn grooves of Kyuss while offering something vital.
There’s one more morsel of grunge nostalgia that’s appeared recently: Stone Temple Pilots’ High Rise. The EP is the group’s first release of new music in three years, and instead of founding frontman Scott Weiland, it features Linkin Park’s Chester Bennington on vocals. It’s fucking awful. As bad as it is, though, it’s a perfect example of what grunge became, and what grunge remains: a hedged bet, a compromise, and—circa 2013—little more than a museum exhibit. Far smaller subgenres like post-punk and synth-pop have proven to be endlessly renewable resources of relevance and inspiration. Grunge no longer remotely matters to anyone or anything. And if it ever did matter, it was only as a brief twinge of conscience in the middle of a stage-dive.