Like Punk Rock and Hip Hop, Grunge, at its heart, was a reaction. Rising up amid the sheen of “Hair Metal” acts and other MTV-ready 1980s fare, it brought popular music back down to the street level, at least in its earliest phases. When Jonathan Poneman of Seattle’s Subpop Records noted that the flannel-shirted, thrift-shop look of the Grunge bands “runs against the grain of the whole flashy esthetic that existed in the 80s,” he could have been talking about the Grunge scene in general.
To be sure, students of Rock and Roll's forward evolution will see, again and again, that young people situated out on the margins of American life reinvent the music and make it their own. It could be in New York City clubs with the Ramones, or in the Bronx with Kool Herc, or at Sun Studios with Jerry Lee Lewis, but Rock and Roll's most dynamic transformations have almost always started somewhere "off the radar," where young people, disenchanted with what commercial music offers, decide to make it for themselves, just how they want it. So, too, did Grunge begin.
Musically, Grunge melded the clangorous dirge of Heavy Metal bands like Black Sabbath with Punk and Indie Rock influences. Like the Punk that burst out of Britain in the previous decade, Grunge emerged at a time of economic malaise – the recession of the early 1990s, which hit particularly hard in Grunge’s birthplace, the Pacific Northwest. But where the Punks were angry and fired up in their disenfranchisement, the voices of Grunge were more resigned, mired in the apathy and angst of so-called Generation X.
If Grunge began as a fringe phenomenon, however, it wasn’t long before it became something else entirely. The Big Boom came when Nirvana released its sophomore record Nevermind, which took the previously obscure Washington trio to the top of the charts, and turned leader Kurt Cobain into a reluctant international superstar. Hit records by Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, and Alice in Chains followed, and soon Grunge dominated MTV and fashion magazines were running Grunge fashion pictorials. As the New York Times noted: “From subculture to mass culture, the trend time line gets shorter and faster all the time.” Thus was the stage set for the next musical reaction.