Essential Question

What was Grunge and where did it come from?


“There’s a feeling of burnout in the culture at large. Kids are depressed about the future.”

— Music critic Simon Reynolds, 1992, about Generation X

The pre-Grunge era of the early 1980s was a time of media saturation, but many young people did not see themselves or their concerns accurately reflected in the slick music videos offered by MTV or in other mass media. The resulting alienation and apathy helped pave the way for the emergence of a new sound that became known, simply, as Grunge.

Sometimes called the “Seattle Sound,” Grunge began in the Pacific Northwest in the late 1980s and early 90s. The Grunge generation grew up on Heavy Metal, Punk, and Hardcore, drawing on elements of each to define its sound. The resulting aesthetic combined the droning, distorted guitar tones of Metal, the alienation and anti-authority attitude of Punk, and the edgy, physical stage shows of Hardcore. Like Punk, Grunge was full of anger, but with a dose of angst, self-deprecation, and depression added to the mix. And though the intimacy and spontaneity of live performances often gave it a similar feel to Punk, Grunge was more musically complex. More varied instrumentally, Grunge also accentuated dynamic shifts that evoked the frustrations of youth. Grunge musicians tended to reject the latest fashions and projected a feeling of indifference that was reflected in everything from their lyrics to their disheveled appearance. Adopting a thrift-store look, artists embraced lumberjack-style apparel — most notably flannel shirts — while pushing back against the exaggerated masculinity it often implied.

In its early years, Grunge was largely a localized phenomenon, emerging out of the club scene in the Pacific Northwest. Seattle had been deeply affected by the economic recession of the early 1990s, when unemployment was at a high and Starbucks did not yet have the ubiquitous presence it does today. Grunge, with its dour visuals and indifferent lyrics, seemed to encapsulate the grey and depressed mood of the region at the time. As the 90s progressed, the commercial success of groups such as Nirvana and Pearl Jam catapulted the Grunge sound into a national spotlight for which its creators and adherents were largely unprepared.

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Upon completion of this lesson, students will:

  1. Know (knowledge):
    • The influence of earlier musical forms, particularly Heavy Metal and Punk, on Grunge
    • The social, cultural, economic, and geographic influences that led to the rise of Grunge
    • The musical contributions of such Grunge artists as Nirvana, Mudhoney, and Pearl Jam
  2. Be able to (skills):
    • Connect music to the historical context in which it emerged
    • Common Core: Students will analyze primary source documents, including videos, photographs, and newspaper/magazine articles in order to make inferences and cite specific textual evidence (CCSS Reading 1; CCSS Reading 7; CCSS Writing 9; CCSS Speaking and Listening 2)
    • Common Core: Students will work collaboratively to write a three-paragraph review of early Grunge music (CCSS Writing 1; CCSS Speaking and Listening 1)