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)


Motivational Activity:

1. Ask students: When you watch TV or go to the movies, do you see people who look and sound like you? Who seem to share your outlook on life? Who seem to share the concerns and problems you face?

2. Display the three pictures below, explaining to students that they are all from hit TV shows of the 1980s and early 90s (Family TiesGrowing Pains, and Family Matters).


3. Ask students:

  • What do you notice about the people in all three pictures, especially the teenagers? Do they look happy or unhappy? Do they appear to have the kinds of problems and issues teenagers typically have?
  • If you had been a teenager then, how well do you think you would have been able to relate to these characters?
  • Remember that there were no cell phones, no Internet, and no Facebook in the 1980s and early 90s. If you did not feel you were being represented in mass media, where might you turn? Where might you find art or culture that you felt represented your world and your outlook?


  1. Play the interview with Grunge band Nirvana and briefly discuss:
    • What is their general attitude toward life?
    • How would you describe their appearance, especially compared to the characters in the television shows from the 1980s?
    • Why might their general attitude have resonated with teenagers during this time period?
  2. Divide students into pairs. Explain that they will work with a partner to write a three-paragraph review of early Grunge music. The class will watch several music videos together, and each group will be given a set of documents that they will use as source material for their review.
  3. Distribute the following handouts: Handout 1: Document Set; Handout 2: Discussion Questions; Handout 3: Graphic Organizer, and Handout 4: Music Review Template.
  4. Inform students that they will use the discussion questions in Handout 2 to help them review the documents in Handout 1. As they do so, they should take notes on the graphic organizer in Handout 3. Inform students that it is not necessary to fill in every bubble on the graphic organizer; conversely, they should feel free to create additional categories and bubbles.
  5. Before they begin analyzing the documents, play brief excerpts from the following videos to help students with their discussion of the music. Encourage students to take notes on the graphic organizer as they watch and discuss the videos. (Please note: The opening line of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” contains a reference to guns; instructors should decide if this material is appropriate for their classrooms.)
  6. Discuss with students:
    • Do you notice any similarities in instrumentation and/or vocals? What are they?
    • What do you hear in terms of dynamics? Are there contrasts between loud and soft? If so, what does this contribute to the song?
    • What do you notice about the performers’ clothing and appearance? Do you see any similarities in aesthetic?
    • What is similar about the attitude of the performers in the different videos?
    • What specifically do the Grunge songs (Mudhoney, Nirvana, and Pearl Jam) appear to draw from the earlier Punk and Heavy Metal performances?
  7. After the discussion is complete, allow students ample time to work their way through the documents, complete the graphic organizer, and write their reviews. Emphasize that the reviews should incorporate as much specific information from the documents and video clips as possible.

Summary Activity:

Ask a few groups to share excerpts from their reviews with the class. Discuss the different views of the Grunge songs and their meanings. Were certain viewpoints represented more than others?

Writing Prompt:

How did early Grunge reflect the social environment and the frustrations of youth in the Seattle area in the late 1980s and early 1990s?


Common Core State Standards

College and Career Readiness Reading Anchor Standards for Grades 6-12 for Literature and Informational Text

  • Reading 1: Read closely to determine what the text says explicitly and to make logical inferences from it; cite specific textual evidence when writing or speaking to support conclusions drawn from the text.
  • Reading 7: Integrate and evaluate content presented in diverse formats and media, including visually and quantitatively, as well as in words.

College and Career Readiness Writing Anchor Standards for Grades 6-12 in English Language Arts and Literacy in History/Social Studies, Science and Technical Subjects

  • Writing 1: Write arguments to support claims in an analysis of substantive topics or texts, using valid reasoning and relevant and sufficient evidence.
  • Writing 9: Draw evidence from literary or informational texts to support analysis, reflection, and research.

College and Career Readiness Anchor Standards for Speaking and Listening for Grades 6-12

  • Speaking and Listening 1: Prepare for and participate effectively in a range of conversations and collaborations with diverse partners, building on others’ ideas and expressing their own clearly and persuasively.
  • Speaking and Listening 2: Integrate and evaluate information presented in diverse media and formats, including visually, quantitatively, and orally.

Social Studies – National Council for the Social Studies (NCSS)

  • Theme 1: Culture
  • Theme 2: Time, Continuity, and Change
  • Theme 3: People, Places, and Environments
  • Theme 4: Individual Development and Identity

National Standards for Music Education

Core Music Standard: Responding

  • Select: Choose music appropriate for a specific purpose or context.
  • Analyze: Analyze how the structure and context of varied musical works inform the response.
  • Interpret: Support interpretations of musical works that reflect creators’ and/or performers’ expressive intent.
  • Evaluate: Support evaluations of musical works and performances based on analysis, interpretation, and established criteria.

Core Music Standard: Connecting

  • Connecting 11: Relate  musical ideas and works to varied contexts and daily life to deepen understanding.

National Core Arts Standards


  • Anchor Standard 7: Perceive and analyze artistic work.
  • Anchor Standard 8: Interpret intent and meaning in artistic work.
  • Anchor Standard 9: Apply criteria to evaluate artistic work.


  • Anchor Standard 10: Synthesize and relate knowledge and personal experiences to make art.
  • Anchor Standards 11: Relate artistic ideas and work with societal, cultural and historical context to deepen understanding.

Career Technical Education Standards (California Model) – Arts, Media and Entertainment Pathway Standards

Design, Visual and Media Arts (A)

  • A1.0 Demonstrate ability to reorganize and integrate visual art elements across digital media and design applications.
    A1.1 View and respond to a variety of industry-related artistic products integrating industry appropriate vocabulary.
    A1.4 Select industry-specific works and analyze the intent of the work and the appropriate use of media.
    A1.5 Research and analyze the work of an artist or designer and how the artist’s distinctive style contributes to their industry production.
    A1.8 Compare how distortion is used in a variety of media to modify the message being communicated.
    A1.9 Analyze the material used by a given artist and describe how its use influences the meaning of the work. ia, and Entertainment |
    A3.0 Analyze and assess the impact of history and culture on the development of professional arts and media products.
    A3.2 Describe how the issues of time, place, and cultural influence and are reflected in a variety of artistic products.
    A3.3 Identify contemporary styles and discuss the diverse social, economic, and political developments reflected in art work in an industry setting.
    A4.0 Analyze, assess, and identify effectiveness of artistic products based on elements of art, the principles of design, and professional industry standards.
    A4.2 Deconstruct how beliefs, cultural traditions, and current social, economic, and political contexts influence commercial media (traditional and electronic).
    A4.5 Analyze and articulate how society influences the interpretation and effectiveness of an artistic product.
    A5.0 Identify essential industry competencies, explore commercial applications and develop a career specific personal plan.
    A5.3 Deconstruct works of art, identifying psychological content found in the symbols and images and their relationship to industry and society.

Performing Arts (B)

  • B2.0 Read, listen to, deconstruct, and analyze peer and professional music using the elements and terminology of music.
    B2.2 Describe how the elements of music are used.
    B2.5 Analyze and describe significant musical events perceived and remembered in a given industry generated example.
    B2.6 Analyze and describe the use of musical elements in a given professional work that makes it unique, interesting, and expressive.
    B2.7 Demonstrate the different uses of form, both past and present, in a varied repertoire of music in commercial settings from diverse genres, styles, and professional applications.
    B7.0 Analyze the historical and cultural perspective of multiple industry performance products from a discipline-specific perspective.
    B7.1 Identify and compare how film, theater, television, and electronic media productions influence values and behaviors.
    B7.3 Analyze the historical and cultural perspective of the musician in the professional setting.
    B8.0 Deconstruct the aesthetic values that drive professional performance and the artistic elements necessary for industry production.
    B8.3 Analyze the aesthetic principles that apply in a professional work designed for live performance, film, video, or live broadcast.