The 1990s in America began with a sense of unbridled optimism. The Berlin Wall came down in November of 1989, and the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe was imminent. The Cold War was coming to an end, much to the benefit of the western world. But for many, that optimism was short-lived, when, in August of 1990, Operation Desert Shield commenced. The operation ultimately led to the Gulf War, which, because of technological advancements, was shown, sometimes in real time, in ways never before seen. It was the first time that the American public witnessed a military conflict in an intimate way, with journalists embedded with troops and "smart" bombs that could be tracked by satellite imagery. Many in the artistic community were appalled at the military action and responded with strong resistance.
At about the same time, youth culture in America was becoming disenchanted with pop stars. A trend of valuing over-commercialization and artifice had dominated the previous decade, and music fans wanted something that felt more relatable and authentic. In August of 1990, this cultural sentiment was crystallized when the pop duo Milli Vanilli, who in the preceding year had won a Grammy for best new artist with their album Girl You Know It’s True, were exposed as frauds. They had not sung a single note on their recordings and had been lip-syncing all of their performances. This deception became a cultural touchstone and one of the biggest news stories of the year. The group members relinquished their Grammy and their careers never recovered. The industry had been objectively exposed for its manipulation and betrayal of its audience, and American popular music was in need of an alternative.
Under the surface, a counter-cultural movement had been building. Alternative music began as somewhat of an extension of punk, but with a healthy dose of musical experimentation with other genres – '50s-style rock and roll, blues, hip hop, ska, and even swing, for example -- mixed to create unique sounds and keep things interesting. With a "home grown" feel – many of the bands started with followings at local colleges and universities and on independent record labels – the music was literally an alternative to what was considered "main stream" or Top 40 rock and pop music, where artists signed with a large label that had publicity teams to market them and their music. Many of the artists and groups of this genre also had strong political leanings, and often used their music to support and encourage activism for environmental, social, animal welfare, and women's and human rights causes. This alternative rock music achieved tremendous mainstream success in the '90s, defining much of the collective culture for Generation X.
In many ways, the alternative rock movement didn’t promote a specific style; rather, it represented a distinct lack of style. It embraced the disillusioned, apathetic temperament of the ubiquitous '90s “slacker” trope and eschewed everything showbiz. Inevitably (and ironically), commercial forces capitalized on the popularity of these traits, packaging and marketing the movement as a consumable commodity. Life as an American youth at this time was permeated with alternative ideals beyond the music. Clothing trends consisted of worn jeans, old T-shirts, and flannels. Television shows prominently featured alternative types of figures like Beavis and Butthead (MTV, 1993-1997) and Wayne and Garth (from Saturday Night Live and the Wayne’s World movies), while movies like Singles (1992) and Clerks (1994) promoted the lifestyle even further.
Perhaps no band typified a true alternative mindset more than R.E.M., who perpetually emanated the enviable vibe of a band that was always a little independent and a little underground. Beginning in 1980 in Athens, Georgia, the group was known for Mike Mills' background vocal harmonies, Peter Buck's arpeggios on guitar, Bill Berry's tight drumming, and Michael Stipe's unmistakable vocals and exquisite, but sometimes cryptic, lyrics. Their first single, "Radio Free Europe" was released as two limited pressings on an independent ("indie") label, but it was so popular that it was named one of the ten best singles of 1981 by the New York Times. Through the early '80s, the group had other singles with commercial air play, but the song that made them known internationally was the ironically titled "The One I Love", off of their album Document in 1987. Two other singles off of the album were a somewhat stream of consciousness anti-Cold War anthem -- "It's the End of the World as We Know It (and I Feel Fine)" -- and a general call for activism -- "Finest Worksong".
Following the success of Document and the end of their contract with an indie label, R.E.M. signed with Warner Bros. Records in 1988, with a contract that gave them complete creative control of their music. Later that year, they released Green, which spawned the singles "Stand" and "Orange Crush".
After taking a break for a year after the tour for Green concluded, there was a particularly productive period for the elder statesmen of alternative rock in 1991-1992 when they released two very successful albums, Out of Time and Automatic for the People. The former was known for the hits "Losing My Religion" (the video for which had major airplay on MTV) and "Shiny Happy People" (which featured backing vocals by Kate Pierson of the B-52's, another band from Athens, Georgia); the latter presented the singles “Everybody Hurts” and “Man in the Moon”.
OTHER ALTERNATIVE FORCES
The band Hole had a hit with their debut album, Pretty on the Inside (1991), and would become one of the most successful frontwoman-led bands in rock history. Their music was abrasive and sloppy and made a serious (and loud) statement that reflected how the alternative movement applied to women. They were honest and unapologetic. They had a visual style that avoided the aspirational looks of their female pop-star counterparts and embraced a look that was more accessible and realistic. Frontwoman Courtney Love married Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain in 1992 and continued to find success with Hole throughout the decade.
No other alternative band could bring the funk like the Red Hot Chili Peppers. Their productivity spans several decades, but their most successful period was in the '90s with albums Blood Sugar Sex Magik (1991) and Californication (1999). Their unique, energetic blend of funk and punk rock is present in songs like “Give it Away” and “Scar Tissue”, but they are also known for a few anomalous ballads like “Under the Bridge”, not to mention their reputation for the flamboyant antics of founding members Anthony Kiedis on vocals and Flea (born Michael Peter Balzary) on bass.
Chicago’s Smashing Pumpkins split from the typical alternative rock approach in some significant ways. They never spent any time on an indie label, nor did they seem to have any reservations about their commercial success. Frontman Billy Corgan embraced the spectacle of arena-rock performance. He believed that the angst-driven, confessional nature of his music elevated it above reproach. In laying his soul bare, he became insulated from criticism and was resolved to a romantic, uncompromising vision for the band. Their second studio album, Siamese Dream (1993), launched them into mainstream success with songs like “Today” and “Disarm”. Their follow up effort, a double-disc concept album called Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness (1995), raised the band to superstardom, with several genre-defining singles like “Tonight, Tonight”, “1979”, and “Bullet with Butterfly Wings”. They remained a powerful force in the music industry until they broke up in 2000.
The band Radiohead was one of the few British groups to find commercial success in America in the early '90s. Their first album, Pablo Honey (1993), was generally regarded as terrible, except for the giant hit single “Creep”. The song was whiny, explosive, self-deprecating, and a template for appealing to '90s youth-- an unashamed declaration of failure and isolation paired with a loud, cathartic scream of discontent. It was a perfect fit for that particular musical landscape, but they released several more albums in the '90s, each demonstrating an evolution in their style. Radiohead would go on to be one of the most successful and experimental rock bands of the next two decades.
Electronic music was starting to have an impact on the industry, and the alternative rock iteration that popularized this influence was the band Nine Inch Nails. “[S]ongwriter, arranger, and vocalist Trent Reznor... produced much of the group’s first album using little more than an outdated Macintosh computer and a sampler” (Schuftan 2012). The success of Nine Inch Nails peaked in 1994 with the release of The Downward Spiral.
Incorporating hip-hop production and sampling methods into alternative music in a way that felt new and fresh, Beck made waves with his 1994 album Mellow Gold. His single “Loser” resonated well with the youth mentality of the time. He developed his ability to create appealing and eclectic collages of sound and applied it to his follow-up album, the surprisingly sophisticated Odelay (1996). The breakout hit “Where It’s At” ended any speculation that he was a one-hit-wonder. In the review of that album, Rolling Stone asked, “Could the future of rock & roll be a snot-nosed slacker with a bad haircut, an absurdly eclectic record collection, two turntables and a microphone?” (Kemp 1996).
Green Day became a commercially successful band with 1994’s Dookie and their first single “When I Come Around”. Their songs were short, fast, and loud. They dealt with concerns of high school and were unapologetically immature. They were as blatantly punk as they could be, in the same vein as early British punk bands like The Clash. They released several more successful albums in the '90s, but their most ambitious and interesting recording was American Idiot in 2004, a punk-rock opera album that would later be transformed into an award-winning Broadway production.
No exploration of '90s alternative rock would be complete without mentioning Alanis Morissette’s album Jagged Little Pill (1995). The Canadian singer had limited success in the '80s in the dance-pop genre, but it was nothing compared to her ubiquitous and rough-edged 1995 alternative rock album. Six tracks off of Jagged Little Pill were released as hit singles (the first of which was “You Oughta Know”) and it became one of the best-selling albums of all time.
Correlating with the rise and fall of '90s alternative rock, the Lollapalooza music festival represents a microcosm of the movement. The festival was created by Perry Farrell, the leader of the band Jane’s Addiction. Jane’s Addiction was a celebrated pioneer of alternative rock, and the festival was originally conceived as a farewell tour for them through multiple cities, with a small collection of diverse bands. The inaugural 1991 tour was successful enough to warrant another in 1992. At that point, alternative rock had developed such an appeal, that the tour added more cities and tripled in size. The traveling spectacle featured more than music-- there were tattoo artists, political activists, a full array of merchandisers, and even a circus sideshow. The tour ran through 1997 but in the end was starting to lose money. Farrell was also having difficulty signing a suitably high-profile headliner, so the 1998 tour was canceled.
The festival was revived in 2003, but poor ticket sales prevented it from continuing. It was Lollapalooza’s third chance at life in 2005 when it became successful again by implementing a more sustainable model. It became a three-day festival in a single location: Chicago’s Grant Park. The festival strayed from its alternative roots, but created a multi-decade legacy of celebrating diverse cultural experiences that revolve around music.
The first facet of alternative rock to break into mega success during the '90s was grunge, a sound that was forged by bands from the Seattle area. Grunge-style alternative rock represented a departure from the overly processed and stylized sound that preceded it. The aesthetic pendulum swung completely to the other side as grunge bands prioritized accessibility and a raw, dirty sound. It was heavy and thrilling and distinctly not electronic—it was created with real musicians playing real instruments.
The musical artists were nothing if not authentic. They made little to no obvious effort to look any different than the average teenagers for whom they performed. They were unpretentious in every way, and wanted everyone to know that they were not sell-outs. They wrote lyrics that dealt with angst, introspection, and isolation. Music theorist Lawrence Grossberg wrote about this era of popular music, saying “[A]uthentic rock depends on its ability to articulate private but common desires, feelings, and experiences in a shared public language” (Grossberg 1993).
The band that best typified grunge-style alternative rock was Nirvana. Grunge broke violently into the mainstream with Nirvana’s album Nevermind (1991), which reached No. 1 on the Billboard 200 chart in January of 1992, dethroning Michael Jackson’s Dangerous. The first two singles from that album, “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and “Come as You Are”, became anthems for the grunge movement.
Nirvana’s style was a dichotomy of apathy and rage, alternating passages that were quiet, obscured, and mumbled with wild outbursts of screaming anger. “Nirvana’s music shudders with frustration, born out of small-town ennui and disgust at the reactionary nature of mainstream American culture” (Cameron 1991). Nirvana’s lyrics dealt with the challenges and difficulties of social outcasts and outsiders. They were laced with irony and sarcasm, with frequent and random deviations. Frontman songwriter Kurt Cobain was able to capture the zeitgeist of the early '90s so well that many considered him to be the voice of Generation X.
Cobain was not comfortable with the weighty responsibility of being the voice of a generation, and he struggled with the trappings that came with the incredible success of Nevermind. He decided that Nirvana’s outrageous popularity was antithetical to the alternative movement that his band helped to launch. They had attracted a fan base that stretched far beyond their target audience of alienated slacker teens, and the band’s message was too often missed or ignored. Blaming large commercial forces like MTV and radio, Cobain shifted his approach from appeal to alienation. He started to actively distance himself as much as he could within the confines that came with super stardom.
This intentional disenfranchisement might have derailed the band’s professional success, but Cobain’s personal life began to shift. In 1992, he married Courtney Love (from the band Hole), and in that same year they gave birth to a daughter. Cobain’s outlook became optimistic enough to promote and enjoy the repeat success of their next album, In Utero (1993) and its first single, “Heart-Shaped Box.” But whatever satisfaction Cobain found in that time was not enough. After years of struggling with depression and addiction, Cobain took his own life in 1994, at which point Nirvana disbanded.
The British invasion of America’s music scene in the 1960s gave us the classic pairing of The Beatles and The Rolling Stones. They were the two greatest rock bands of that (or, arguably, any) era. They had plenty of similarities, but they were marked in different ways and enjoyed a rivalry amongst their fans. One might see a similar relationship in the two most prominent bands of the grunge movement: Nirvana and Pearl Jam.
Pearl Jam distinguished themselves with a more sophisticated musical approach to the genre, but perhaps the more meaningful difference was in the song lyrics. Where Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain could be surreal and obscure in his lyrics and in the way he sang, Pearl Jam’s frontman Eddie Vedder seemed more straightforward and sincere. Pearl Jam’s debut album, Ten (1991), was filled with stories of suicide, loneliness, and teenage angst—themes similar to those in Nirvana’s Nevermind—but without the veneer of irony and sarcasm. The music was strong and affirming in a way that Nirvana’s wasn’t. Their songs “Jeremy” and “Alive” are excellent examples.
This approach earned Pearl Jam a dedicated fan base which only increased after releasing their second album, Vs (1993), with its hit single “Daughter”, and their third album Vitology (1994), with its hit single “Better Man”. When such success inevitably led to playing for much bigger crowds, Vedder was concerned that this new phase would damage the connection he had with his fans. He asked, “How can you have a religious experience in a venue this size? I feel like someone has to stick up for the music” (Greer 1993).
He also stuck up for his fans. Vedder decided that the well-established music industry giant Ticketmaster was taking advantage of a virtual monopoly on concert venues by overcharging customers. Pearl Jam boycotted any venue which used Ticketmaster, essentially eliminating their tour presence in America. This lack of visibility coupled with band infighting prevented them from sustaining their success, though they continued to make new music and significant contributions to the industry.
Additional Grunge Contributors
There were other Seattle-based bands that helped to ratify the short-lived prominence of the grunge-style alternative rock. In many ways, the band Soundgarden preceded their peers: they formed in 1984 and they were the first grunge band to sign with a major label, but they followed behind many of the other grunge bands in finding mainstream success. When they finally did, it was with their 1994 album Superunknown and the hit single “Black Hole Sun”.
Rounding out the four most prominent Seattle grunge bands is Alice in Chains, who distinguished themselves by putting more emphasis on the singing. They incorporated sophisticated harmonies and co-lead vocal lines. One of their most popular songs is “Man in the Box” from their album Facelift (1990).
Hailing from California, Stone Temple Pilots were at first criticized as imitators jumping on the Seattle grunge bandwagon. Their debut album Core (1992) gave us the hit “Plush”, but critics thought it sounded a little too much like the other songs that were popular at the time. The group surprised almost everyone when their second album, Purple (1994), delivered more hit singles like “Interstate Love Song” and illustrated positive developments in their style, proving that they had staying power and were more than just grunge impersonators.
THE WRITING ON THE WALL
The end of grunge-style alternative rock began with Kurt Cobain’s suicide in 1994. It was a tragedy that profoundly affected a large segment of America’s youth culture and was unfortunately emblematic of a consistent tension in the alternative movement, during which an inordinate number of artists struggled publicly with depression and addiction. The confessional nature of alternative rock music led to many artists deliberately wallowing in depths of angst and suffering, night after night, to give the audience what they paid for. It was easy to assume that these problems seemed so prominent because there was an expectation of dealing with them on stage. In a fairly short time span, several prominent alternative rock musicians made headlines for the wrong reasons. Both the bass player for Hole and the keyboard player for Smashing Pumpkins died after overdosing, while both the guitarist from The Breeders and the frontman for the Stone Temple Pilots had very public implosions as a result of substance abuse.
In addition to the impact of all of these personal struggles, there were other factors that contributed to the end of the era. Grunge started from a place of honesty and authenticity, with singers like Billy Corgan of Smashing Pumpkins and Eddie Vedder of Pearl Jam who were desperate to make a sincere connection with their fans. But such intimate values could not persevere under the pressure of immense popularity that those bands achieved. The musicians were forced into pop-stardom, a role that many of them never truly sought to embody in the traditional sense, so they lost the ability to maintain that connection. And without it, the fans strayed.
As grunge achieved popularity, it was turned into a formulaic commercial product. It had succumbed to “alternative rock’s most basic physical law: what comes up, must sell out.” Many musicians realized that “the mass marketing of self-expression had turned their personalities into cheap commodities.” Kim Thayil of Soundgarden observed that “the irony of seeing 40,000 kids ‘affirming their alternativeness’ by wearing virtually indistinguishable variants on his own band’s jeans-and-flannel style merely confirmed that ‘alternative’ itself was an exhausted concept” (Shuftan 2012).
The music had successfully tapped into the rage and disaffection of a generation, but didn’t really know where to go from there. And fans started to ask themselves, “Where did the fun go?” Spin magazine described this era as “A group therapy session for kids who fancy themselves misunderstood” (Aaron 1994). The collective culture could only take so much of that before needing to have a little fun, lest it be crushed under the weight of grunge rock’s melancholic self-importance. Grunge had all but disappeared by the latter half of the '90s, though alternative rock continued to thrive and find mainstream success until the end of the decade.