“Come doused in mud, soaked in bleach,
As I want you to be,
As a trend, as a friend, as an old memory...”
Kurt Cobian, Nirvana’s guitarist/vocalist and resident grunge poet, asked kids to “Come As You Are.” Dirty, wet, worn, downtrodden and nostalgic for better days, grunge was a lifestyle response to an unsettled restlessness felt by the teenage generation the media dubbed ‘X.’ After the conspicuous consumption and ‘money is everything’ mantra of the decadent 80’s, the Generation X’ers rejected the shiny and new, preferring everything around them second hand. But their feelings were new, raw and aggressive.
Seattle was the unofficial grunge mecca of the early 90’s—a cold, rainy world of coffee shops and hopeless poets putting their angst to the hard-driving sound of guitars. Screaming Trees, Soundgarden, Candlebox, Pearl Jam, Alice in Chains…the names of the bands were wry juxtapositions of the sublime and the destructive. Ironically, the band that would bring the glum and coarse scene to national attention was Nirvana.
Kurt Cobain’s matted hair, ratty clothes, and raw aggression gave a voice to the restlessness felt by legions of suburban kids tired of their Nintendos, and suffering in a world of divorce, alienation and shaky self-esteem. This post-baby boom generation was raised not with traditional morals and ideals, but with a steady diet of TV, media, and mass consumerism. And they were dubbed ‘slackers’ for the very lethargy that the world was spoon-feeding to them.
‘Grungy’ has long meant shabby or dirty, and grunge was labeled as such because of its lack of concern for high fashion. Clothes were post-apocalyptic in style: Sleeves and pantlegs were cut off to expose the thermal underwear worn as a foundation for cutoff pants, shorts and skirts. Clothes were layered one upon the other without attention to patterns, colors and styles. Muted earthtones were favored, and army surplus was a staple.
Heavy wool lumberjack shirts and cotton flannels worn by the loggers of upstate Washington became a necessary ingredient to the uniform. If you weren’t wearing a flannel, one was tied around the waist waiting to be worn. Grunge girls wore thermals or fishnet stockings underneath vintage dresses, topped off with oversized, bulky men’s cardigans. Their shoes were clunky, like mountain men’s boots, or calf-high combat boots. Hair was unwashed, uncut, unkempt.
There was pride in being underprivileged, and if you were accidentally born privileged, well, at least you could fake it with your clothing. Grungers supported their favorite bands by wearing oversized concert shirts and plastering their skateboards or cars with band stickers. Grunge was about the basics, and fancy warm weather gear was passed over for second-hand treasures and bargain basement wear. Goodwill became the place to get your stash.
The grunge look was a direct reaction against the clean and pristine preppies, and the flamboyant leather-and-feather-clad rockers of heavy metal. Theirs was an anti-style, until the media got a hold of grunge and cleaned it up. Designer grunge may be an oxymoron, but names like Calvin Klein and Donna Karan sent models sashaying down the runway in flannels and lug boots, oversized sweaters dripping past their fingers, and matted hair. Kate Moss’ superstardom as the ‘waif’ was a direct progeny of such grunge ‘borrowing.’
Grunge can be seen as a fusion of two very different subcultures: the 60’s hippies and their reactionary offspring, the punks. Grunge combined the return to nature and laid-back attitude of the hippies with the in-your-face aggression of the punks. A blend of two extremes, grunge checked out of society, content to make its own noise for people who understood. They didn’t want celebrity, they only wanted to express what they felt inside.
Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain and Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder became reluctant spokesmen for Generation X, making sense for the middle-class kids confused about the injustice of their ostentatious lives. Grunge music put their thoughts to music, gave them a voice they thought was their own, and told them they were not alone. There was more to life than cars with acronym names, designer logo emblazoned clothes, and desperate, unfulfilling existences lived by their contemporaries.
Grungers returned to the things that mattered: themselves. They had parents who worked two jobs, sacrificed their time and attention for material items, but grunge was here, representing Generation X, to tell parents that it didn’t work. They wanted love, not toys, and since they didn’t get it, they weren’t going to follow in their footpaths. If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, then what is rejection?
Sadly, Kurt Cobain died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound in 1994, and grunge’s mainstream popularity petered out. That was just fine by the ‘grunge-in-spirit-and-not-clothing-only’ faithful, who gladly swooped in to buy up the discarded flannels and other grunge accoutrements that flooded back to Goodwills everywhere. Now that they had been twice rejected, the grungers had all the more reason to be happily miserable.