You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

Was Grunge Good?

The death of Chris Cornell and the 25th anniversary of the movie "Singles" bring a musical era into focus.

Alison S. Braun//Corbis/Getty

The people who mourned Chris Cornell’s suicide last week—in real life, on Twitter, in the media—almost all belong to a very specific demographic. Now in their thirties and early forties, they are mostly men who experienced Soundgarden at a formative moment, around the age of 11 or 12 or 13—that larval stage of life when the adult world begins to gleam and beckon, casting a withering light on childish things. To have much feeling for Cornell, who also fronted the groups Temple of the Dog and Audioslave, it would appear that you had to have lived in a certain era at a certain age.

For those of us who grew up listening to Cornell, and who were introduced to grunge music when it was the definition of what was new, it is a bit disconcerting to return to the video for, say, “Rusty Cage” and discover him haloed in a vintage fuzz. There are bands from that time that transcend it, that exert a pull beyond nostalgia; they can pass muster with a generation that wasn’t steeped in the great soup of entertainment in which we lived. But Soundgarden isn’t one of them. The recent reissue of the soundtrack for Cameron Crowe’s Singles, the seminal movie of the early 1990s Seattle music scene, only heightens the tension between artistic merit and the fog of lived experience. Is it even possible for a critic to distinguish between the two?

When I was playing Badmotorfinger on the morning after Cornell’s death, my wife, who is the same age as me but passed on grunge in her teens, made a sour face at the muddy riffs flowing from our computer and said, “What are we listening to?” My younger and cooler colleagues were similarly mystified by all the fuss; one had nothing to say about Cornell except that: “My friend did text me the other day that he saw, and I quote, ‘a fat old man’ in a Temple of the Dog t-shirt.” And, admittedly, I myself haven’t seriously listened to Soundgarden or Temple of the Dog since the 1990s, and skipped Audioslave, which debuted in 2001, altogether.

Yet Cornell’s death came as a blow, much more so than the death of Prince, even though I will probably listen to Prince until the end of my days. By sheer chance, Chris Cornell came into my life when I was primed to receive him. I even know the moment it happened: When I was in middle school, the older boys I admired most played a cover of “Outshined” at a talent show, stamping that song onto my life like a tattoo. Then there was the summer that the video for “Black Hole Sun” was ubiquitous; those distended faces and rictus smilesand that gasping fish on the cutting boardconstitute the very iconography of puberty. Of all the art that has been produced in the history of the world, Chris Cornell’s is some of the most meaningful to me, even though it is a pure product of its time, not timeless.

There have been touching encomiums to Cornell’s life and legacy in The New York Times, Newsweek, and elsewhere. They noted his incredible vocal range, his dark lyrics, his technical virtuosity. But his music is basically Zeppelin-inflected hard rock. It is Guns N’ Roses without the Hollywood glam, Black Sabbath but more melodic and soulful. And if grunge’s lineage is full of giants, its legacy is notoriously dubious, part of a sad denouement whose nihilistic endpoint was the corporate arena rock of Nickelback and Creed. There are plenty of artists from the larger 1990s alternative universe—Liz Phair, Guided by Voices, Fugazi, to name a few—who had a more interesting impact on pop music and, at least to my ear, still sound modern today.

Grunge’s main cultural influence may have been aesthetic. There are chic neighborhoods from New York to Tokyo where hipsters with stringy hair are clad in Docs and flannel and military fatigues. The scene was infused with a strong punk sensibility, particularly in its rejection of the trappings of rock stardom; the word “grunge” itself came caked in mud, sweat, and blood. And while grunge’s four great frontmen—Cornell, Kurt Cobain, Eddie Vedder, and Layne Staley—always struck me as avatars of a ferocious masculinity, looking back it is remarkable how pretty and delicate-boned they were in their youth, more David Bowie than Ozzy Osbourne.

And what about the frontwomen? Riot grrrl, the other great musical movement to come out of the Pacific Northwest in the early 1990s, didn’t get nearly as much mainstream attention as grunge, but it has endured—musically, stylistically, culturally. The two scenes overlapped in myriad ways, so much so that the title of Nirvana’s first hit single, “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” was actually coined by Bikini Kill’s Kathleen Hanna. And yet they are walled off from each other in our historical memory. One grows more relevant with time while the other gets staler. Perhaps grunge was always the exclusive domain of a certain kind of man, one who is now out of date.

Intentionally or not, this was how grunge music was depicted in Singles, which, by eerie coincidence, celebrated its 25th anniversary the same week Cornell died with a deluxe reissue of the soundtrack featuring rarities by Cornell and others. In the movie, the fictional embodiment of grunge is Cliff Poncier (Matt Dillon), a very beautiful meathead who wears excellent clothes and leads a loud, boring band called Citizen Dick. (If you somehow missed the double entendre the first time around, the band’s signature track is “Touch Me I’m Dick.”) Cornell makes a cameo, as do the members of Pearl Jam and Alice in Chains. But despite being an overt attempt to capture the zeitgeist of Seattle’s grunge scene, Singles is really a romantic comedy revolving around two yuppies, played by the very un-grungy Kyra Sedgwick and Campbell Scott.

The soundtrack is similarly caught between authenticity and commercial considerations. Three of grunge’s big four are represented—Nirvana, always too cool for their Seattle brethren, are notably absent—as are lesser lights like Mother Love Bone, Mudhoney, and Screaming Trees. There are nods to grunge’s roots: a cover of Led Zeppelin’s “Battle of Evermore” and “May This Be Love” by Jimi Hendrix, a Seattle native. But despite claiming to represent a scene that produced dozens of bands, the soundtrack manages to include two peppy songs by a newly solo Paul Westerberg (from Minneapolis) and “Drown” by The Smashing Pumpkins (from Chicago). A grunge aficionado might wonder: What, no Tad?

It doesn’t help that “Drown” is the best song on the whole album. The mellow purr of the distortion and the silvery atmospherics of James Iha’s guitar have aged very well, especially when compared to “Birth Ritual,” the trudging, wailing slog that is Soundgarden’s contribution to the soundtrack.

Still, the album and the movie exert an inexorable hold on me. I have watched Singles about half a dozen times, and as recently as six months ago. I like the Paul Westerberg songs, which carry the ghostly echo of his work with The Replacements. Alice in Chains’s “Would?” has been droning in my head ever since I started listening to it again for this review. And “State of Love and Trust” might be Pearl Jam’s most fun song, freed from the ponderous affect of the band’s contemporaneous work. I suspect my enduring affection for Singles is related to the way we consumed music in the 1990s, mainly through MTV, radio, and the albums themselves, meaning every additional glimpse of these musicians, even in cameo form, and every additional track, was a special treasure. The vast majority of those who grew up with grunge had only limited access to it; it could not be drawn up on your screen at the touch of a finger.

So much of the art we love is like this, made valuable by memory, happenstance, a time and a place. It presents a conundrum for music criticism in particular, since our musical tastes are developed at such a young age, blurring the distinction between what is actually good and what was forged into our hearts in the crucible of adolescence. Everybody’s experience of the 1990s was different, but if you were to ask me what it was like to be there, to be 13 years old when Soundgarden ruled the airwaves and Chris Cornell was a prince among musicians, I would say the predominant feeling was longing: to go to this near-mythic city where we thought life was really happening; to wear those clothes and to act that way; and to be older, to enter the shining world of adulthood. I doubt whether any of us feel that way anymore.