Part I: Introduction

{Note: This is an updated, “final” version of my initial draft.  Brett’s extensive and helpful comments are concerning that first draft, which has since changed into what you are (hopefully) about to read.  If they seem weird or out of context, that’s why. – Rory}

The alternative rock movement of the early 1990s (also known as the “grunge” movement) changed the landscape of American rock ‘n’ roll.  Famously, alternative rock diminished the popularity of what was known as “hair metal.”  Hair metal often portrayed rock stars as larger than life party animals, misogynist, hard-drinking, and rich demigods sporting teased hair, makeup, and spandex.  While these bands served as a wish-fulfillment fantasy for many young men, it was also far removed from the realities of everyday life for the American young man.  In a review of economic conditions in the 1990s published in 2000, Lynn White and Stacy Rogers write: “Until recently, each generation of men has fared better, in terms of median income, than their father’s generation fared at comparable ages.  In the last two decades, however, young men’s fortunes stagnated and declined” (1038).  Men working as hard as their fathers were beginning to see fewer and fewer fruits of their labor – if they had employment at all.  White and Rogers also note: “manufacturing jobs that once provided security and good wages for workers with less education became more scarce” (1038).  With many jobs being shipped overseas or done by computers, scores of young men found themselves with fewer opportunities than their fathers.  Furthermore, in economic terms, the gap was beginning to close between men and women’s wages: “Median earnings for young adult men decreased from 1980 to 1995, whereas the median earnings of young women increased over the same period” (White and Rogers, 1036).  For the first time in the twentieth century, young white men were no longer poised to dominate and define American society in the coming years, and women were increasingly gaining equality.  Many men were grappling with “the sense of betrayal, the suspicion of failure, the resentment of more fortunate generations, and reconciliation with the absence of fulfilling jobs or glamorous lifestyles” (Moore, 260).  With opportunities evaporating and increasing equality along gender lines, is it any wonder that fewer men were interested in watching Vince Neil have money fights with scantily-clad women while swigging Jack Daniel’s?

As young men became a diminishing economic force, feelings of helplessness and angst began to arise.  Such emotions – typically associated with adolescence – began to persist into men’s twenties.  An entire generation of young “men” was finding adulthood continually delayed: “Unemployment, the extension of education, and the decline of the family-based farm began to create a social class of people who were neither children nor adults” (Furstenberg, 897).  A sense of failure and fatalism began to characterize this class of men who could not find work nor afford higher education.  This social group comprised a large portion of what was eventually coined “Generation X.”  Generation X’s key characteristics – anger, cynicism, and nihilism – began to permeate into society, causing distress for both the old and the young.  As Ryan Moore points out, such traits proved Generation X to be thoroughly postmodern: “Lacking a means for mapping their social and personal histories or for grasping the underlying forces that have led to the ‘broken promises’ of downward mobility, family disintegration, and political apathy, many young middle-class whites have latched onto a defensive cynicism that knows that everything is simply a façade – that, in the end, nothing really matters” (261).  This pessimism began to manifest in works of popular culture.  Films such as Slackers, Clerks, and Reality Bites featured aimless twentysomethings in dead-end jobs.  Seinfeld boasted its stance as a “show about nothing.”  And in sweaty rock clubs (predominantly in Seattle, WA), a new form of rock ‘n’ roll was emerging for a generation that felt less-than-represented by songs such as “Pour Some Sugar on Me” or “Cherry Pie.”

By 1991, underground alternative music was hardly new in the United States.  Bands such as R.E.M., Pixies, Husker Du, and Bad Brains were all staples of underground alternative music, typically labeled “college rock,” in the 1980s, and some of those artists went on to have varying degrees of mainstream success.  However, there was something different about grunge.  Mixing equal parts punk and 1970s-style arena rock, grunge was loud and abrasive, but also had enough anger, angst, and sardonic humor to become the soundtrack for Generation X.  While grunge was an alternative underground movement throughout the late 1980s spearheaded by bands such as the Melvins and Mudhoney, the subculture exploded into the mainstream with the September 1991 release of Nirvana’s Nevermind, most notably the first single that nearly instantly changed rock radio, “Smells Like Teen Spirit.”  Soon, more alternative bands such as Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, Hole, Smashing Pumpkins, and Alice in Chains gained widespread success.  Scores of young, white, middle-class Americans were soon sporting flannel shirts, torn jeans, Doc Martins, and unwashed hair as “alternative” bands quickly sold millions of records.  While the movement was relatively short-lived (most argue that the alternative movement died with Nirvana front man Kurt Cobain in April of 1994), its impact on white, middle-class American youth in the early 1990s is unquestionable.  Few would expect such bands to ever break into mainstream culture, but, as Ryan Moore points out, subcultures such as grunge are “in large part responses to the dissolution of sources of sincerity and authenticity in postmodern society, but they also serve as an increasingly attractive option among those having trouble breaking into the job market and seeking a kind of meaningful work that may be otherwise unavailable” (264).  With many – particularly white, young, middle-class men – out of work and seeing fewer chances for upward social and economic mobility, the appeal of alternative bands was significant.  When considering the cultural and economic shifts during this time period, the rise of cynical and nihilistic alternative bands seems almost inevitable.  Many members of Generation X were feeling anger and angst for some time; they only needed someone to articulate it.

In the waning days of the white male, a new sense of identity arose from the alternative movement: gender construction.  However, as Gayle Wald writes, the notion of gender construction informing rock music was around for roughly a decade before the grunge movement: “’alternative’ music in the early 1980s is pivotal, marking the end of an era during which black sources served as the primary inspiration for white cultural innovation and heralding a new era in which the performance of gender, not race, is paramount” (606).  Gone were rock stars pretending to be bluesmen and performing variations of Elvis’ act.  In these days of white male decline (and white female rising), the new white male model of rock star was often self-effacing and attacking conventional notions of gender by doing everything from dressing in drag to championing women’s rights.  While the alternative rock movement was largely defined by existential angst, gender construction also played a large role.

In this work, I will look at the alternative rock movement from a rhetorical perspective.  I will examine the stance of several major alternative artists regarding both the social and economic status quo and classic masculinity and femininity in American culture.  To achieve this, I will borrow from Barry Brummett’s notion of a multilevel view of rhetoric he employs in his book Rhetorical Dimensions of Popular Culture.  In this book, Brummett works to define the nature of our current “rhetorical environment.”  He states that our reality has many shared meanings, and rhetoric serves as a management of meaning in society.  Brummett proposes three levels of rhetorical function: exigent (pressing issue), quotidian (everyday occurrences), and implicative (institutionalized meaning).  Each level carries a manifestation, with exigent’s “interventionist” being when an explicit, “discrete” text is presented, quotidian’s “appropriational” being information we encounter everyday that constitutes a “diffuse” text with unclear boundaries (this is where most popular culture lies, according to Brummett), and implicative’s “conditional” being basic values that serve as a “shadow” text underlying the other two functions.  Brummett stresses that these functions are used in tandem.  With young, white men’s implicative role in society as the dominant economic force eroding, much of the rhetoric surrounding the alternative rock movement is quotidian, with everything from song lyrics to fashion (or lack thereof, depending on your viewpoint) making up the “everyday occurrences” that express Generation X’s angst rhetorically.  While Brummett assigns rock music to the realm of quotidian rhetoric (“People enjoy rock music without worrying themselves over the values it is instilling in them”), I choose to differentiate the rhetoric of a rock band into both quotidian (music videos, interviews, photo shoots) and exigent (song lyrics) due to exigent rhetoric’s use of a definitive speaker, audience, and meaning (42).  While not “formal” discourse, the song lyrics of the bands discussed here do “address” problems in their modern society (even if obliquely), the “texts” are discrete and have definitive beginnings and endings, and the lyricists take responsibility for their rhetorical acts.  However, since Brummett’s forms of rhetoric are on a continuum with no clear defining barriers, facets of pop culture can slide back and forth between them.

While the alternative rock movement contained many spectacular artists worthy of discussion, for the purposes of this work I shall focus on four prominent bands that, I feel, represent the various contingents of the movement: Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Hole, and Smashing Pumpkins.  I will discuss these artists two at a time, with Nirvana and Pearl Jam constituting the “first wave” of the movement and Hole and Smashing Pumpkins the second.  This grouping not only works on a chronological level, but also reflects the values of the artists.  Nirvana and Pearl Jam, with their “working man” aesthetic, directly appealed to the despondent, unemployed white young men in the early part of the decade.  They accepted their commercial success begrudgingly, or, in the case of Cobain, did not accept it at all.  The “second wave” of bands, on the other hand, were much more blatant about the desire to achieve commercial success.  While Hole and Smashing Pumpkins were far more willing (to an extent) to work within the mainstream major label system, they were also some of the few bands to have female and non-white members.  These bands were also more willing to embrace symbolic and flamboyant fashion, and their music had much more ambition than the slacker, punk ideals of other artists in the movement.


Part II: The First Wave

In 1991, Nirvana and Pearl Jam both released their classic albums, Nevermind and Ten, respectively.  However, it was 1992 that proved to be the breakout year for both.  In January 1992, not only did Nevermind top the Billboard 100 album chart (ousting Michael Jackson’s now-ironically-titled Dangerous), but Nirvana also played on Saturday Night Live for the first time.  Once Nirvana cracked the mainstream, Pearl Jam soon followed suit, with Ten going on to sell millions of copies as the band began to play to packed arenas across the nation.  While many noticed the culture shift in rock music, the change was not immediate.  Many mainstream rock acts, such as Guns N’ Roses, were still achieving massive success in the early 1990s.  It was how these bands grappled with success and their new status as the voice of the angry, young white male that proved that the alternative rock movement gave the world a new breed of rock star.

Battle with the Status Quo and Masculine Identity

It is a commonly held assumption – or use of implicative rhetoric, if you will – that when a rock band becomes famous, there are certain values that must be upheld.  The band must be willing to tour extensively, produce music videos, release records in a timely fashion, and, above all, take their opportunity seriously.  All of these activities feed into the status quo of major labels making as much money as possible out of a band before they fall out of fashion and feeding the public inoffensive and good-looking young white rock stars.  Most bands are more than happy to play along given the alternative of going back to dead-end day jobs and obscurity.

Nirvana and Pearl Jam were not most bands.

Nirvana and Pearl Jam worked against this instance of implicative rhetoric on many occasions, employing both exigent and quotidian rhetoric in doing so.  While most of these rhetorical acts were quotidian – from Pearl Jam refusing to produce music videos at the height of their popularity to Nirvana’s decision to follow up the slick-sounding Nevermind with the rough, abrasive In Utero – there were also instances of both bands using deliberate, exigent rhetoric in their struggles with the mainstream music machine.  This struggle of simultaneously rebelling against the mainstream while being dependant on it was a major aspect of both bands.  The bands negotiated this dichotomy in different ways: while Nirvana used irony to deflect issues of being a mainstream band, Pearl Jam purposefully chose to shy away from the spotlight and intentionally become a niche act (granted, a niche act that still sells out arenas).

Both bands, however, used exigent rhetoric in their lyrics as a means to carve out a location of being both within and against the mainstream.  As Ryan Moore writes, “if the creative content remains largely nihilistic and cynical, we must remember that the participatory form of collective self-empowerment can be appropriated for more explicitly oppositional ends” (264).  Once both bands were famous, this nihilism and cynicism became fixtures in their songs.  In the opening line of “Serve the Servants,” the first track on In Utero, Kurt Cobain sings in a deadpan tone “Teenage angst has paid off well/Now I’m old and bored.”  This declaration at the outset of the follow up to the multi-platinum Nevermind displayed Cobain’s weariness of the baggage that stardom has brought him.  His music is no longer only self-expression, but it is now his career.  It also shows his disconnect from the musical movement Nirvana single-handedly brought into the American zeitgeist.  Similarly, Pearl Jam expressed this discontent in the Vitalogy track “Not For You,” although Eddie Vedder’s lyrics reflect his disgust with the formerly underground alternative scene now turned into a corporate, mainstream music movement: “Small my table, it sits just two/Got so crowded, I can’t make room/Where did they come from? Stormed my room/And you dare say it belongs to you/This is not for you.”  In contrast to Cobain, Vedder’s cynicism is directed at the corporate influence in post-Nevermind alternative rock rather than the movement itself.  His opposition to major label record labels and corporate media – despite his reliance on both mechanisms for his lyrics to be heard – showcases an immense distrust of those who milked the movement for all it was worth.  While both bands played the major label game (to a certain extent, as will be discussed below), the rhetoric of their songs signaled an oppositional force against the status quo.

Song lyrics were not the only location for these bands’ rhetoric against the mainstream, although other instances fall into the quotidian.  Pearl Jam used its status as a famous, important band to battle the ticket-selling monopoly Ticketmaster in the middle of the decade, citing the company’s “service charges” as unfair to their fans (keeping the economics of their demographic in mind).  For its tour supporting Vitalogy, Pearl Jam refused to play venues that sold tickets through Ticketmaster.  Considering Ticketmaster’s hold on the ticket-selling market, this blocked Pearl Jam from playing a vast amount of suitable venues.  The tour was plagued with problems and Pearl Jam’s popularity never quite recovered.  However, this act of defiance against a major American corporation was unprecedented in rock music, and the rhetorical act of boycotting Ticketmaster, while flawed, showed Pearl Jam taking a definitive rhetorical stance against a monopoly they believed to be unjust.

Pearl Jam produced few music videos (another quotidian rhetorical rebellion against an implicative ideal), but two of the three videos were centered on the band’s life performances.  This rhetorical message – not using a formal video shoot and showcasing the workingman-like ideal of just “doing their job” – is evident in the clip for “Even Flow.”  The video starts with Vedder’s declaration of authenticity for the location of the “video:” “This is not a TV studio, Josh…this is a rock concert!”  From there, edited clips of various Pearl Jam performances are synced with the recorded track, all of which show the band in “workingman” influenced attire: flannel shirts, t-shirts, torn-up jeans, and shorts.  The rhetorical message of the video lets fans know that in this age of male decline, Pearl Jam is no better than its fans.  They don’t spend money on expensive sound stages for videos, and they shop at the same thrift stores as their fans.  This assertion of Pearl Jam being on the same level as its fans is displayed later in the video, when Vedder climbs the venue’s rafters to fall into the crowd from a dangerously high ledge.  The message to the audience (both in the crowd and watching the video at home) is clear: Pearl Jam is willing to risk personal well being to maintain a level playing ground with its fans (as expressed by the hit the band’s career took in the Ticketmaster incident).  Pearl Jam utilized quotidian rhetoric to show its fans that while it was a famous rock band, it made every effort to retain authenticity and to never appear as “better” than anyone (except perhaps for the people signing their checks).

Nirvana’s use of quotidian rhetoric in taking on the status quo was more centered on irony and not taking its role as “famous rock band” particularly seriously.  As Ryan Moore writes:

Even as rock stars, Nirvana was able to present both a voice for a more sincere alternative to the music industry and the trappings of stardom and, by virtue of their own “incorporation,” testify to the lack of such an oppositional space; the best example of such frustration – and the use of irony to “resolve” these contradictions – was Cobain’s appearance on the cover of Rolling Stone with a hand-written tee-shirt reading “Corporate Rock Magazines Still Suck” (258).

Such use of irony as a deliberate rhetorical act did not stop at photo shoots.  For their performance of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” on popular British television show Top of the Pops, Nirvana used the music program’s insistence that the band play to prerecorded tracks (save for the vocals) to mock the program and the institution it represents.

The band’s refusal to play by the show’s rules is evident, and it is a quotidian rhetorical act that nearly becomes exigent in its level of awareness.  The occasion of the show – that musicians play along to their prerecorded selves and try to look good while doing it – allowed Nirvana to, with tongue firmly in cheek, put up resistance to the show’s producers and their expectations that the status quo be met.  This, along with Pearl Jam’s boycotting Ticketmaster on behalf of their fans, was a rhetorical act reflecting Generation X’s anti-establishment ideals.  For a generation that corporate America was passing by, Nirvana and Pearl Jam rebelled against that system in a way that most Generation X’ers never could.


While both bands, with their working-class aesthetic and forceful male lead vocalists, were unmistakiably masculine, they also subverted gender construction.  In the picture above, Nirvana is dressed in female clothing.  This was far from a one-time occurrence.  In many photo and video shoots, as well as live performances, the members of Nirvana frequently wore women’s clothing, presumably to tear down that very implicative rhetorical assumption of how a “blue collar” rock band should behave.  Furthermore, for his first appearance on MTV’s Headbanger’s Ball – a show devoted to heavy metal and hard rock – Cobain appeared in a ball gown, subverting the shows typically macho appeal.  


While Pearl Jam never broke from their masculine image, vocalist Eddie Vedder was always a staunch public defender for women’s rights, going so far as to inscribe the words “PRO CHOICE” on his arm at the end of a performance on MTV Unplugged.

Nirvana and Pearl Jam’s subversion of traditional rock gender roles may seem at odds with their “working man” aesthetic, but it was in fact a reflection of what declining working class men were going through, if not necessarily how they may have felt.  Eric Lott writes as much in his article “All the King’s Men:”

Changes in the ideologies of manhood, including the 1960s counterculture’s embrace of androgyny, the encroaching obsolescence of anticommunist machismo, and the looming attractiveness of the ‘sensitive man,’ were undergirded by a massive shift in political economy.  Simply put, this was a shift from “Fordism” to “post-Fordism,” from an industrial regime of mass assembly-line production to a halting and low-wage service economy in which, moreover, the sexual division of labor was blurred.  Economy and identity came together in working-class men’s felt inability to provide – a masculine ideal the social script increasingly disdained anyway (196).

As the traditional “provider” role of the American working class male waned, so did the claim to superiority that accompanied it.  This too was reflected in Nirvana and Pearl Jam’s lyrics.  In stark contrast to the misogynistic hair-metal bands, Nirvana and Pearl Jam often wrote lyrics from the first-person perspective of female protagonists.  In Nirvana’s most controversial song “Rape Me,” Cobain sings as a rape victim, repeating the title of the song throughout the verses before shifting to a more hopeful, unity-driven chorus in which he declares “I’m not the only one,” presumably finding comfort in fellow victims.  Similarly, Vedder sings from the perspective of a victim of child abuse in “Daughter:” “Can’t deny there’s something wrong/Don’t call me daughter, not fit to/The picture kept will remind me.”  Also like Cobain, Vedder’s protagonist comes to grips with her victimization.  Although she initially accepts her aggressor (“She holds the hand that holds her down”), she does eventually triumph over her pain (“She will rise above”).  Also note that Vedder switches to third-person perspective here, allowing his female protagonist to overcome on her own terms without Vedder as her mouthpiece.  Unfortunately, while such stories suggest female empowerment in the face of terrible tragedy, it is worth discussing that both songs, despite the progressiveness Cobain and Vedder hoped to achieve, frame women in terms of victimization at the hands of a (presumably, in the case of “Daughter” – the abuser is not given a gender) male aggressor.  This regression to violent – but traditional – gender roles is a result of the loss of identity for the working class male, according to Eric Lott: “If anything, male physical violence and abuse…have redoubled in hysterical fashion in the face of troubled self-definition” (196).  In losing himself, the American working class male lashes out, even if unintentionally.  As members of that group (albeit very rich and famous members), Cobain and Vedder ultimately cannot escape their maleness.  However, the effort of writing from a female’s perspective and their tales ultimately ending in a kind of triumph for their protagonists shows a rhetoric that seeks to reflect the state of gender in the early 1990s.

Perhaps it was a reaction against hair metal’s misogynistic leanings, but these two forbearers of the alternative movement, while unquestionably white and male, subverted the traditional views of gender in a rock ‘n’ roll setting, even if no women were on the stage with them.

Part III: The Second Wave

After the initial wave of bands, several more long-underground bands, such as Soundgarden and Alice in Chains, rose to national fame.  Also coming to prominence later in the movement were Hole and Smashing Pumpkins.  Hole and Smashing Pumpkins were somewhat controversial figures within the alternative rock movement.  The production values on Live Through This and Siamese Dream, Hole and Smashing Pumpkins’ respective breakthrough albums, were far more polished and radio-friendly than contemporary releases by Nirvana and Pearl Jam.  Also, singers Courtney Love (Kurt Cobain’s wife) of Hole and Billy Corgan (Courtney Love’s boyfriend before Cobain) of Smashing Pumpkins were not particularly likable, with many regarding them as egotistical and career-oriented.  However, both bands were embraced by mainstream audiences in the mid-1990s, selling millions of albums and earning international fame.

Battle with the Status Quo and Masculine Identity

Unlike Nirvana and Pearl Jam, Hole and Smashing Pumpkins not only embraced their stardom, but they seemed to actively pursue it.  Live Through This and Siamese Dream were both remarkably more accessible than their predecessors, and Love and Corgan were far from reluctant rock stars.  Both Love and Corgan (the primary lyricists in their respective bands) used exigent rhetoric in their song lyrics to express their distastes for the underground alternative scenes they left behind and the accusations of “sell-out” and “careerist” that came with their fame.

While women have always been a part of popular music, Hole’s (and, given that their bassist was presented as a band member and not as an object of sexual desire, Smashing Pumpkins’) presence as a rock group as opposed to a pop group is important, as argues Kate McCarthy: “Given the long association of women with commercial, vocal-oriented pop music and men with the more ‘authentic,’ guitar-based rock genre there is a sense in which by simply picking up a guitar woman musicians are committing the kinds of gender trespass that feminist theory celebrates” (72-3).  In this light, Love’s lyrics, particularly in Live Through This’ closing track “Rock Star” reflect Love’s triumph as a legitimate female artist in a male-dominated rock world.  She begins with referencing Cobain’s hometown (as well as the home of many grunge bands): “When I went to school in Olympia/Everyone’s the same/We look the same/We talk the same.”  While this assertion could initially be read as an acknowledgement of Generation X self-deprecation, Love later angrily accosts the potential doubters of that underground scene (it is also worth noting that Love never attended school in Olympia and her time in Seattle was spent in a mansion with Cobain): “Make me real – fuck you/Make me sick – fuck you.”  This direct confrontation with the underground scene’s typical questioning of famous musicians’ validity marks a “self-conscious appropriation of the male rock star’s script of sexual aggression and rage” (McCarthy, 76).  While the entire song seems like a send-off to the underground scene, Love’s vitriolic singing/screaming proves that her act of becoming a “rock star” in the first place is an act of rebellion, not against a mainstream music culture ruled by consumption, but by traditionally assigned gender roles in rock music.

Corgan also attacks the underground alternative scene (trading Olympia for Chicago) and their notions of hipness and authenticity.  On Siamese Dream’s opening track “Cherub Rock,” Corgan sings “Stay cool/And be somebody’s fool this year/’Cause they know/Who is righteous, what is bold/So I’m told,” casting Chicago hipsters as lemmings and false gatekeepers of authenticity.  This assertion seems to put Corgan in direct opposition to Vedder, who harbors, in what Moore calls punk’s inability to express whatever values they have in the present, “a nostalgic mythology about how great a particular scene used to be before the media took notice, before the bands ‘sold out,’ and before the wrong types of people started coming to the shows” – presumably people like Billy Corgan (258).  While Corgan undoubtedly enjoyed mainstream success, “Cherub Rock” reflects some level of understanding regarding Moore’s claim of these scenes’ tendency to allow nostalgia to guide their sentiments toward popular music artists, particularly artists claiming to be “alternative.” Corgan expresses this further when he sings “Hipsters unite/Come align for the big fight to rock,” showing a frustration with the underground scene’s apparent devolution to simply tear down commercially successful audience.  The break with Generation X ideals (at least in regard to negotiating mainstream success) shows the ultimate fallout of the idea that the grunge movement’s “rejection of dominant values and identities cannot be matched by an investment in any alternatives,” thus giving its participants little to latch onto (Moore, 254).  This sentiment – shared by Love – shows that as the “alternative” became the mainstream, many successful artists became less inclined to fight for a movement and trended toward self-preservation, perhaps reflecting the reality and desperation of chronic unemployment in ways that Cobain and Vedder did not.

"I am doll parts..."

While Hole and Smashing Pumpkins differed from other popular alternative acts in negotiating the mainstream, both aligned with the movement’s subversion of gender construction in different ways.  Among other methods, a primary way both bands challenged gender roles was in their music videos.  In the clip for Hole’s “Violet,” women are seen performing stereotypical feminine acts, beginning with little girls dancing ballet to women dancing on stripper poles.  Throughout the video, vocalist Courtney Love’s appearance resembles that of a female child’s doll: lace dress and heavy white make up.  Love’s dress and the use of “girl-centric” imagery early in the video “celebrate girlhood as a means of fostering female youth subculture and of constructing narratives that disrupt patriarchal discourse within traditionally male rock subcultures” (Wald, 588).  All of the men in the video (save Hole’s guitarist) are in the audience watching the females perform.  The video speaks to gender roles in entertainment, with women regulated to dancing – both innocently as little girls and sensually as women – for the pleasure of men.

The video for “Violet” is intrinsically linked to the song’s lyrics.  With the men looking on as the females perform, Love sings “And they get what they want, but they never want it again/Go on, take everything, take everything/I want you to.”  The rage Love exhorts here is presumably directed at the video’s male audience, who is taking what they will from the female performers in the form of pleasure and entertainment.  This anger “marks a significant violation of the proscription against women’s agency and desire, and seems to endorse the radically social constructionist rejection of gender binaries” (McCarthy, 76).  This use of quotidian rhetoric (the “everyday” occurrence of a music video) mixed with the exigent rhetoric (the “formal” discourse of lyrics) challenges the implicative rhetoric of what constitutes appropriate female performance.

Smashing Pumpkins take a different approach to subverting gender roles in their video for “Today.”  The clip begins with Corgan driving an ice cream truck through the desert wearing, in a twist on Pearl Jam’s “working man” aesthetic, a classic ice cream man uniform.  While the antiquated portrayal of this profession is undoubtedly masculine, it is also far from a job portraying typical masculinity: an ice cream man still drives around and serves children.  Corgan in this menial-job role also reflects the dead-end service jobs that were the only available option for employment by many men at the time.  Soon, Corgan picks up guitarist James Iha as he is dressed in female clothing.  The choice of clothing, along with Iha’s sexually ambiguous facial features and hairstyle, led some to believe he was in fact female.  Soon, Corgan and Iha pull into a service station where one of the attendants (another stereotypical male profession) is played by bassist D’Arcy Wretzky.  This playful mixing of gender stereotypes aligns with McCarthy’s assertion that “the mandate…is not to embody an alternative gender script, but to resist all scripts, which can be accomplished by donning the body markings (clothes, movements, hair, postures, jewelry, gestures, language, etc.) of an alternative gender, or by combining those multiple genders in playful or ironic ways” (72).  Upon arrival at the gas station, Iha changes into clothes reflecting another male archetype: the cowboy.  However, even this reverting to male normality is skewed as the costume is bright yellow and shiny with no illusions of range life.  The refusal of Smashing Pumpkins to simply “embody an alternative gender script” showcases a nuanced subversion of gender construction and the implicative rhetoric of gender roles in modern society.

While Corgan’s lyrics do not directly blur the lines of gender like the other artists discussed here, he does engage gender construction by way of portraying himself as a self-effacing “loser,” placing himself in the context of the working-class white male’s decline.  Eric Lott, conjuring Richard Sennett and Jonathan Cobb, addresses the tendency of this group to “resort to self-blame in a context of American individualism that ‘reminds’ white workingmen that the class position they have inherited and resist in so many ways is ultimately their own fault” (223).  This “self-blame” emerges in Siamese Dream’s “Disarm,” a song about Corgan’s childhood, when he sings: “I used to be a little boy…What I choose is my choice…The killer in me is the killer in you.”  Here, Corgan is addressing several aspects of the erosion of young, white, working-class men in the early 1990s.  Firstly, while he is no longer a “little boy,” Corgan never claims to be a “man” in the song, thus placing him in the limbo of extended adolescence discussed by Furstenberg earlier.  Secondly, his acknowledgment of responsibility for his choices and of the “killer” inside of him reflect the self-blame as discussed by Lott.  The rhetorical identity Corgan presents as an individual blaming the choices of his younger self for his current lot in life, whether justified or not, displays the self-loathing and loss of self-esteem experienced by many members of Generation X.  The gender construction here is markedly different from the standard male rock singer as confident and angry at exterior institutions for society’s woes.   While the implicative rhetoric of the male “angry young rock singer” – from Bob Dylan to Johnny Rotten to Bono – placed blame on the cultural institutions those men inherited from previous generations, Corgan’s exigent rhetoric takes self-responsibility for his diminished stature.  By turning the blame onto him, Corgan constructs a male gender identity that is self-deprecating and unconfident, reflecting the diminished role of the men in Generation X.

The rhetoric of gender construction employed by Hole and Smashing Pumpkins, when considered in tandem, reverses traditional gender roles in rock music, with the “angry young man” becoming Courtney Love and the subordinate figure becoming Corgan’s male self.  Rhetorically, both bands challenged the male-dominated atmosphere of rock music and, by extension, society.  They also both reflected the simultaneous rise of the female and decline of the male young people were going through in American culture in the early 1990s.

Part IV: Conclusion

All in all is all we are.

As traditional notions of the young white male crumbled due to economics in American society, the alternative rock movement reflected the state of a generation of who had suddenly become misfits with a fading future and diminishing opportunities.  Realizing that they were not poised to exceed the success of their fathers, the men of this generation outright rejected many of the baby boomers’ ideals.  The artists in the alternative movement reflected this sentiment by rejecting the notions of corporate rock that the previous generation founded and continued to benefit from.  Whether they were boycotting a ticket monopoly or subverting traditional gender roles, the bands in the alternative rock movement were in a unique position of being rich rock stars while constantly threatening the status quo.

Furthermore, the rise of the female in economics was reflected in the alternative rock movement by a renegotiation of women’s role in rock music.  By 1994, notions of “groupies” seemed a distant memory as Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Hole, and Smashing Pumpkins not only displayed tales of female empowerment, female anger, and diminishing males in their lyrics, but also used the mediums of photo shoots, interviews, and music videos to subvert gender construction and blur gender lines.

Ultimately, however, the alternative rock movement fizzled out before it had a chance to address moving into full adulthood.  The resistance never offered a true cultural “alternative,” and, as Moore states, “the affective stakes in much postmodern youth culture are such that nothing can be sacred, all styles are exhausted the moment they are born, and, all other things being equal, one does, says, and feels nothing” (254).  Perhaps none saw this more than Kurt Cobain, who did not believe his own hype and numbed himself with drugs before taking his own life in 1994.  His death reflected the end of the alternative movement and was its ultimate rhetorical act: self-loathing and a sense of the future already lost personified in a single, tragic moment.  While Pearl Jam, Hole, and Smashing Pumpkins continued on for years after Cobain’s death, the cultural importance of all three bands waned with subsequent albums and tours.

Admittedly, true underground “alternative” music never died; it simply remained underground.  While my decision to focus (for now) on only the biggest mainstream acts of the movement in my limited space here may ignore many important underground bands of the Seattle and Riot Grrrl indie rock scenes, it was not my intention to diminish the importance of these bands.  Rather, I chose to use this space to discuss the rhetorical dimensions of bands that had a direct impact on mass culture to showcase how artists with punk rock ideals addressed working in (and depending on) a mainstream corporate system.  Furthermore, if, as McCarthy claims, “current feminism is pop culture-driven,” then a look at rhetorical gender construction by artists with significant cultural influence is a worthwhile endeavor to evaluate the alternative movement’s negotiation with gender norms (74).  Finally, these four artists tapped into the American zeitgeist and meteorically rose to great fame and fortune as a result.  With millions of young, working-class, white men angry at the disappearance of their cultural dominance and millions of young women seeing greater opportunity than their mothers while still fighting for equality, is it really all that unfathomable that these disagreeable, self-effacing, gender-bending “losers” became the voices of their generation?

Works Cited

Brummett, Barry. “Functions and Manifestations of Rhetoric in Popular Culture.” Rhetorical Dimensions of Popular Culture. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1991. 37-68. Print.

Furstenberg, Frank F. “The Sociology of Adolescence and Youth in the 1990s: A Critical Commentary.” Journal of Marriage and Family 62.4 (2000): 896-910. JSTOR.Web. 19 Apr. 201. <;.

Lott, Eric. “All the King’s Men: Elvis Impersonators and White Working-Class Masculinity.” Race and the Subject of Masculinities. Ed. Harry Stecopoulos and Michael Uebel. Durham and London: Duke University Press, 1997. 192-227. Print.

McCarthy, Kate. “Not Pretty Girls? Sexuality, Spirituality, and Gender Construction in Women’s Rock Music.” Journal of Popular Culture 39.1 (2006): 69-94. MLA International Bibliography. Web. 27 Apr. 2011. <;.

Moore, Ryan. “”…And Tomorrow Is Just Another Crazy Scam”: Postmodernity, Youth, and the Downward Mobility of the Middle Class.” Generations of Youth: Youth Cultures and History in Twentieth-Century America. Ed. Joe Austin and Michael Nevin Willard. New York and London: New York University Press, 1998. 253-71. Print.

Wald, Gayle. “Just a Girl? Rock Music, Feminism, and Cultural Construction of Female Youth.” Rock Over the Edge: Transformations in Popular Music Culture. Ed. Roger Beebe, Denise Fulbrook, and Ben Saunders. Durham: Duke University Press, 2002. 191-215. Print.

White, Lynn, and Stacy J. Rogers. “Economic Circumstances and Family Outcomes: A Review of the 1990s.” Journal of Marriage and Family 62.4 (2000): 1035-51.JSTOR. Web. 19 Apr. 2011. <;.