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.

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One response to “Part I: Introduction

  1. I will write and respond, knowing you eventually plan to expand this to your thesis. Some things I say may be pertinent to the current project, others to your actual thesis. Also, just to further contextualize, I have not read the subsequent posts, which means you may address or flesh out some issues later; therefore, if I mention something now which, come to find out, you quite nicely later discuss, my bad, bro! If I can edit this comment – though I likely can’t – I will. I really don’t want to waste your time and sincerely do hope you find something redeemable and useful in my typing!

    First off, congrats on the ambitious, interesting, loaded idea! For this project, I’d say the focus is commendable, just about perfect – a large issue, though not unwieldy for the space you have to explore. Your thesis leaves little doubt, though it does pique interest. No confusion, only clarity: I’m eager to read more.

    Although I’m unsure how much context you wish to include now, for later, you may consider expanding the discussion about economics and race, particularly the waning era of the white male. Back in the 90s, even though Clinton was coming to prominence, there was this sense that Reagan-era or, especially, Bush-era whiteness simply did not swing anymore; hence, Clinton was often termed as the “first black president,” what with him playing sax on Arsenio Hall, etc. Of course, that whole Generation X idea comes into play there, too. I think it might be cool to give context its own blog post to fully address and explore all the social, economic, political issues involved, particularly using Youtube videos to give us this cinematic and panoramic sense of the late 80s and early 90s.

    There’s something very strange going on, something you’re pointing to, that white male power seems to wane, yet very quickly, gain the spotlight in popular culture, via MTV and other news and television sources. Even in film, as you’ve already said. Maybe you get into this later, and if you do, please accept my apologies for ignorant redundancy: but what do we make of this perceived loss of white power when it seems to still permeate 90s popular culture? Of course, Nirvana and, maybe less so, Pearl Jam are working class, critical of the corporate world, yet they seem willingly or unwillingly complicit in a popular and economical creation of this “new white model.” Essentially, I’m asking – how can something, like whiteness, be waning when it still seems to dominate, or at least, be fetishized?

    I know you can’t get into this now, but I’d love to read your thoughts on the emerging popular space of hip hop and rap. You’re doing an excellent job looking at the rhetoric of this white middle-class, but I wonder what conclusions you can draw if you compare the former rhetoric to the rhetoric of lower and middle-class blacks in the 90s. You say white grunge seems to focus on the quotidian; is the same true in rap? Or, even if they’re similar, do they use the quotidian differently?

    Also, back to context and the late 80’s for a moment – have you ever seen The Decline of Western Civilization Part II: The Metal Years? The Spheeris documentary might be a good counterpoint to emerging underground rock. There are great segments in there of young, stupid hopefuls, intoxicated with the American possibility to be anything they want – most especially a hair-band superstar. You’ve suggested economics partly informs the excess of hair-band metal, and this might be great footage to use on a blog, exemplifying that point. The whole movie is on Google Video, but I’m sure Youtube has some good clips.

    Also, lastly – something maybe more appropriate for later – I wonder how the lower and middle-class white rhetoric of grunge relates or compares to that of Bruce Springsteen, especially in the early seventies when Disco and singer-songwriter tunes dominated the airwaves. Is there an economic and social pattern involved in the public interest of lower class whites singing about the quotidian or other blue-collar issues? Of course. In a way, you can trace Nirvana back to even pre-war blues and folk, most of those singers with little pretense for mainstream success, etc. But, underlying that, how are economics shaping our taste in music – influencing our choices and selections in artists? This seems to be an understated concern in your project, one that also interests me.

    So far, it looks great. The opening is really strong, jam-packed, but clear and engaging. I’m envious of your project and sincerely eager to read the rest this weekend!

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