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. <;.