Grunge music was a flash-in-the-pan phenomenon of the early 1990s, serving as a bridge between the longer and more stable periods of college rock throughout the '80s and alternative rock throughout the '90s. In fact, there was a generational bridging underneath the stylistic bridging.
I finally came upon a copy of the Temple of the Dog album with "Hunger Strike" on it. (Posted from my thrift store cardigan.) That song has always struck me as aging better, and agreeing with me better, since it first became a hit over 20 years ago. Not one of those perfect pop songs, but one worth buying the album for.
Like many other late Gen X adolescents, I was into grunge when it was the next big thing, but quickly moved on — or backward — to punk, ska, and college rock from the late '70s and '80s. (My friends and I hated the lame alternative, post-grunge, or whatever it's called music that defined the mid-'90s through the early 2000s, even when it was novel.) A good deal of what I used to like, I began not-liking, but there are some songs like "Hunger Strike" that still sound cool and uplifting.
As it turns out, the grunge groups that I find more agreeable were made up mostly or entirely of late Boomers, born in the first half of the '60s, while those I don't relate to as much anymore were made up mostly or entirely by early X-ers, born in the second half of the '60s. The late Boomers are the ones shown in Fast Times at Ridgemont High — abandoning themselves to whatever feels good — while the early X-ers are shown a little later in the John Hughes movies — consciously torn between wanting to be impulsive while seeking the comfort of stability.
The abandon of the late Boomers gives them a clear advantage when it comes to jamming within a group, improvising, and going wherever the moment is taking you without questioning it. This was most clearly on display when glam metal bands went mainstream in the '80s, ushering in the golden age of the virtuoso guitar solo and near-operatic vocal delivery. But it showed up also in the era's cornucopia of cheerful synth-pop riffs, as well as jangly, joyful college rock.
When the early X-ers took up songwriting, rock's frontmen were suddenly from a more self-conscious and ironic generation. Stylistically, it meant that the shaman-like performance of the spellbinding guitar solo was over, and that vocal delivery would be more aware of its own emotional state, or more affected — twee rather than carefree on the upbeat side, angsty rather than tortured on the downer side.
During this transition, along came grunge. Temple of the Dog was made up of members from Soundgarden and Pearl Jam, before either group exploded in popularity. Pursuing a hunch, I found out that singers Chris Cornell and Eddie Vedder are both late Boomers. Pearl Jam was roughly half Boomers and half X-ers, while Soundgarden was all Boomers aside from the bassist.
And sure enough, Soundgarden always felt like the evolution of '80s metal, which was created by their generation-mates, albeit at an earlier stage of their lives. Pearl Jam sounded more of-the-Nineties (more self-aware, less abandoned), though more rooted in the sincerity of college rock bands from the '80s than sharing the irony of '90s alternative rock.
Which groups had a solid Gen X basis? Nirvana had no Boomers — no surprise there. Neither did Alice in Chains. Stone Temple Pilots were all X-ers aside from their guitarist. This was the angsty side of grunge (self-consciously angry), with the funky riff of "Man in the Box" pointing the way toward the aggro, rap-influenced metal of the late '90s (Korn, Limp Bizkit, etc.).
Screaming Trees were equally Boomer and X-er, and "Nearly Lost You" sounds pretty easygoing by alternative standards.
And other Boomer-heavy groups? The girl groups, as it turns out. Only the bassist in L7 and Babes in Toyland were X-ers, the rest were Boomers. On their first grungier album, Hole consisted of Boomers (I couldn't find the birth year for the drummer, though). Recall an earlier post which showed all-female bands peaking in popularity during the '80s — the girl grunge bands were a fading generational echo.
The more self-conscious mindset of women in Gen X made it difficult or impossible to get into a state of abandon needed for grunge music, which was only partly introspective — and partly keeping the free-wheeling spirit of the '80s alive. When I think of the prototypical wild child, she's a late Boomer like the girls in Fast Times, the women of carefree '80s porn, and the real-life basis for the protagonist of Story of My Life by Jay McInerney.
Generations keep their ways well beyond their formative years, almost like a language that they were surrounded by and continue to speak, regardless of what new languages may have shown up in the meantime. If cultural change were only a matter of a changing zeitgeist, then Pearl Jam and Nirvana should have sounded much more similar than they did. And if those differences were a matter of being at different life stages at the time, why were the older guys more free-wheeling and the younger guys more reserved? It came down to a changing of the generational guard.