October 16, 2014

The generational divide among grunge musicians

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.


  1. Strauss and Howe's 1943-60 range for the Boomers makes more sense culturally than the orthodox 1946-64 definition.

    All of the musicians you named are Xers.

  2. Jeff Spicoli is not a Gen X character (talk about a lack of introspection). He belongs to the late '70s and early '80s, not the mid-to-late '80s. He's a *late* Boomer -- no one lumped all Boomers into a single category.

    Who knew that Jon Bon Jovi, James Hetfield, Axl Rose, and Bret Michaels were Gen X?

    You're trying to link the late Boomers in the post to Gen X because they became famous for what was considered a Gen X phenomenon. But when you scratch beneath the surface, it turns out there were two distinct flavors of grunge, stemming from two distinct generations of musicians.

  3. Thank you for your blog. Maybe it is my age but I can listen to Nirvana but not enjoy Nirvana. I was never a big Nirvana fan but they are just too much of a downer for me now. The contrast musically with the E Street band during the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony was striking. The E Street band just seemed younger and more energetic then the Nirvana crowd. The E Street band had the swagger. Curious what you make of lyric "Everyone is gay" in the Nirvana song. REM hasn't aged well either in my opinion.

  4. I think "everyone is gay" was just a throwaway provocation with no real meaning.

    REM went full emo, as did the Chili Peppers, but back in the '80s and early '90s they were cool. Most of the rock songs that I still enjoy from the early '90s are from bands that were primarily or entirely late Boomers, and had already been playing and recording in the '80s -- REM, Chili Peppers, Soul Asylum, U2, Counting Crows (for "Mr. Jones" only), Cracker (not as epic as Camper Van Beethoven, though), and above all the Gin Blossoms.

    New Miserable Experience is one of the greatest rock albums ever, and was released as late as '92. Only the singer in that band was an early X-er.

    Another half-and-half group in the alt-rock scene of the early '90s was the Breeders. "Cannonball" isn't the coolest song ever, but it's catchy, upbeat, and irreverent (not ironic). Which is more than you can say for the X-er bands that dominated in the mid-'90s and after -- Live, Beck, Better Than Ezra, Bush, Foo Fighters, etc.

  5. '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.'

    I hear ya on that. That era of whine about everything instead of, you know, actually write and play in interesting riff or melody sucked big time. I guess I half tolerated some of it maybe to fit in but I'm not sure I ever really enjoyed it. Not when I'd already heard and enjoyed the more adroit, less pretentious music made by Boomers in pop cultures last golden age, the 80's.

    Does anyone think that the early 60's late Boomers are kind of a best of both worlds mini generation? Not as preachy and smug as early Boomers but also not as afflicted by corrosive cynicism as X-ers.

    I don't think you can really blame Gen X for having such a shitty attitude about things when they spent their formative years surrounded by the byproducts of the Me Generation's hedonism and narcissism.

    There's a '85 movie, the River's Edge, that's about Gen X teens that I found to pretty accurate. The bored, stoned teens in the movie barely notice that one of their friends is a total psycho. That character has a revealing scene where he says something like, 'I've got this philosophy, you're born, you do things and then you die'. Kurt Cobain would approve.
    That movie also has good scene where a stereotypically idealistic, naive Boomer teacher basically throws a fit over how detached and unmotivated his Gen X students are. The teacher just doesn't get how the latest generation of kids doesn't seem to a give a damn about anything, whereas the Boomers were so driven to change everything. Which they did, for good or for ill.

    In terms of John Hughes movies, I think the oldest 'teen' cast member of the Breakfast club was Judd Nelson who was born in 1959. It's not surprising that he got the role of the cockiest character in the film. In contrast, the much younger Anthony Micheal Hall (1968 birth) got to play the nerd. Nelson's on set Boomer hell raising almost got him fired.

  6. "a stereotypically idealistic, naive Boomer teacher basically throws a fit over how detached and unmotivated his Gen X students are."

    Those teachers wasted the '80s waiting for their burst of cleansing synchronicity, but it never came. They had to wait for '91-'93 for the hysteria over multiculturalism, AIDS, date rape, etc.

    "Not as preachy and smug as early Boomers but also not as afflicted by corrosive cynicism as X-ers."

    The late Boomers spent their entire formative years in outgoing / rising-crime times, from their birth circa 1960 through the end of their 20s circa 1990. They don't bear the stamp of the cocooning eras of the Midcentury or the Nineties and after.

    And a good deal of their upbringing was during the egalitarian phase of the status-striving / inequality cycle. They turned into the yuppies, and cluster closer to the early Boomers on economic matters (laissez-faire), but were at least partly shaped by the norms of playing yourself down and accommodating others when they were children.

  7. When I was young and first heard these bands, I tended to prefer Alice in Chains & Soundgarden to Pearl Jam & Screaming Trees because they were more metal. I also dug Nirvana because they were the closest thing to punk I could hear on the radio. It never occurred to me there was an age gap between them, I thought of them as all belonging to the same cohort (although the later post-grunge bands were another story).

    I came across a review of Phantasm you might be interested in, as it delves into what it was like to be a kid in the 70s and how things have changed now (he jokingly blames video rental for modern overprotection of kids). You should be warned he is an enthusiast of psychedelics and seems to write via vomitting his brain on the screen.

  8. "What it was like growing up in the '70s" is one of the great unexamined historical / pop cultural topics. You hear a lot about the '50s, '60s, and early '70s, then... the coming-of-age theme doesn't pick up again until Family Ties, Back to the Future, Weird Science, etc.

    Just from watching popular movies and TV shows, you'd have a decent idea of what the Silent Gen was like as youngsters, and likewise for the early Boomers. Gen X's adolescence is well documented and preserved. But what about the late Boomers?

    TV shows -- basically none. Eight Is Enough looks like the only show that would've focused on them, though most of the actors weren't actually late Boomers. I haven't seen it, and wouldn't know how accurate it was anyway.

    Movies -- Carrie and Halloween. There are no teen comedy or drama movies centered on late Boomers (Meatballs?), only a couple of horror movies.

    Retrospectives? Dazed and Confused, which late Boomers say is fairly accurate. And That '70s Show, which I haven't heard them praise for accuracy. It seems more like that awful '80s retro show The Goldbergs -- the tone and behavior is entirely contemporary, and only the set decoration, costume, and make-up is how it used to be.

    I think after the overload of youth counter-culture during the late '60s and early '70s, everyone had had enough of young people for awhile. Most of '70s pop culture is skewed heavily toward the mature rather than the coming-of-age.

    That was also the beginning of the Me Generation focusing more on their own affairs and less on what their kids were up to. So, both at the grassroots and the mass media levels, there was little supervision of young people. Most of it will go down the memory hole, since few of the late Boomers themselves have passed on their oral history.

    One exception is the graphic novel My Friend Dahmer by Derf Backderf, who went to high school with the serial killer before he had totally snapped but when he was already very clearly out-of-it and nobody in grown-up world had noticed, let alone tried to do anything about him. He keeps a blog with updates and additions about being a teenager in the era of Carrie and Halloween.

    It was recommended to me by a late Boomer who swore by its accuracy, and from what little else I've gleaned of the period from pop culture, it does feel familiar.

    Youth culture was as unsupervised at the lowest level as it continued to be during the '80s, but later there was a concern at the national / mass media level, and also at the civic / community level about the troubled youths of today, save the children, and so on. You didn't see that during the '70s, so the late Boomers were even less on the radar of anyone who might stabilize their lives, and so had no one they could turn to pro-actively.

  9. 'Retrospectives? Dazed and Confused, which late Boomers say is fairly accurate.'

    Back in the VHS rental era, my brother and me rented D & C. My dad, a '60 birth saw some of it and it did seem to resonate. When I first saw the movie years ago I didn't really think about how the teens of the late 70's-early 80's grew up in comparison to the 60's-early 70's loudmouths and the later 80's-90's whatever generation. That probably has been overlooked.

    Maybe because that mini cohort has that sorta, just there personality that doesn't spark much interest. And they themselves aren't the type to beat other people over the head with nostalgia. We've all heard endless early Boomer praise of the culture of the 60's-early 70's with very little defense of the later 70's disco/arena rock/high concept fantasy era that early Boomers resented for being escapist, soulless(i.e. unpretentious) culture that they were getting too old and self absorbed to appreciate. It's frustrating to hear older Boomers or younger useful idiots who takes cues from early Boomers claim that Star Wars and MTV ruined western art forever. Enough already.

    Phantasm is a real cool movie that Agnostic (or anyone else interested in the late 70's) should see if he hasn't already. It works well as both a surreal horror/adventure and also as an unpretentious period piece (it was low budget with amateur/inexperienced cast and crew). The director was in his early 20's I believe.

  10. By the way, in terms of Fantasy, Sci-Fi and Horror Star Wars, Halloween, Indiana Jones, Alien, Conan, Excalibur the list goes on mop the floor with the dull camp that was produced in the 50's-early 70's. Early Boomer nostalgia typically goes back to pop music where the gap in entertainment value (and yes Virginia, artistic value and emotional resonance) isn't as stunningly obvious.

    There's a reason that the films of the later 70's-mid 80's are still pillars of each studio's back catalog. How many films of the 50's/60's or the 90's/2000's will anyone care about 40 years from now?

  11. "a stereotypically idealistic, naive Boomer teacher basically throws a fit over how detached and unmotivated his Gen X students are.""

    That is because Gen Xers had much harder grading standards applied to them. For the most part, they were educated before grade inflation(more so early Xers). Grade inflation, BTW, is more associated with cocooning.

    It seems that the Boomers themselves were even less serious about education, as well as the Disco Generation. for the Boomers(early Boomers), college was for political activity and participating in the counterculture. For the Disco Generation(late Boomers), college was a party. In Fast Times at Ridgemont High, high school is a big party; its mentioned off-handedly that Phoebe Cates' character is dating a parapsychology professor, which says a lot about college at the time.

    The Xers seemed to take college more seriously. They were stereotyped in the 90s as pursuing liberal arts degrees, and taking their careers less seriously. This is partly why I believe Xers are idealistic - they were just as into ideas as the Boomers, just more cooperative and less aggressive in trying to "change the world".

  12. BTW, Strauss and Howe mentioned briefly in their book that military higher-ups considered Gen X to be the best soldiers.

    I don't agree wtih everything that STrauss and Howe say abuot Gen X - they classify them as a "Nomad", wild generation, which I believe applies more to the Discos - but that tidbit is worth noticing.

  13. "a stereotypically idealistic, naive Boomer teacher basically throws a fit over how detached and unmotivated his Gen X students are.""
    That is because Gen Xers had much harder grading standards applied to them. For the most part, they were educated before grade inflation(more so early Xers). Grade inflation, BTW, is more associated with cocooning. "

    Actually, the scene I was referring to wasn't about the students' studies/grades. It was about their apathy towards strident Boomers (represented by the frustrated teacher) lecturing Gen X youth especially after the Boomers made such a mess in their own youths.

    The movie is basically about how a group of Gen X teens react to one of their own murdering a girl. It paints a fairly convincing picture of the anxiety, boredom and jadedness that Gen X teens dealt with. Amid the broken homes and chemicals the teens seem to be lost, too uncertain and insecure to really do much at all. The director based some of the characters and situations on his own experiences, which the director of Dazed and Confused also did.

    Also, I still question labeling X-ers as idealistic in comparison to Boomers. Most X-ers are resigned to the world being a perpetually f-ed up mess. Boomers on the other hand keep on insisting that they've got all kinds of ways to fix stuff. Never mind the fact that the Boomers broke so much stuff to begin with.


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