In her book Grunge: Music and Memory (Ashgate 2011), Catherine Strong explores the grunge genre as it is remembered by its original fans, navigating the nexus of music, memory, and fandom. In this installment of the IASPM-US Interview Series, she chats with Johannes Springer about her findings and reflects on some of the ways in which the grunge ethos has persisted or adapted in its fans’ consciousness.
Johannes Springer: You start your book, Grunge: Music and Memory by describing your own fascination with grunge, writing that the sound quickly became less important than the feeling it was able to create. What drew you into grunge as a fan in the 90s? Could you elaborate on that feeling?
Catherine Strong: One of the interesting things in working on memory is the way it can make you really conscious – and suspicious – of your own relationship with the past. At the start of the book I give an account of what I remembered about grunge that I wrote very early on in the project. I’m really glad I did that, because later on down the track it would have been much harder for me to write something along those lines without second guessing and third guessing every aspect of it – did it really happen that way? Why am I telling the story like this? What have I forgotten?
I think, though, that at the end of the day I was a pretty typical grunge fan. I was a bit of a disaffected teenager who thought no one understood them – and then there were these bands (and Nirvana in particular) who did seem to get it and who could articulate things about my experiences that I couldn’t put into words myself. Most of my respondents told very similar stories. This is actually something that I don’t think my work entirely does justice to, because when you are looking back on a feeling like that and talking about it in retrospect, that immediacy is of course gone, and the story you tell is often about how that part of your life fits into an overall narrative that you’re creating about yourself. But I definitely remember having a sense of there being a community around grunge, both among the people I knew and even with people I didn’t know. I wouldn’t have called it an imagined community back then, but that’s probably the best way to describe it. It was undeniably important at that time.
How hard was it for you as a popular music scholar to avoid the pitfalls Lawrence Grossberg pointed out by saying most academics defend their own musical tastes and employ dated criteria to music?
I’d be lying if I said I thought I had avoided those things completely, and I actually think that the way the book does focus on Nirvana more than other groups is probably a result of the fact that teenage me liked them the best of the grunge bands. On the other hand, the book is by no means a glorification or valorisation of grunge, even though I had to spend some time defending it against the criticisms that had been made of it by other scholars! It was actually a very interesting intellectual process that I went through in terms of thinking about my own status as a fan of grunge. I think at the outset I imagined myself as being the person who would finally make the academic community realise what a wonderful thing grunge was, and how silly they had been to pay so little attention to it! I got over that pretty quickly, luckily, and Bourdieu’s work in particular on the social construction of taste made me reconsider a lot of my assumptions. I think fans have insights into the things that they love that are unique and incredibly useful, but I don’t think any of those things helped me to understand grunge better as an academic so I tried to leave them aside.
You speak of “generationalism“ in terms of the dismissal of grunge by academics in the past. Could you expand on that?
It was the best explanation I could come up with for why something that had been such a huge cultural moment had been given so little attention – and most of it negative – by academics. Popular music scholars are fantastic in that they are very often true fans of the things that they are studying. I think this gives the field a lot of energy and enthusiasm; but it means that sometimes we do what fans do and think that the bands we like are better than the bands other people like, and that the kids these days are listening to rubbish. You get quite a strong sense of that in some of the work on grunge, especially in the way it was constantly found to be ‘not as good as punk’ in one way or another in the writing that was done on it during the 1990s. The relationship between punk and grunge, insofar as grunge grew out of the US punk scene, made the comparison an obvious one, but sometimes people seem to have a very idealised version of punk in mind where it is all about rebellion and resistance and ‘sticking it to the man’, and if you compare anything to that ideal (and in most cases quite questionable) version of punk it will seem to be wanting. And this is also about looking back to a golden past, and, in some cases, to the music of the youth of some of the scholars in question. So again, in a lot of ways this comes back to memory again, and the way the past has such a hold over the way we view the present. Academics can’t be immune to that, all we can do is try to be aware of it.
It seems your book came out in a pretty timely manner in tackling questions of memory, nostalgia, and popular music. These are obviously issues that are very much on the rise, not least since Simon Reynold’s study on “Retromania“ or Andy Bennett’s insights about the aging popular music fan and the influences past identifications and listening habits continue to exert on the fan. How do you see your work in that emerging field of research?
It’s really good to see more work emerging in this area, because popular music is no longer associated with youth in the way it once was and the experiences of older fans are very important to understand. What I hope I’ve done with my work is provide a detailed case study of how the past of popular culture is constructed, including the places where space exists for competing versions of the past to develop and the ways in which some versions of the past can dominate or extinguish others. Some people might ask why that matters when it comes to telling the story of something like grunge, but these things tend to connect back to wider power relations in society in some form or another and as a sociologist I think it’s important to look for these connections. The stories that get told about popular music privilege certain types of people and the histories of the music reflect this. One thing that Reynolds writes about, that has been identified by others also, is the way the increasing shadow of the history of popular music is eclipsing the musical present, with the classic rock canon having so much authority, even among young people. Something like that does speak to one of the lines of inequality in our society, where young people lack power. Popular music gave young people more of a voice, and I think it is of some concern that this voice is getting harder to hear above the noise of the past. That’s certainly one area that I hope to look into further.
Although you don’t buy into the positions of top-down theories about collective memory, one of the major contributions of your work seems to be the finding that the “organisation of memory“ defuses the political challenges of grunge. Do you feel like that’s a more general pattern of how collective memory and media work?
While I don’t think memory works in a straight-forward top-down manner – ie, you can’t tell people what to remember or how to remember it and expect it to stick – more powerful groups are still going to have a better shot at controlling it than the less powerful. Of course even using a word like ‘controlling’ in regards to memory is questionable because remembering is such a dynamic process, one that is never finished. You only have to look at work that has been done reintegrating women into history, or restoring that which wasn’t allowed to be remembered in ex-Soviet countries, to see how our understanding of the past can change. But given the role that the media plays in both constructing our initial understanding of events and our recollection (or not) of past events through commemoration and the like, it’s apparent that they play a big part.
When reading your analysis of the media construction of the grunge genre, I found it really stunning what you unearthed about the British reception and their contrasting of “working class“ grunge with “middle class, conservative“ shoe-gazing of the time. Did grunge in your eyes have a class politics? Did your respondents feel that class mattered in grunge?
Although it generally wasn’t expressed in terms of “class” as such, questions about who had what and how they got it underpinned a lot of what my respondents had to say. The story of grunge is built on one of the most enduring narratives in rock and roll, which is about underprivileged people with talent using music to break out of their bleak existence. So the whole of Seattle – in the formative years of grunge – has been framed as isolated, blue-collar and a bit dead-end. All of this then feeds into what is said about the “authenticity” of the scene in that people were drawing on these desolate surroundings for inspiration, but also only writing for themselves and each other because this isolation meant commercial success seemed impossible. You see this especially in the story of Cobain, where tales of him working as a janitor, or being homeless, are central to how he’s been constructed as a genuine voice for other people experiencing hardship. My respondents often referred to these stories and explained how they felt they could relate to him more because the things that he had been through corresponded in some way with their experiences. And underwriting the whole grunge ethos (such as it was) was a suspicion of corporate greed and of what it takes to achieve financial success, which is also about class. This shows itself in the style of the movement also, the dressed-down second-hand look.
Of course, all of this got particularly interesting when grunge bands started to become hugely commercially successful, and when you had the designer label versions of grunge fashion appearing on catwalks with over-the-top price tags. Sometimes the success of grunge is also characterised as its failure because of this tension between the working class authenticity of its origins and where it ended up. That’s quite a common story in popular music, but in the case of grunge the anti-corporate element opened up some interesting spaces for this tension to be made quite explicit, and for journalists, musicians, and fans to really directly address what this idea of “selling out” really means.
On that note: It’s interesting that your respondents shy away from making Cobain into a mythical figure, a romantic genius artist. Instead they see him as a normal guy from an egalitarian scene.
I think this is an important belief for people to be able to hold on to, because their love of Cobain’s work stems for many of them from a sense of identification with him. It’s very difficult to identify with a mythical figure or a genius – as I’ve noted above, it was Cobain’s ordinariness that attracted a lot of his fans to him. One thing that I’d be really interested to look into, however, is how people who have discovered Nirvana over the last decade or so perceive Cobain. The people I spoke to almost without exception were fans while he was still alive – I wonder if people coming to the band since his death, when the mythical figure is the one you’re more likely to encounter rather than the “normal guy,” do take this on board more?
You make a fascinating argument about gender and grunge. Grunge can be seen as one of the most gender-sensitive rock movements. Gender played a big part in the politics of grunge. And yet, something very familiar happens: historical accounts, and those of popular culture make no exception here, tend to write out women and their stakes and achievements. But the relationship between media and collective memory is rather intricate. How is the interplay between them working here?
This is, of course, a very difficult relationship to pull apart and understand. To a certain extent, the media act as the (one of the) keepers of our cultural memory, and as memory prompters – when the media revisit something, we also remember it, and when we are prompted to remember certain things they are more likely to retain a prominent place in our minds. When the media does revisit grunge, but doesn’t mention the female grunge artists –as is the case – they just fade away a little. One thing I found really interesting was the way my respondents for the main part didn’t mention female grunge artists, but when I mentioned them they did actually know who they were, they just hadn’t thought to talk about them. And of course, there was one respondent who really only spoke about female artists, and for whom their memory was very much alive, which is a nice reminder of the many different places memory can reside. Just because the mainstream media forget something it is not a death sentence for the legacy of that thing, but it does make it harder to keep it in mind than, say, the work of Cobain when he’s still on the front cover of Rolling Stone every second month!
Riot Grrrls, of all movements, inadvertently played a part or fulfilled a function in this process of compartmentalizing women’s music and forgetting their share in more mainstream rock music like grunge. What was the use of the Riot Grrrls label for the male mainstream discourse?
I think it just served as a convenient place to put any women musicians who had any sort of strength or attitude about them, and particularly the women who were associated with grunge but who weren’t riot grrrls. There’s always been a tendency for all female musicians to get lumped together anyway, regardless of whether or not their music has any similarity, so the way the media has used the Riot Grrrl label isn’t that unusual. But the other effect that having this label available had was to make the grunge scene seem more masculine in retrospect, so some of the things that made it different from other rock scenes could be written out. What this does is just makes it easier for journalists to fit grunge into existing narratives around rock.
At the beginning of your project stood your attempt to defend grunge against many scholarly takes, which tend to dismiss grunge as the apolitical “poor cousin“ of punk. In your conclusion, however, while neither vindicating nor disproving those scholars, a more general and one could say pessimistic perspective is suggested. You put a huge question mark behind some of the assumptions popular music studies hold high about fans’ agency, subversion through pop music and political implications in general. Was that a disappointment for yourself having started out with the initial goal of proving (political) “benefits of pop music“?
It was actually a bit of a disappointment at first, but I’ve since come to think of it more as a possibly healthy corrective to the tendency in some scholarship on popular culture to see all participation in popular culture as having endless potential for positive outcomes. Nothing in social life works like that; there are always negative aspects. I think studies on popular culture had to emphasise the positive for a long time to get past the initial highbrow dismissal of everything associated with it. That was really needed to create space for pop culture to be taken seriously as an object of study. But I think that has been mostly achieved, and there might now be more scope for us to think about the areas of popular music that aren’t quite so glowing. I’m certainly not the only one thinking along these lines either – David Hesmondhalgh has done some work on the negative effects popular music can have, and there was a fantastic book edited by Bruce Johnson and Martin Cloonan a few years back on the association between violence and music as well. It seems like a really good direction for the field to go in.
“Grunge was a colonizer as well as colonized“. That’s a very nice way of overcoming the negative assessments grunge gets from academics. Do you feel like that your perspective is owed to choosing “normal“ mainstream audience members as interviewees instead of people from the margins, subculture types?
Yes, definitely. I suspect that if I had spoken to people who were involved in the Seattle scene they would have very much reproduced the idea of grunge being destroyed by its success – in fact, you can see this coming through quite strongly in a number of oral histories of grunge that have been released in the last few years. And even though my respondents were on the whole not put off by the success of grunge, they still found ways to maintain levels of distinction that separated them from other fans. For example, they considered themselves “better” fans than people who had discovered grunge later than them, or, in some cases, than people who had moved on from grunge faster than they had. So in a way I worked from the perspective that everybody constructs themselves as the best type of fan, and rather than letting this idea that there is a hierarchy of appreciation affect my analysis, I put it to one side and concentrated on the fact that none of my respondents would have even heard of grunge if it hadn’t become this globalised, mass-media event. I think conceptualizing grunge as part of the mainstream gave me a certain freedom in how I thought about it that wouldn’t have been there if I had been too wedded to the idea of it being somehow subcultural, subversive, whatever. (Which isn’t to say that there wasn’t a period early on in my work when I was trying to do just that!)
You made your respondents listen to “Smells like Teen Spirit“ and have them speak about their feelings. Do you listen to grunge much these days?
Sometimes, but I think it is often the case that when we study something for a long time it is difficult to retain the unadulterated enjoyment in it that you once might have had. When I hear “Smells Like Teen Spirit” now it’s overlaid with so many different meanings that it just makes me think, rather than listen, if you get my drift.
What will be remembered of grunge, when the great 90s nostalgia wave, that you tentatively predict, rolls in over the next few years? The time when the pursuit of success and material wealth were derided seems so far away after 20 years of accelerated neoliberalism. What do you reckon will be the themes of desire that’ll fuel that nostalgia, especially for those who haven’t experienced it?
This is incredibly speculative, but maybe what people will feel nostalgic for is big moments in music, moments where, as I said earlier, you felt as though everyone was listening to the same thing as you at the same time and it created a connection between you and unknown others. I’m sure people will always get that from music to some extent, but I’ve heard grunge being referred to as the last really huge rock and roll trend. Now that the internet has changed the way we find music and audiences have fragmented, it seems less likely that so many people will ever coalesce around one sound again in the way that happened with grunge. Maybe that’s one reason grunge still gets spoken about so much, and has really moved into the rock canon.
Dr Catherine Strong is a lecturer in sociology in the School of Political and Social Inquiry at Monash University, Melbourne. Aside from her book Grunge: Music and Memory (Ashgate) she has published on gender and music, the rock canon and the Twilight series.
Johannes Springer teaches Cultural Studies at the University of Bremen and the University of Applied Sciences Osnabrück. His latest book is the co-edited oral history collection Lass uns von der Hamburger Schule reden: Eine Kulturgeschichte aus der Sicht beteiligter Frauen (Ventil 2011).