Grunge: A Movement of Disaffection
Fans of the rock band Soundgarden mourn today as several major news outlets announce that Chris Cornell has died. Cornell was best known for being the lead singer of Soundgarden, a Seattle-based rock group. Along with bands like Nirvana, Pearl Jam, and Alice in Chains, Soundgarden defined the sound of grunge– a movement of articulating discontent through scream-singing, loud guitars and primal drums that inadvertently made wearing flannel shirts and heavy boots fashionable.
More Than Music
If there were a Mount Rushmore of grunge rock, it would contain the faces of Kurt Cobain, Chris Cornell, Eddie Vedder, and Layne Staley. Their music showed up when a generation of disaffected kids needed a voice. Those same kids were often lonely and living with a variety of family dysfunction. The music that took Generation X from middle school to college was grunge. All at once, it didn’t matter that Generation X didn’t have its own war, or even a name, really. There was this music, sometimes defined as punk rock played slowly, that captured a generation’s ethos. And now that most of Generation X is squarely in middle age, it is disquieting to find former heroes falling.
It was not as though Cornell or the others were superhuman. However, it is unsettling to see men that meant so much to at least one generation die decades younger than the national average lifespan of 70+ years. And so, music fans mourn today. The death of anyone forces mourners to realize that the deceased had an existence separate from anything others might have devised for them. And when the death is from an unnatural cause, and the deceased is a hero (even one representing an anti-hero genre) it can be difficult to bear.
Soundgarden and the Birth of Grunge
I first heard Cornell sing when I saw the Soundgarden video for “Rusty Cage” in 1992. The singer’s voice quickly overshadowed anything that was on the screen. How to describe a sound that was at once primal and emotional without being shrill or nasal? Cornell’s sometimes guttural, but clear delivery blew me away. The visceral lyrical content in the then-burgeoning era, was stellar in its intensity.
The first and last songs Cornell sung will no doubt be analyzed and parsed for the hope of making sense where there is none. Grunge rock and its founders should be remembered as the heroes they were for a generation of kids who had stopped believing there was such a thing.