Grunge music was popular in Seattle, Washington, in the 1980s, long before it reached mainstream popularity. Bands like Alice in Chains and Pearl Jam became popular playing locally and started to have some mainstream success by 1990.
Nirvana's second album in 1990 made the band, and grunge music in general, famous. Its success took an underground subculture music scene into the mainstream.
Definition: What Is Grunge Music?
A comprehensive grunge music definition is hard to narrow down to just a few words because it's such a broad genre that the bands can have completely different sounds.
But at its core, what is grunge music? Grunge is a mixture of punk rock that became popular in the 70s and 80s and heavy metal that peaked in popularity during the same years. Punk and metal blended into an alternative sound.
Grunge Music Characteristics
Grunge music features intense vocals, often angry like punk rock and sometimes using harsh vocals like in metal, with lyrics covering dark and depressing topics.
Distinctive, repetitive guitar riffs are common in grunge music, with simple drum lines. You won't find anything like wailing rock guitar solos in grunge music. Bands relied on heavy guitar distortion to create a noisy “grunge” sound.
The themes often speak to things young people face, like hopelessness at the state of the world, uncertainty about the future, drug addiction, betrayal, impermanence, and angst. Many of the lyrics seem abstract and cryptic, adding to the mystique of the songs.
Songs about fear, hopelessness, and angst can either be utterly despairing or with an “us against the world” attitude. A typical vibe in grunge music is that everything is awful, but at least we know it and are in this together.
Grunge musicians embraced the lower-middle-class aesthetic of ripped jeans, t-shirts, and a casual unkemptness that many of its singers became known for, like Kurt Cobain.
7 Examples of Grunge Music
Each grunge band, and often each song, has a distinctive sound that could put it in other musical genres, from alternative rock to heavy metal. Opaque lyrics and the general mood help distinguish the music as grunge.
Smells Like Teen Spirit
This grunge song by Nirvana might be the one most people think of when they ask, “What is grunge music?” even though Alice in Chains and Soundgarden had albums that took off before the song was released.
Lead singer Kurt Cobain growls through a song inspired by his ex-girlfriend's statement that he smelled like teen spirit, not knowing she meant the deodorant brand. This song put Nirvana, already popular in the Seattle music scene, on the mainstream map.
Cobain's lyrics present a hollow portrait of life through a teenager's eyes, with the popularity of mindless, violent entertainment and apathy. Much of the lyrics seem random with no clear meaning, which became part of the song's appeal.
He intended the song as a message to kids to wake up and pay attention to what was going on around them.
A bright and cheerful guitar line starts this song by the Smashing Pumpkins.
The chorus is light and airy, but the rest of the song is about regret and the dark parts of life so often covered in grunge music, like despair and suicidal thoughts.
Lead singer Billy Corgan uses a sweeter, lighter vocal during the chorus and drops to a harsher growl during the rest to match the tone of the darker lyrics.
“Alive” is one of Pearl Jam's most popular songs. In the song, a boy learns that his father is dead, and the man he thought was his father is his step-father. The lyrics imply that the mother seduces the son, and he suffers enough guilt to wonder if he deserves to be alive.
It's a decidedly depressing song written about lead singer Eddie Vedder's real-life discovery about his father, though the rest of the song is fiction.
Its themes of deception, abuse, and regret resonated with many, making it a hit. “Alive” became an anthem about staying alive and hanging in there when the going gets tough.
The song is the first of a trilogy. In the second song, the character has a hidden gun and murderous urges, and the third song clarifies that he did commit murder and lives with regret.
Lead singer Scott Weiland wrote this song for the Stone Temple Pilots about his struggles with heroin addiction. The lyrics talk about how it feels to get stuck in the same lousy situation repeatedly.
The song doesn't mention heroin or drugs but talks about looking for things you can't find and trying to grasp things you can't reach.
Getting stuck in the same mess no matter how hard you try is the type of despair popular in grunge music, as is the sense that no matter what you do, things won't change.
Railing against that hopelessness is a common theme in the genre and helped make this song one of their biggest hits.
The heavy-metal influences in grunge come through in this Soundgarden hit with loud and continuous guitar riffs lead singer Chris Cornell wails above.
Like most grunge music, the song doesn't have a story narrative. It's about not seeing everything in black and white but recognizing there are shades between them.
The song features a grinding beat behind words that sound hopeless, angry, confused, and moody.
Man in the Box
This song by Alice in Chains was one of the first grunge hits of the 1990s.
In the 1980s, the Parents Music Resource Center (PMRC) pushed for music censorship by labeling it with parental advisory stickers and making lists of objectionable songs. “Man in the Box” wasn't the only song protesting this kind of censorship, but it became one of the most popular.
The song uses animal suffering in the meat industry as a metaphor for censorship and musicians figuratively trapped in a box by it.
As with many songs, not only those that fit the grunge music definition, we only know the precise meanings because the artists explained them later.
Come as You Are
This song became the second single released from Nirvana's album “Nevermind” and followed their wildly successful “Smells Like Teen Spirit.”
Like all the songs from that album, Kurt Cobain wrote the lyrics and sang them with his typical growly delivery. The song is about society's expectations on you to appear and even exist in a certain way while encouraging listeners to be themselves in the face of that.
The theme is the toll it takes on people to constantly be pressured by society to be something they're not. The meaning behind the song and distinctive guitar riff made it one of Nirvana's most popular songs.
5 Top Grunge Musicians
Most of the famous grunge musicians from the 1990s had multiple hits over the decade.
Other bands like Pearl Jam and Alice in Chains had albums that did well before Nirvana's second album, Nevermind hit the charts. But it was this album that propelled grunge into the mainstream.
“Smells Like Teen Spirit,” the first single from the album, became grunge music's anthem and influenced everything that came after. It led Nirvana to become one of the best-selling bands of all time and earned them induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2014.
Their third album sold nearly as well as their second, but Kurt Cobain struggled with heroin addiction and ended up in the hospital in March 1994 while on a European tour.
He committed suicide a month later, on April 8th. Drummer Dave Grohl later formed the band Foo Fighters.
Pearl Jam became popular in the Seattle music scene after forming in 1990. Their first album, Ten, hit #2 on the Billboard chart.
They set the record in 1993 for the album that sold the most copies in its first week with their second album, “Vs.” The band earned an induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2017.
They remain one of the top-selling bands of all time and still release music today.
Smashing Pumpkins, led by guitarist and vocalist Billy Corgan, broke into the mainstream in 1993 with their second album, Siamese Dream. Corgan formed the band in 1988 in Chicago.
They became one of the best-selling bands of the 1990s but broke up by 2000 because of addiction issues and disagreements.
The band reformed in part in 2006, with original members leaving and rejoining over the years. They continue to release music today, with a tour planned for 2022.
Seattle-based Soundgarden, formed in 1984, became one of the first grunge bands to sign a recording contract with a major label.
The band's popularity grew until their fourth album, Superunknown, debuted at #1 on the Billboard album chart.
They broke up in 1997 and reunited in 2010 to release an album. Lead singer Chris Cornell died in 2017 while they were on tour, and the remaining members opted to end the band.
Alice in Chains
Alice in Chains achieved fame in the early 1990s as grunge music hit its peak in popularity. They formed in 1987 and had success with their first album, Facelift, in 1990, though it sold slowly at first.
The single “Man in the Box” and its regular play on MTV led it to hit the charts and gave the band mainstream success.
They released two more albums and an EP before they went dormant without officially breaking up. Surviving members reformed in 2006, resulting in three more albums and a 2022 American tour.
The History of Grunge Music
Grunge music has its roots in Seattle and other towns in the Pacific Northwest in the mid-1980s. So many of the earliest bands came from and played in the Seattle area that the music became known as the “Seattle sound.”
The mixture of punk rock, heavy metal, and anguished lyrics gave grunge a distinctive sound and atmosphere.
Though the music pulled in elements of punk and metal, the clothing was different. Popular bands like Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, Screaming Trees, and others that played the Seattle scene commonly wore torn jeans, t-shirts, flannel shirts, and combat boots.
The look defined the grunge subculture much as dyed, spiked hair once did for the punk scene.
Other bands started to see mainstream success, but Nirvana's second album in 1990 catapulted grunge into the mainstream consciousness. Unfortunately, Cobain’s death in 1994 marked a downturn for the genre.
Grunge's popularity faded by the end of the 90s, though some bands like Alice in Chains and Pearl Jam still make music today with a slightly more alternative rock bent.
What Is Grunge Music? Final Thoughts
Grunge captured the rebellion of punk rock and the driving guitars of heavy metal with lyrics steeped in restlessness, uncertainty, and sometimes hopelessness.
The heavy-metal sound of Alice in Chains and the more plaintive sound of Nirvana are only two types of grunge music you can enjoy.
Though the genre hasn't regained its one-time popularity, fans still love the wide range of sounds and styles the top grunge bands produced in the 1990s.