Pearl Jam performing in 2009FLICKR/DAVID SILVERMAN

Content Note: This article contains discussion of mental health issues, substance abuse, and suicide.

In 1991, Nirvana’s breakthrough album Nevermind hit the airwaves, exploding onto the mainstream music scene and changing both rock and pop forever. Felt all the way across the Atlantic, the shockwaves of this ‘new Seattle sound’, as it was called, were unprecedented: the heavy distortion and rich, growling vocals hid lyrics that were dark, introspective, free from the narcissism of the hair metal and bubble gum pop that had previously ruled the charts. A new day was dawning, and its name was grunge – not the delicate black-and-white photos of Doc Martens and Lana del Rey lyrics found in a 2014 Tumblr blog, but loud, ugly music, dripping with grime and filth and guitar fuzz. It was this fearlessness that propelled grunge into the starlight, bringing honest conversations about anxiety, depression, and self-destructiveness into the mainstream, and that gave it a resonance that still holds today, even where we least expect it.

In Pearl Jam’s 1991 hit “Alive”, Eddie Vedder’s heady baritone laments: ‘“Is something wrong?”, she said. Of course there is. / “You’re still alive,” she said. Oh, and do I deserve to be?’ The song was written as a reaction to his own personal demons: at the age of thirteen, he had discovered that the man he believed to be his father was in fact his stepfather, and his real dad a small-time musician who, by that time, had sadly passed away from multiple sclerosis. The rest of the song grapples with the absurdism of the narrator’s situation, oscillating between shock and terror, apathy and rage, all culminating in the taunting refrain of the chorus: “I’m still alive.” The seemingly optimistic moniker of the song captures a self-aware horror that can barely be contained – a horror that grunge is never far removed from.

“The result was a DIY culture that celebrated the losers of society, those that rejected corporate America and the nuclear promises that came with it”

Similarly, in “Them Bones” Alice in Chains vocalist Layne Staley belts out: ‘I believe them bones are me / Some say we’re born into the grave / I feel so alone / Gonna end up a big ol’ pile of them bones.’ This sense of existential dread did not come out of nowhere. In the economic hangover of the early 90s, growing unemployment and the looming dread of a mind-numbing adulthood had struck young people into a state of anxious inertia. As the music critic Simon Reynolds stated in his 1992 article ‘Grunge: A Success Story’, “There’s a feeling of burnout in the culture at large. Kids are depressed about the future.” The result was a DIY culture that celebrated the losers of society, those that rejected corporate America and the nuclear promises that came with it, and just wanted to make music – not for grandiose dreams of fame and fortune, but simply for the hell of it. It’s no surprise, then, that these self-damning lyrics had such a monumental impact on the music that followed it, speaking to an entire generation that didn’t want to fit the moulds that had been so carefully carved out for them.

Soundgarden was led by frontman Chris CornellFLICKR/ANDREAS ELDH

For a genre with such an intense effect on the music that followed it, its relatively brief time in the starlight may seem perplexing. Yet the highly-publicised suicide of Kurt Cobain – often held today in an esteem comparable to sainthood – along with the rising waves of Britpop and pop-punk, provoked a steep popular decline that was never fully recovered from. In 2002, Layne Staley passed away from a drug overdose; in 2017, Soundgarden singer Chris Cornell, also known for his spine-chilling James Bond theme “You Know My Name”, took his life. The battles with mental health that stood out as delineators of the grunge scene weren’t faked or hyped up for commercial success – they were real, often tragically so, and gave a bitter authenticity to a genre that, as future imitators would often realise, could not simply be re-packaged and sold for a quick buck. But it’s this authenticity that is still shaping the music industry, even 30 years after grunge supposedly ‘died’. From the more recent flagbearers of modern rock (think Yungblud, Bring Me The Horizon…) to rappers like Jay-Z and Kid Cudi, even to pop megastars such as Halsey and Billie Eilish, it is astronomically clear that the grunge’s legacy still permeates the airwaves, bringing its nihilistic self-awareness and deep introspection to even the upper echelons of the charts.


Mountain View

The chilling film music of Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross

Grunge revolutionised the way that the mainstream saw mental health, even if it took decades for such conversations to truly lose their stigma. It didn’t fit into a box or a nicely packaged brand deal: instead, it gleefully tore them all apart, screaming from the top of its lungs as it did so. With a rapidly changing music industry, and a younger generation faced with a major period of social and economic upheaval, it makes sense that the essence of that ill-fated music scene, bringing problems of the everyday to the spotlight and highlighting the deep, raging anxieties of the youth to a world that didn’t quite seem to care, is still as influential as ever.