Nirvana should be credited with reviving hard rock radio.
Starting in the early 1980s along with the middle aging of the baby boom generation rock and roll radio stations softened their playlists. This softening continued throughout the 1980s along with baby boomers hitting their late 30s and early 40s. Nirvana's Nevermind was such a hit and had such heavy airplay that it drove most of the soft rock to oldies staions and/or adult contemporary stations.
A fundamental question: Was grunge music a reaction/rebellion to baby boom oriented music?
Can anyone shed some light on what age demographics are targed by different marketers and how this affected the music played?
If marketers want to hit a demographic group, they advertise where that group is. If enough demand occurs for advertisement space, media formats/styles/content will change to provide the format desired by the marketers.
I don't know if this belongs on this page in particular, but maybe if someone knows a better place, it
could be moved around:
I took a class at University of Southern California on "The History of Rock and Roll", which began with
the Jazz players in the 20's and proceded up through modern day (well, 1994, when I was taking the class).
One of the things that becomes plainly obvious in looking at its history in such detail is that it has
always (and always will) follow a fairly predictable cycle, and this bears directly on the question above.
Here is the pattern it seems to always follow:
Phase 0: The Old Music
There exists some prevalent form of music, which is widely listened to but in general considered to
have limited artistic merit. At the various points in history where this phase has been active, a
variety of names have been given to it, such as "Commercial", "Pop", "Mainstream", or etc. Often there
is a high degree of homogeniety and polish present, and/or a strong, almost formulaic adherance to the
"rules" of the musical style. It also frequently tends to be tightly controlled (and often generated) by
the music industry. There is often a feeling that the whole industry is "locked up", and that nothing
which does not "fit the mold" will be accepted. And in fact, often there is strong resistance to
anything "unproven", "objectionable", or "corruptive". The effect on the music is that it takes on an
image of being "bland", "watered down", "sappy", or "monotonous".
Phase 1: New Music Sprouts in the Underground
Meanwhile, there has been a strong undercurrent of some new form of music, distinctly different from
the Commercial/Pop/Mainstream music. In many cases it is shunned by the industry, because it is considered
"unmarketable", "targeting the wrong demographics", "unlistenable", and so forth. Sometimes it is simply
too revolutionary and causes fright or revulsion in some segment of society. Perhaps this is intentional.
In any case, this "New Music" gathers strength in private dance halls, college FM radio,
coffee houses, or other "underground" locations. In many cases the style is localized to a particular
geographical area, such as Mersey/Liverpoole, the CBGB, or Seattle. The music is often "rough but
infectious", "artistic", or "meaningful". There is rarely expectation of commercial success, and
in some situations there is an active desire _not_ to become commercialized.
Phase 2: Emergence
Inevitably, the music is "discovered". A small number of bands will be identified by someone with some
association with the music industry (e.g., a talent scout or record producer) and groomed for commercial
airplay. Since this first scount has "the pick of the litter", the first band from this group tends to
be above average, and usually also experienced crowd-pleasing musicians who merely need a little help
in the studio for producing some records. The new music strikes a chord among listeners, who are
starved for something new, different, revolutionary, and exciting. The "objectionable" nature of the
music is often its biggest draw to the new audience, who find it thrilling to be part of something
counter to prevalent culture. The important part is that it is *different*, in a revolutionary sense
rather than an evolutionary sense: For example, if the Old Music was dark and dreary, the New Music
may be uplifting and danceable, whereas if the Old Music was filled with lighthearted love and joy, the
New Music could be angry and anti-social. The music industry doesn't actually care much about the
content of the music (in spite of whatever position it may take publically); it's duty is to make money,
and if the public wishes for something objectionable, and if there is enough money, the industry will
follow like an alcoholic to his bottle.
Phase 3: The Music Gold Rush
The success of the "pioneer" draws other talent scouts like bees on the first day of spring, who descend
on whatever locale the movement calls home and snap up every viable band (and some that are not so
viable). Excitement, panic, and a rush to "cash in" opens the floodgates for new bands. Producers fear
missing the next wave of music and be left standing with the suddenly uncool Old Music bands, and so
will be willing to take risks in signing bands very different from the "pioneer". This has the effect
of injecting a huge amount of diversity into the mainstream music scene, yet it can leave a feeling
among the original fans that their bands have "sold out". In many cases, that is exactly the case.
One downside to the influx of money is that exploration of vices becomes much easier, which (according
to VH-1, anyway) often results in tragedy.
Phase 4: Copycats
The original community of bands surrounding the "pioneer" band is, of course, limited. Eventually the
talent scouts run out of bands to hire, and are forced to look in other geographical areas. Sometimes
they are deliberately looking for "the next Elvis" or "the next Beatles" or "the next Nirvana". Sometimes
the unsigned bands out there feel that in order for them to be signed, they must conform to the "New
Music", and thus devote themselves to mastering the "rules" of this genre. In either case, what occurs
is a growth of bands that are strikingly similar to the originals. Sometimes this results in good, with
bands who add the new style to other well developed styles, and thus produce "fusion" blends of several
musical styles. In other cases, the bands strictly seek to replicate the "pioneer" band's success as
accurately as possible.
Phase 5: Manufacturing
Over time, the supply of copycat bands becomes overwhelming. The music industry developing a strong
confidence in its understanding of "the formula", begins to adopt a "mass production" mentality to the
process, focusing as much on the image, business, and marketing aspects of the music as on the music
itself. It is in this phase that the music industry is able to best apply its muscle to the load, and
when the industry feels itself to be in complete control. Yet as its _understanding_ of the New
Music increases, and as its formulas become rules (or even crutches), its _openmindedness_ decreases.
Why should it bother with unusual bands, when it can pick from thousands of mainstream bands, honed via
competition to the point where the talent scouts can be very selective.
And Now Go To Phase 0. ;-)
Reggae, Rap, Punk, Folk, Protest, Grunge... the list goes on and on. All have followed this
"Rags to Riches to Decline" cycle. Begun as a reaction against the prevalent form of music, within
a short while (a few years, rarely more than a decade), the rebel becomes the master. Ironically,
this success brings with it a sense of loss that is often hard for idealistic artists to accept,
who feel that their beautiful wild animal has been harnessed to an ugly machine. Yet much as we
might wish otherwise, there will always be people into the music for the money (or the sex, drugs,
The cycle is not regular; in some cases it has stuck in phase 0 for many years before getting kicked
forward. At other times, the new music has overtaken the old music in very short order. Nor is there
necessarily only *one* cycle at a time; indeed it is not atypical for several styles of music to be
developing on their own cycles at the same time, often each in different phases. Shifts can go quite
quickly, over a period of weeks or months. It is very important to understand that in each shift, the
initial belief is that the culture has returned to "real", "true" music, yet inevitably it too will
succumb, and be replaced once again.
As an aside, it's worth noting that since only the best music from a given cycle remains in circulation,
there is a nostalgic tendancy to think that music "in the old days" was better than what is around today.
Yet really, there was likely to be just as much crap back then - it just wasn't retained. It would be
most interesting to note if the retained songs were mostly ones that came at the start of a cycle, or if
the selection was semi-random.
I believe that this cyclical nature of music will always hold true, and in fact that it is a healthy
and natural sociological process. It appears to continue irregardless of technological shifts,
political turmoil, war, and economics; indeed, such instabilities appear to amplify or accelerate the
cycle in many cases. Kids seem to not wish to listen to whatever music they grew up with. The cycle is
also good, because without it there would be little chance of new music coming to our awareness. But I
hope we do not linger too long in the 4/5/0 phases. ;-)
ANYWAY... to answer the original question, Grunge was indeed a reaction to the existing music of the time.
(Warning, the following is assertions based largely on opinion and my dated rememberance of the period.)
However, not Baby Boomer music, but rather the "conscience" music typified by bands such as REM, U2, the
Cranberries, etc. which in turn had emerged in 1987 as a reaction to the Glam Metal "hair bands" that had
become prevalent during the 80's. The Old Music in this case had emerged from college-based underground
radio and tended to have a high "cerebral" nature, typified by pointing out tragic humanitarian issues,
social problems, and so forth. The "rules" of this music required musical complexity, use of unique
instrumentation, and clearly expressed (though sometimes highly symbolic) lyrics to drive home the
musician's points. By the early nineties, this style had evidently grown tiresome and we were ready for
something new. Grunge was the perfect counterpoint: It discarded social conscience themes, focusing
instead on the dire situation (emotionally, spiritually, and economically) of the everyman. Whereas the
previous generation of music had prompted its listeners to take a stand and save the world, this one
glorified apathy and standing for nothing. The Activist was replaced by the Slacker. The freedom fighter
was replaced by Beavis and Butthead. Instead of attacking and taking over the commercial music industry,
the grunge movement revelled in its unpolished, "uncommercial" look. Rather than soft rock with clear
meaningful lyrics, grunge adopted a much harder edge, de-emphasizing lyrical clearness.
Well, that's my biased thinking on this subject. It is of course silly and dangerous to make assertions
and blanket statements on a style of music, since there are always counter-examples to be found by people
more familiar with it.
Regarding age demographics: It is always the youths who are at the leading edge of musical development.
Was it in "Almost Famous" that it was said that the music you listen to between 15-25 stays with you for
life? In any case, IMHO, the only time that the Baby Boomer drove the musical culture was from The Beatles
to the Bee Gees. The backlash against disco was not driven by the Baby Boomers. Again, IMHO. YMMV.
Thats a good article, that certainly deserves to go somewhere...
The basic thesis is strong.
I can't agree with some details, as they apply specifically to grunge, and heres why:
Taking Nirvana as epitomising grunge (dodgy, but bear with me) the idea that its a reaction to college radio is flawed. They're just insufficiently different. Grunge was, if anything the first successful synthesis of college radio and heavy metal, and got popular by appealing to both audiences. Firstly, the lyrics are stylistically similar (abstract, unclear, mixed low) and the lyrical concerns aren't unrelated. There are cerebral, humanitarian issues in Nirvana songs, they're just hard to spot.
Occasionally, even the music was kinda similar (go play "All Apologies" and "Seven Chinese Brothers" back to back, cf the cellos on Nirvana Unplugged). The second tier of grunge bands weren't like this, but were just old metal copycats cashing in.
On top of that, college radio never really went away.
I'd say a reaction to the self importance and bombast of stadium rockers like U2, Bon Jovi, the vapidity of Guns n Roses and the folkie niceness of Tracy Chapman, Suzanne Vega and the second coming of the singer-songwriter movement (DIE Julia Fordham, DIE!). It didn't help that mainstream pop was undergoing one of its period lulls (see 1961, now).
Yes, I admit my application to Nirvana was weak. I did not really follow grunge too closely, and am not as familiar with the various bands as other readers must be, so beg assistance in figuring out how the hypothesis actually applies, or if it is just inapplicable here. I used Nirvana as the example mostly because I needed to tie my article into the topic. ;-) Like I said, I don't know how well the hypothesis fits here on this page.
However, I do think that there is truth to my assertion that grunge is kind of a reaction to humanitarian oriented aspects of the previous music. Not to say that Grunge was *against* humanitarian issues, just that it was on a different level. I don't see Marylin Manson at a Farm Aid convention, nor mosh pits at a Tori Amos concert. ;-)
It is true that college radio never went away. Yet similarly, big band crooners did not disappear when Elvis showed up; disco dance halls did not close down just because Bruce Springsteen became popular; neither did the recent swing craze completely eliminate grunge fandom. These music style movements are not sequential; they overlap and make periodic re-emergences, judging from history. Can we make generalities of college music, or does this invite the same danger of equating "urban music" to rap and "popular music" to dance?
Anyway, I appreciate the feedback. I can see I'll need to do more research into grunge if I want to use it as an example. Btw, where do you think we are, musically, right now? Is there any indications where we might be going next? (I have wondered if the increase in protesting might spur on the mainstreaming of anti-authority / protest bands, or else if electronic music might make a resurgence? Being 30, I'm sure my musical preferences are fairly irrelevant, so I'd hesistate to make any predictions, myself.)
Why not both? What I'm seeing in hip-hop is increasing political awareness--don't get me wrong, it's always been politically aware of at least some issues, and I think it would be hard not to be, as a black man in the United States, but I'm seeing increasing references to capitalism, class warfare, the WTO, the IMF, the World Bank, other forms of systematic exploitation ;-) ... not just "The Man" anymore. But the two option aren't mutually exclusive. And has electronic music already been big and gone away? I've just discovered it. Between Moby, Bjork, The Jungle Brothers, AK1200, The Orb, and the Chemical Brothers, I think it's the find of the century. --KQ
A local (Toronto) DJ and alternative music historian, Alan Cross, advanced the thesis that Nirvana broke big because the hard rock stations had ridden their form of music into the groun by about 1990. After the ten-millionth playing of "Stairway to Heaven", their audiences were fading away, and they had relied so much on the old standbys that the new bands in the genre (Poison and Ratt, for example) were extremely lightweight -- many of them were turning to power ballads anyway (remember them? Extreme's "More than Words", forex? Huge fad in 1988-90, everyone was sick of them by 1991). The rock stations started casting around for something new just as a synthesis between college rock and heavy metal were developing and BAM! Nevermind sells eleventy-three million copies. This opened the door for everyone else.
I buy this theory myself.... --PaulDrye