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What is the Grunge Music Subculture Movement History?

Amanda Carpenter, Karin Gonzalez
  • Author
    Amanda Carpenter

    Amanda Carpenter has taught multi-level subjects for over 18 years. She has a Masters in Curriculum and Instruction from Western Governors University. Amanda holds a K-6th teaching license from the state of Alabama as well as certification for TESOL and TEFL.

  • Instructor
    Karin Gonzalez

    Karin has taught middle and high school Health and has a master's degree in social work.

What is grunge music? Learn about the grunge movement, grunge culture, and grunge people. Read about the history of grunge music and where and when it developed. Updated: 08/23/2021

Table of Contents


What Is Grunge?

The grunge subculture was an American movement concerned with social justice that began in the late '80s and became hugely popular in the early '90s. The grunge subculture developed in Seattle, Washington, and is recognized by music lyrics that speak of problems in society and relationships. The following bands were known for birthing the grunge subculture:

  • Alice in Chains
  • Nirvana
  • Soundgarden
  • Pearl Jam

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  • 0:04 What Is Grunge?
  • 1:39 Origins of Grunge Subcultre
  • 2:16 Music of Grunge Subculture
  • 3:24 Lesson Summary
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What Is Grunge Music?

Grunge music is a mix of punk and heavy metal. It was a distinctive approach to music that is closely tied into the grunge culture and movement. Grunge music is distinct from other types of music in the following ways:

  • Song lyrics were depressed, rebellious, and self-loathing
  • Guitars are played in a lower key, with a dirty sound that includes distortion and reverberation
  • Four and six-piece drum kits were used, but the beat was heavy and loud
  • Vocals were powerful, screeching and sometimes slurred

Musical Style and Instruments

Guitars in grunge music were described as sludgy. Guitar sludge was made up of electric guitars riffs that were heavily distorted by using distortion pedals and thunderous amplifiers. Drum kits were four and six-piece. The drummer required great skill to make the drumbeat required in grunge music. The vocals and lyrics were angry and dark which created a feeling of angst in the listener.

This is an example of a drum set that could be used in grunge music.

This is an example of a drum set that is used in grunge music.

Popular Music Acts

Some grunge music acts are:

Band Song Title
Alice in Chains "Them Bones", "Man in the Box", "Would?"
Nirvana "Smells Like Teen Spirit", "In Bloom", "Heart-Shaped Box"
Soundgarden "Black Hole Sun", "Superunknown", "Outshined"
Pearl Jam "Jeremy", "Alive", "Even Flow"

Alice in Chains had a unique sound with heavy riffing metal. The lead singer, Layne Staley wrote songs that often contained lyrics about drug abuse and suicide. Nirvana is arguably the most influential grunge band of the 90s. The band was known for its diversity in songwriting and its personal lyrics written by the lead singer. Their second album blew the doors open for the grunge movement to become mainstream. Soundgarden had a sound that resembled Black Sabbath and it was the first grunge band to sign to a mainstream label. Pearl Jam outsold most grunge bands of the 90s. The lead singer, Eddie Vedder, was known for his powerful, gravelly singing voice. Pearl Jam wrote songs that addressed issues of the time, including school shootings and drug abuse.

Grunge Subculture

The grunge subculture is sometimes called the Seattle Sound, because it originated in Seattle, Washington. Grunge subculture embodied the so-called burnouts of society. The followers of the grunge culture protested against the American dream of the house with the white picket fence and conforming to the norms of society. Most grunge followers didn't care about appearance and came across as idle and indifferent to most of society. This indifference could not be further from the truth, as most followers of the grunge culture focused on making music and fighting for social rights.

Grunge Fashion

The term grunge means dirt or grime, and it was used to describe the fashion of the grunge subculture. Grunge musicians could typically be identified by:

  • flannel shirts
  • combat boots with dresses or torn jeans
  • messy hair and makeup
  • t-shirts with slogans or bands

Grunge fashion was all about individuality and not conforming to society's view of the norm.

Many grunge musicians had long, unkempt hair that fell into their faces. Most musicians and followers of the grunge subculture slouched when they walked and held a general look of dirtiness. There was not much distinction between male and female followers of the grunge subculture. Females didn't wash their hair, and some opted to shave their heads, all in defiance to the gender roles of the time.

A guitarist in a grunge band, identifiable by his long, messy hair and a band t-shirt.

A guitarist in a grunge band, identifiable by his long, messy hair and a band t-shirt.

Grunge Worldview

The worldview of the grunge subculture can vary depending on who is being asked. The members of the subculture viewed themselves trying to make society a better place, while outsiders of the culture saw them as delinquent troublemakers.

The worldview of the grunge subculture can be seen below:

  • Social rights are a priority
  • Freedom to just be oneself is of utmost importance
  • Addresses social alienation
  • Attitudes are angst-filled
  • Drug addiction is rampant
  • Society views grunge with social prejudice

The History of Grunge

Grunge music began in Seattle, Washington in the mid-'80s. Seattle bands began to mix metal and punk rock. Metal music of this time was made up of metal hair bands: Warrant, Poison, Cinderella, Bon Jovi, and the like. These bands were famous for their overblown hair, flashy clothing, and heavy makeup. Many believe that grunge music began in opposition to bands such as these.

The grunge music movement began in 1985 with the release of the following albums:

  • Come on Down by the Green River Band
  • Deep Six which included songs from Soundgarden and Green River
  • Sub Pop 100 that included songs from various artists

Sub Pop Records opened in 1986 and released music from Soundgarden, Mudhoney, and eventually Nirvana. Sub Pop is credited as playing a major role in the birth of grunge music. Soundgarden, Alice in Chains, and Nirvana were among the first grunge bands to sign to major record labels. Alice in Chains and Soundgarden's debut albums didn't receive much exposure, but Nirvana's debut album was a smash hit. In January of 1992, it reached number 1 on the billboard 100 chart. Nirvana's album changed everything in the music industry because it was a welcome change to the hair bands of the 80s. Although grunge took a long time to develop, it was relatively short-lived, dying out around 1995.

The Origins of Grunge

The origin of grunge traces back to Seattle, Washington, but there have been many musical and cultural influences to the sound. Several artists influenced grunge music. Some of these artists can be seen and their influence on grunge can be seen below:

Pixies Inspired music that is soft and quiet, then loud and hard
Niel Young Known as the Godfather of Grunge, used a distorted guitar and recorded an album with Pearl Jam
Sonic Youth Nurtured the angst-filled attitudes of the grunge subculture
Black Sabbath The song "War Pigs" influenced grunge music

When Did Grunge Develop?

Grunge developed during the 1980s in the Northwest United States. The band the Melvins is attributed to the formation of grunge music. The band created a metal and punk sound, using KISS, Black Sabbath, and Led Zeppelin as musical influences. Sub Pop Records was founded shortly after and created grunge music with bands such as Skin Yard, Malfunkshun, and Alice in Chains.

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Frequently Asked Questions

Is Grunge an aesthetic?

The grunge aesthetics are flannel shirts, messy hair, combat boots, torn jeans, sloppy makeup and t-shirts containing bands or slogans.

What defines grunge music?

Grunge is a mixture of heavy metal and punk music. Grunge song lyrics are rebellious and sung with powerful vocals. Guitars are played with a dirty sound that includes reverberation.

What is the style grunge?

The style of grunge is long, dirty messy hair, and torn jeans. The musical style of grunge is depressed lyrics sung in screeching vocals. Guitars are played in a low key and drums are either a four or six piece kit.

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