Hello and welcome to my Soft Grunge wonderland
As Kurt Cobain spins in his grave, Soft Grunge seems to have missed the memo about Grunge shunning fashion. It takes imagery from original Grunge, with little of original Grunge’s musical, functional, cheap, iconoclastic point. Soft Grunge’s image is ironically masochistic, no-photo-unfiltered, contrivedly uncontrived – trying to look like it’s not trying. Think 50s pop icons, photo-shopped to have tattoos, pastel hair, studded leather, cigarettes with writing on them, weird little yin-yang, dolphin and smiley
face symbols (which were around necks in the 90s), flower crowns and cats. Of course there are cats. It’s the goddamn Internet.
But hang on, for all you “90s kids” – who also missed the memo – what is Grunge in the first place? Back in the late 80s, a phenomenon was emerging from the garages of Seattle. It was cold and rainy and the socio-economic conditions were just as bad as the weather. That’s when the first bands of Grunge began to form. Entering the 90s, the Grunge movement gained traction, as well as participants, fans and commercial interest. However, built around its distorted, fairly bare music, Grunge was not made for the spotlight.
Originally, Grunge was a genre of rock music characterised by distorted guitars, drawled vocals and angsty lyrics, intentionally devoid of the contrived aesthetics that typically accompanied musical genres, particularly in the 80s. The pared back, utilitarian, unashamedly kind- of-gross ethos seemed to originate from a mix of apathy and economic necessity, as well as, of course, hard drugs and Courtney Love. The best description fashion had of the 90s Grunge aesthetic came from Jean Paul Gaultier, who was quoted in Vogue in 1993 as saying, “Grunge is nothing more than the way we dress when we have no money;” a joyous revelation to the fash- ionably concerned Dunedin student. But Grunge wasn’t a “way we dress” or an aesthetic at all. That was the entire idea.
The aestheticisation of Grunge only began when Grunge stopped being a sub-culture and became mainstream. Grunge’s commercialisation was not necessarily a bad thing; it meant the movement and the artists gained recognition – not to mention money – and more people were able to enjoy Grunge music and ideas. The fact that it caught on so well shows how many people got enjoyment out of it. However, commercialisation ran against the values of the working class. Non-image Grunge culture and the famous 1991 move from Sub-Pop, (the small Seattle record label that first signed Nirvana, Mudhoney and Soundgarden) to larger labels, heralded the beginning of the commercial takeover of Grunge.
Grunge’s anti-aesthetic ideology prevailed at first. Its rejection of fashion served its purpose when Marc Jacobs was fired from Perry Ellis for his Grunge-inspired range in 1992. He sent Kurt Cobain and Courtney Love samples from the range, and they, of course, gleefully burnt them. Then there was the eruption of Nevermind, Nirvana’s second album and – BAM – Christian Roth, another fashion designer, was sending models out on the catwalk wearing Nirvana backstage passes around their necks as accessories. And so it happened.
The movement born of punk, metal and a reaction to the ridiculous over-aestheticisation of music in the 80’s became an aesthetic. Grunge had become what it had intentionally not been from the beginning. The feminist, anti-commercialist and rebellious nature of the movement was lost to the very industries it hated.
Kurt Cobain died and anyone who said the word “Grunge” in Seattle was met with dirty looks. Grunge music quietly slipped into the background again, though Pearl Jam, Smashing Pumpkins and The Grateful Dead, among others, stuck around. But for the most part, the genre slunk off to hibernate in your dad’s CD collection for a decade or two.
Fast forward to 2010 – the year when the cogs of Tumblr churned out a modern incarnation. There was Lana Del Rey, an upside down cross and the emergence of the hashtag “depressed.” And thus there Soft Grunge was born: a prettier, cuter, less ideological, less musical, more visual child ancestor of Grunge. Along with it came Soft Goth, Soft Ghetto, Sea Punk, Kawaii Grime and more, all available at about 10 times the price tag of Grunge!
Soft Grunge is Tumblr’s answer to the Grunge movement of the 90s. It borrows from Grunge (duh), Kawaii Japanese street culture and the fashion world’s mesh of bohemian and Grunge ... as well as hippie aesthetic and, of course, all of the flower crowns, cats and hashtags that were on Tumblr anyway. It is almost entirely an aesthetic, with an emphasis on pastel hair, #palefilters and 90s icons photoshopped to have pastel hair. As Tumblr user xoxoriotgrrrl told me, Soft Grunge looks like “the angst and fuck everything of Grunge but with a pastel finish ... the jeans are a bit tighter now.” Sometimes there are also pictures of clouds with a quote. In fact, there is nearly always a quote, whatever the picture, and nearly always in a lo-fi 90s font ... for some reason.
But I am wasting my words, because as experts xoxoriotgrrrl and Otago University’s Rosemary Overell inform me, Soft Grunge is not something definable – as is the nature of Tumblr and the Internet itself. In fact,
the Soft Grunge aesthetic is fluid, without bounds, and above all, democratic. xoxoriotgrrrl reminded me, “Nowadays there aren’t any solid movements because everything is just too constantly interacting and influenced by each other;” Soft Grunge is a product of the information age.
One of the differences of reviving Grunge is that it was on the cusp of the Internet’s birth and, as a result, the time between the original and the remake was much faster. So fast, in fact, that there were people who wore Grunge the first time still young enough to whine about 12-year-olds wearing Nirvana t-shirts. But if Grunge was anti-image, how did it spawn something so primarily aesthetic? Well, that’s the question.
This revival of Grunge, particularly Soft Grunge, in mainstream fashion (and, of course, on Tumblr) shares little of its fundamental “Grungeness.” Oddly opposite to the Grunge of the 90s, the music blatantly comes second to the aesthetic. Lana Del Rey herself is the perfect example of this. The best description of her music I have heard is that she sings like she has nothing better to do. Unashamedly a rich-daddy’s girl, her music and her aesthetic reeks of bored upper-middle class, as does the rest of Soft Grunge.
But there’s the thing, “unashamedly” everything on the Soft Grunge tag is blatantly contrived. No one has accidentally taken a photo of their computer screen after typing out Lana Del Rey lyrics, or paused their TV to take a subtitled picture of Wednesday Adams. Soft Grunge knows. Soft Grunge doesn’t care. Soft Grunge’s blatant focus on an aesthetic rather than a sound is just more overtly doing what original Grunge was doing in its death-throes, after the bigger music labels and the fashion industry moved in on what started in the garages of working class Seattle.
Not only was Grunge leaving behind the 80s, Grunge was intentionally turning away from its closest relative, punk. Where punk very intentionally said, “fuck you: I will dress how I want and that will just happen to coincide with a way that annoys you.” Grunge, however, didn’t intend to make a statement at all, other than to focus on the music it was making, a clear differentiation to the genres of the previous era, hair metal, punk, whatever the hell Madonna was up to.
It is almost as if Soft Grunge is embracing the aesthetic that Grunge didn’t want to embrace. Soft Grunge is taking original Grunge’s not caring aesthetic and doing it on purpose, without caring that they are gutting it of its ideological fibre. Not to imply there is no Grunge-influenced music around today, there is, it just has little, if anything to do with what is commonly known as “Grunge revival.”
As Nirvana’s drummer, (in case you’ve been living in a hole) Dave Grohl, very clearly says, “loud ass guitars, loud ass drums, and screaming ass vocals” – Grunge, as defined by him (whatever “ass vocals” are) – “never went away, ding dong.”
The music of Soft Grunge itself is more, well, soft. There is a poppy thing going on but very rarely at the level of drawl and distortion that would qualify as Grunge. There is Marina and The Diamonds, Sky Ferreira (I thought that was a car too), Arctic Monkeys as well as bands like †††, whose name you aren’t even meant to be able to pronounce. And, of course, their flower-crowned queen, Lana Del Rey. All of these, if you haven’t noticed, are not really about music as much as they are about their look. The lyrics are added to photoshopped and filtered pictures of the artists, or pictures of clouds or other nature, but the music itself is usually extraneous.
The common signifier is a sardonic, masochistic irony that is otherwise empty of social value. Where Grunge had satire, anti-capitalism and gender politics, Soft Grunge has ennui and pictures of half-naked people blowing smoke rings. There isn’t a problem with that in itself, in fact copying the values directly in a different social context would be far shallower, but when you look through the pictures, there are Lolita themes, the glorification of self harm, depression, eating disorders and the absence of racial diversity in the pictures.
As one blogger wryly remarked, “if you show me a black person on a soft Grunge blog, I will pay you five dollars.” Yet there are hints of Hispanic visual culture, as Rosemary pointed out, “I also find it interesting her play on a Hispanic identity too ... by taking the name Del Rey and [the video clip for] ‘Ride,’ and then the flower crowns.”
As Soft Grunge personified, the issues visible on a Soft Grunge blog are written all over Lana Del Rey: The heavily visual music career; unashamedly upper-middle class thing; posing naked for the cover of GQ; and the “I’m a depressed and addicted Lolita” lyrics. Does she know she is Soft Grunge? It can’t be a coincidence. No one wakes up every morning looking and acting like an emo mermaid from Peter Pan.
And like the rest of Soft Grunge, and in complete opposition to original Grunge, where is her battle? What is she fighting for? What ethics and morals does she promote? Nothing. Rosemary said, “she’s kind of almost just flat, and that’s her thing ... she’s got the fake name, fake hair – fake lips is also a big thing. I mean [she’s] heavily produced, all about image, you know, sort of detached.” That’s fine, Soft Grunge’s lack of a fight doesn’t make it a bad thing, the glorification of self-harm and depression and drug abuse and eating disorders is the problem.
Rosemary puts it so well: “ that kind of DIY feminist politics has been evacuated and replaced by a cuteness which, arguably, I’m not saying necessarily does, rehearses particular ways of thinking about women as infantised sex objects, right? ... It has taken the ‘grrr’ out of Riotgrrrl ... It has a mix of hard and soft, but to me, the upping-the-anti of the Baby Spice element really undercuts any kind of hardness that this revival of some form of radical feminism could have had. In fact, LDR ... hardly [goes] out there, saying fuck you to patriarchy; she is playing right into it.”
Then there’s the bad in original Grunge, where the King of Grunge, Kurt Cobain’s, suicide was seen as, alternatively: martyrdom; justified; murder; a marketing ploy. And worst of all, it was glorified. Original Grunge, though it clung fast to its morals of early gender-queer movements, equality, anti-capitalism, Grunge was not as nostalgically squeaky clean as people selling its look would have you believe.
It was born out of angst and anger. Courtney Love, let’s face it, was a bit nuts and prone to yelling at people for little or no reason. There was glorified heavy heroin use that, more to the point, killed a fair few Grunge icons. Holding Soft Grunge up to original Grunge and getting annoyed that it differs is kind of like getting annoyed at 12-year-olds for wearing Nirvana t-shirts and saying “they weren’t even alive when Nirvana was a thing.” They know. They don’t care. But, yeah, I'll get over it.