Hail divinest melancholy,
Whose saintly visage is too bright
To hit the sense of human sight.
—John Milton, "Il Penseroso "
Southern novelist Walker Percy was fond of describing the prophetic vocation of the artist as something akin to the role of a canary in a coalmine. If the canary squawks and dies, it's time to get out of there. Something's gone horribly wrong. All is not well. Are we listening?
In those bygone days when Guns N' Roses and Michael Jackson's Dangerous topped the Billboard album charts, pop music was in a rather sorry state. (I'll leave it to the reader to assess whether or not the earliest nineties exceed the age of Britney Spears for overall lameness.) U2 and REM had survived the eighties, certainly, but alternative rock (Black Flag, the Replacements, Sonic Youth, the Pixies) and its articulation of youthful (and mostly suburban) angst had yet to find a lasting home on the radio or MTV. All of this changed when Nirvana's Nevermind dethroned Michael Jackson as top of the pops, and with "Smells Like Teen Spirit" in our heads, few would regard Axl Rose with much seriousness ever again.
Almost simultaneously, Pearl Jam's Ten entered the picture with the power of a Van Halen that mattered. Both hailing from a long active, under-the-radar Seattle music scene, Nirvana and Pearl Jam would eventually be joined by Soundgarden as the primary elements of an odd cultural moment the market would christen "grunge."
To be sure, few self-respecting musicians (or fans) would ever self-apply a label like grunge. And according to the affections of many partisans, I'm already in hot water for having mentioned Pearl Jam and Nirvana in the same sentence. But both tribes persist among thirtysomethings as well as post-Columbine youth throughout the Western world, the grunge label is useful shorthand, and the conjunction of a Nirvana greatest-hits package with the new Pearl Jam recording, Riot Act—not to mention the publication of Kurt Cobain's journals—offers a fitting occasion to examine an enduring cultural legacy.
Apart from the oversized flannel shirts, wool hats, and perhaps overly self-consciously bedraggled accoutrements, the music sought to imaginatively identify and forcibly uproot the seeds of dysfunction that are perhaps especially evident in American homes and schools. Deadbeat parents had never taken quite so powerful a beating on mainstream radio, and it's important to note that while the lyrics often take the form of angry lamentation, it's mostly undergirded by a hope for reconciliation and a determination to live life differently. (Contrasted, say, with Marshall Mathers' songs of matricide).
Admittedly, when most versions of success and prosperity appear morally bankrupt and devastatingly artificial, knowing how to embody an alternative to the surrounding madness can leave the artist (and the audience) in something of a bind. "I hope I die before I become Pete Townsend," Cobain once wrote. And an aversion to the trappings of celebrity culture marks all things even remotely grunge. Before accepting "Nirvana" as a commercially viable name, for instance, Cobain and bandmate Kris Novaselic performed under the name Fecal Matter. Ever the quintessence of many a Dylanesque paradox, for the Seattle scene, there's no success like failure, and failure's no success at all.
Unlike a good number of personalities covered on VH1's Behind the Music, the grunge era understood instinctively and in advance that no rock-and-roller can gain the world without risking the forfeiture of any and all soul. Dedicated to exposing the unmanageability of our everyday reality and decrying the hollowness with which family and peers speak and behave, the grunge vocation inevitably flirts with hypocrisy once the revolution gets televised. Cobain opened Nivana's final album with the observation that "Teenage angst has paid off well / Now I'm old and bored," and sought the company of elder Beat statesmen like William S. Burroughs. ("There's something wrong with that boy. He frowns for no good reason.")
In the meantime, Pearl Jam's Eddie Vedder (who, like Cobain, came from a broken home) unabashedly claimed a father-figure in, of all people, Pete Townsend, and perhaps overcame grunge's navel-gazing, woe-is-me tendencies by switching the intro to outro with "Jeremy," a meditation on teen suicide turned radio hit ("Daddy didn't give affection. … And the boy was something that mommy wouldn't wear"). Still faithful to the grunge penchant for melancholy and horror over record label executives and moshing floor fans who appear to have neither hearts nor brains, Pearl Jam nevertheless managed to turn their gaze toward the holy mundane and marginal with such unlikely singles as "Elderly Woman Behind the Counter in a Small Town." And songs like "Better Man" and "Nothingman" took the rock genre in the direction of generational self-criticism by shining a light on multiplying villainies in so-called personal relationships.
And it isn't a cynical bent that seeks to acknowledge and illumine the darker corners of our nature. Pearl Jam's "Glorified G" lampoons our tendency to excuse our murdering mindsets with self-satisfied assertions that we love God. The indifference associated with the grunge label is the last accusation one could now level at Pearl Jam, whose work includes an effort to overcome Ticketmaster's hegemonic hold over live performance and a longterm commitment to social action. Eschewing the desensitizing powers of mass media, they've opted out of most publicity-seeking work save the occasional appearance on David Letterman, benefit concerts, and a grassroots-following reminiscent of nothing so much as the Grateful Dead phenomenon. Recently appearing in public with a Taxi Driver-style mohawk, Vedder remarked, "I'll keep the mohawk until we stop killing people abroad. … You don't have to read the paper, you don't have to pay attention—but if you happen to see a picture of me and the mohawk's still there, you can just go—oh, yeah, we're still killing people." (Vedder has since grown out his hair.)
Nirvana t-shirts proliferate worldwide, Pearl Jam keeps on rocking in the free world, and their imitators (listen for the thinly veiled, Vedder-style vocal in Creed, for instance) sell millions of records. When Soundgarden disbanded, lead singer Chris Cornell remarked that the band's music reportedly had a way of making their fans feel strong and he expressed his hope that it would continue to edify and admonish the right people. Something of a reprimand/confession concerning our tendency to sell ourselves short shows up on Riot Act when Vedder proclaims, "I've lived all this life like an ocean in disguise." Is it any surprise that the shoe-gazing high-schooler is still invigorated by this sort of thing?
Whatever we make of it, something once unarticulated has been given form, and it is more than the "Attention Shoppers!" sound of the latest Justin Timberlake song. It isn't indifferent or blissfully unconcerned with anything beyond its own gratification. As Prince Hamlet asked rhetorically, whereto serves mercy but to confront the visage of offense? Can one listen and be offended at the same time? Is being offended a way of avoiding being awake?
David Dark teaches high school in Nashville. His book, Everyday Apocalypse: The Sacred as Revealed in Radiohead, The Simpsons, and Other Pop-Culture Icons, has just been published by Brazos Press.
Copyright © 2002 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
Books & Culture Corner appears Mondays at ChristianityToday.com. Earlier Books & Culture Corners include:
Boys Will Be Boys | A new book by a leading Christian feminist scholar inadvertently reveals the flawed assumptions underlying much talk about "flexibility" in gender roles. (Dec. 9, 2002)
Street Cred | Dave Eggers: The portrait of an artist as a … what? (Dec.2, 2002)
Epicurus'—and Darwin's—Dangerous Idea | How we became hedonists. (Nov. 18, 2002)
Weird Science? | A Darwinian debate continues. (Nov. 11, 2002)
Of Moths and Men Revisited | A Darwinian debate. (Nov. 4, 2002)
Angels in Heaven | A game that's more than a game. (Oct. 28, 2002)
Number One with a Bullet | America's foist family as a tool for evangelism. (Oct. 21, 2002)
Train Up a Child | Helping children to become intimately familiar with Scripture. (Oct. 14, 2002)
Acting Like Those 'Evangelicals' | Guilty as charged? (Sept. 30, 2002)
Ugly Evangelicals | Is this us? (Sept. 23, 2002)
Herbie Goes Bananas | The rise and fall and rise and fall and rise of the VW Beetle. (Sept. 16, 2002)
So Far, So Near | A graduate of Murree Christian School in Pakistan, the site of a deadly assault by Islamic terrorists in August, reflects on his growing-up years, on what has changed in the interim, and on the beleaguered Christian community in Pakistan (Sept. 9, 2002)
The New York Times Discovers Religion (Again) | Shouldn't the paper of record be able to move beyond Square One? (August 26, 2002)
After the Quake | Bedside reading for the anniversary of 9/11. (August 19, 2002)
How to Avoid the Coming Disaster | "Imitate Japan." "No, don't imitate Japan." Time out. (August 12, 2002)
"Mind Control" and the Christian Citizen | Historian Sean Wilentz's misguided attack on Justice Antonin Scalia. (August 5, 2002)