Has any city in the U.S. been quite so associated with one thing at a time than Seattle?
What do I mean by that? Well of course, it’s not true. Seattle is a vibrant and diverse place, but when you boil it down to core reputation, Seattle has often been viewed as a “one thing at a time” kind of place. A one company town (first Boeing and now Amazon), a one weather town (cloudy and drizzly), and a one music genre town (grunge).
It’s that last one that I take issue with. In 1987, Kurt Cobain and Krist Novoselic formed a band named Nirvana in Aberdeen, Washington. That band blew up with the success of their 1991 album Nevermind and its single “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” ushering in a new era of rock called ‘grunge,’ a movement that drew its roots primarily from the punk rock of the ’70s and ’80s that preceded it.
Whatever it was about the music, it latched on to the minds of young listeners in the early ’90s, driven by bands like Nirvana, Soundgarden, Pearl Jam, and others. It was also a movement that was, by and large, centered around Seattle.
In 1994, Cobain committed suicide and that was the end of Nirvana. While that event wasn’t the sole catalyst, from then on, grunge saw a steep decline in popularity. And yet, in Seattle, grunge still has a vice-like grip on the public’s imagination when it comes to the music scene, despite the fact that grunge hasn’t for the most part been a significant or dynamic genre since the mid-’90s.
Perhaps Cobain’s untimely and tragic demise allowed Nirvana to be frozen in time, as opposed to experience the steady decline that many bands experience (fairly or not) in the evaluation of their newer work. Nirvana would have always been regarded as a great band, but subsequent albums over the years would have allowed a development of their sound, as well as a maturation of public opinion of them from hype to wherever it would have landed. Instead, they remain perpetually hyped. Whenever you hear about a Seattle music venue, record store, or bar’s history, there is the inevitable note about where it is located in the Nirvana constellation.
It’s fine to be proud of your history, but Seattle is allowing its music scene to be defined by Nirvana and grunge. Here’s the thing though: Seattle has a great music scene, but it’s really not grunge.
There are artists like Gifted Gab, bringing R&B back to its roots, Erik Blood, bringing a haunting combination of music and costume, Country Lips, bringing a Northwest twist to country, and many, many more. There’s a festival that commemorates the traditional folk sound of the Seattle area and one that celebrates the vibrant hip-hop one that’s going on now.
If you’re a Seattleite and plugged into the music scene, or ever are just passively aware of it, you probably already know these things. You don’t need me to tell you them. What you need though is for other people to know. Out-of-towners. You need to stop letting your wonderful music scene continue to be defined by grunge. Because despite what you think of Seattle’s music scene from the inside, from the outside, all most people see is Nirvana because nobody is trying to project an image otherwise.
Nirvana was a great band that headlined a defining period for American music and it was deeply associated with Seattle. But grunge burned bright and burned fast and soon faded from the national scene. Yet Seattle continues to sell its music scene to the outside world with grunge. Don’t anymore. You have so much more to offer. Let Seattle grunge die.
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