Hair Metal vs. Grunge; Just Who Survived

Hair Metal and Grunge, two of the most powerful musical movements of the late 80s/early 90s, and yet neither remain prominent today....or do they?
November 17, 2005

Hair Metal was a fad. Even its most loyal fans couldn’t have ever expected the genre to continue in the mainstream, chart-topping format that it had held in 80’s America. It’s a well-known saying that too much of anything is bad for you and this was definitely true of the bands that had originally received fame on the LA circuit. Hair Metal was so in tune with the 80’s that even the bands who had hit the big time in that decade found it hard to even chart their material in the 90’s. An article in Q Magazine once said that its ‘readers’ taught Kurt Cobain’s greatest achievement was destroying Hair Metal. It seems that the ignorance of the Grunge era is not yet dead completely when we read this statement, because we wonder why the supposed readers had no time to take into account the changing political climate (the fall of the Soviet Union), the reinvention of MTV and Beavis and Butthead, an animated cartoon series about two college students who would sit on a couch and comment on the latest music videos, with their next door neighbour being portrayed as an uncool kid that wore a Winger T-Shirt! But I suppose if you were the kind of person who got down to a song like Poison’s ‘Nothing But a Good Time’ in 1988, you’d hardly have taken a fancy to Nirvana’s ‘Rape Me’ in 1992.

But we’re in 2005 now, and both decades have ended. And if you look around (and I mean look beyond the obvious), you’ll start noticing that Hair Metal is still there. The bands still release the albums, the groups still perform the tour and the records still ascend the charts. But try looking for Grunge. Try looking for Grunge past bands like Nickelback and Staind, past yet another Nirvana ‘Greatest Hits Compilation’ and you’ll start to notice something. Grunge is gone, Grunge is dead. Sure Grunge has helped influence some of the most successful rock groups of the late 90’s and early 00’s, but it hasn’t actually succeeded in doing what it was created to do, eliminating the bands with the big mullets and the leather pants. Some Hair Metal bands remerged from the woodwork in the mid 90’s, noticing that their biggest enemy had vanished and they were free to sell records again. In fact, while Nirvana fans may be so bold to claim that Cobain killed Hair Metal, music fans might admit that the real truth is simply that Cobain just stalled Hair Metal and actually killed Grunge (as well as himself!). Billy Corgan of the Smashing Pumpkins once said, ‘Kurt’s death seemed to take the wind out of everyone’s sails’ and in retrospect, perhaps this is the most truthful statement that has ever been made about Grunge.

But before we can examine why Hair Metal has seemed to survive Grunge, we must examine the truth behind why Hair Metal succeeded in becoming such a popular movement in the first place. The truth of the matter is that Hair Metal artists were serious musicians. Songs in the 80’s required more power to perform so there was more virtuoso. The 80’s were all about excelling to the next level, where as the 90’s seemed focused on self-pity and it became uncool to do nothing more then stand and play on stage. Now, I understand that Grunge fans will feel that this is an ignorant statement, but lets be fair, because asides from Alice in Chains who used odd time signatures to a creative effect, there wasn’t much going for Grunge. Take the example of when Def Leppard performed live unplugged on an American radio station, singing in harmony. The DJ said, ‘That was incredible’, to which Joe replied: ‘you must be a product of the nineties. There is nothing incredible about three guys singing in tune.’

The heart of the situation is that while hair metal is supposed to be facile, shallow, meaningless and sexist, Grunge purports to be earthy, real, emotional and genuine. This isn't the case. Sure, Kurt Cobain's anger against the world was genuine but then the bands that caused hair metal – Motley Crue, Def Leppard and Van Halen -- were also genuine rockers. Grunge became just as much a movement as hair metal: flannel shirts, unwashed hair, huge boots and forced misery were cashing in on the trend just as much as hair metal bands had done a few years previously, jumping the bandwagon just to make a fast one. However, unlike with the relatively harmless constant copying of Hair Metal, the copying of Grunge was a very negative thing because the view was that Grunge made it cool to be miserable; a trend that Metal and Rock is yet to recover from. Gavin Rossdale from the group Bush once commented in an interview at how Kurt's committing suicide had always struck him as ‘an immensely powerful thing.’ But in my opinion, anything that glamorises suicide is beyond negative; it's evil.

Hair Metal had a very positive musical effect. Songs such as ‘Youth Gone Wild’ were made about enjoying your life. Lets face it, there is too much misery in the world today as it is, so songs that celebrate the enjoyment of life should be cherished, and this is one of the main reasons that Hair Metal caught on with the generation of youth that it did. You realise after a while, though, that there's nothing very positive about unprotected sex and drug abuse, which Hair Metal also made sound cool. Let's not kid ourselves though: the Grungers were getting just as high and using just as many groupies; at least Hair Metal didn't pretend to be anything other than sexist. If Grunge did get people down and make them depressed then it has a lot to answer for. On the other hand, did Grunge depress people or did it simply reflect the gloom of the 90’s that already existed?
But what was it that made Grunge so damn miserable as opposed to the happy upbeat tunes of Hair Metal? Well, it all started where nearly every story starts, at the beginning. It starts with Grunge’s roots. Grunge was born in Seattle in 1989, and at that time Seattle had little to distinguish itself from the rest of the country. Seattle was an isolated city that was tucked away in a corner of America that is seldom visited by few. What remains then is a city that retains all the traits of a hometown country village, without ever having actually been one. Many of the people I have talked to who have visited Seattle have claimed that they would only ever want to live in Seattle if they could live in any city in America, because they feel the home-grown nature of the city. The thing that Seattle had retained in all this that other big cities had lost was an inner self-belief in itself. Whereas LA had been the birthplace of Hair Metal simply because of one bands originality from the club scene there, Seattle had grown up together and the bands that played there had been doing so well before Hair Metal had ever begun. In fact, some of the bands still play their music there now, content in the fact that it is as they want it to be. Seattle groups all listened to the same groups and therefore their thinking was unilateral. However, LA had money, whereas Seattle had none, and the Grunge scene escalated into nothing more then a fantasy until the late 80’s when record label Sub Pop began and signed what were to become the first wave of Grunge bands, with artists such as Mother Love Bone, Green River and The Melvin’s.

However, that should have meant that money flowed into Seattle once there was enough of a Grunge movement to encourage a substantial following, but no. The answer was because of the Grunge philosophy. In Grunge, success equalled failure, which obviously caused some problems. The general idea is that if you’re popular, then you’re an awful band and if you’re mainstream then you should be shot. This ridiculous thinking had come from the years and years previous when the bands in Seattle couldn’t get signed to record labels and therefore grew a strong hatred for them. When the Grunge movement finally did start, there was no revised plan and their original Seattle fans spit upon bands like Nirvana because they had ‘sold out’. If you are in a band then you have to face the fact that when the record label signs you, you will not have 100% creative control. You can write the best song in the world, but if the label doesn’t approve then it doesn’t go on the album unless you fund the project from your own pocket, which you cant do if you have just been signed. Therefore, while Grunge spouted all this anti corporate rubbish it was all a bunch of crap when you consider that the only way the bands would have gotten to be in the position of power they were in, in the first place was if they had signed a major label deal! When Alice in Chains split in 1996 for example it was claimed that it was because of their hatred of the music industry, when it fact it was because Layne Staley was addicted to heroin. Because of all this, Grunge was self-destructive to begin with. It was impossible for Grunge to over ground without destroying its original values.

These days, there are bands like Machine Head who attract a small constant following and flourish for years because of it and even though they are signed to a major label they haven’t sold out to their ideas, but Grunge was a little more difficult to remain both loyal to and gain success from. On the other hand, Hair Metal is, in the words of Joe Perry, ‘just American rock & roll taken to the extreme. It has no problem with capitalism, profiteering, decadence, excess, or money’. So it fits right in for hair metal bands to sell millions of records and make millions of pounds. In fact, that was the whole point!

Hair Metal was insane in some respects, because the recording budgets were huge and the albums were ‘polished’ (constantly mixed and edited for the right balance of all vocals and instruments) until the cows came home. So to be the complete opposite, Grunge chose to simply produce the albums for as little as possible (saving the money for heroin and such) and having raw production. In this respect, Grunge can be thanked for the increase in live recording albums, which almost tripled after the end of the Grunge revolution due to the fact that artists were shown the benefit of recording their concerts for release. So maybe we thank Grunge for making rock vocal again. Raw Production (as opposed to that horrible lo-fi production) can be quite amazing and can make it sound as if the artist has a voice for singing (remember that comment on Joe Elliot). On the other hand, the polished sounds of Def Leppard are a lot better then what sounds like 3 blokes in a bedroom performing, and the massive drum sounds of Motley Crue sound a lot better then what appears to be an angry man kicking some cardboard boxes around.

Finally, there is the fact that people listen to music they identify with. All the arguments against Hair Metal and against Grunge mean nothing at the end of the day. Hair Metal was over-produced; Grunge was just badly produced. Hair Metal bands looked ridiculous but so did Grungers. It's possible to bash either genre but Critics prefer Grunge and Critics think that there is such a thing as good taste and that coolness is dependent on having it. The fact that some segments of Grunge are still cool annoys me personally infinitely, as does the constant ridicule that Hair Metal gets and Grunge doesn't even though both genres are equally ridiculous for different reasons. But at the end of the day, I think people identified with Hair Metal, with the optimism, the happiness, the party spirit, the volume, the larger-than-life thing. People appreciated the overboard ness. It is entertainment for its own sake and doesn't pretend to have any deep meaning. Entertainment is very important, and people appreciated the fact that hair metal is nothing more than entertainment. It shouldn't be looked down upon for that. The point I am trying to make is that in music, everyone needs good upbeat songs all the time and this is why Hair Metal is still around and Grunge is not.
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