Did Grunge Kill Rock & Roll? New Photo Exhibition Captures All the Sullen Anti-Glory

Image by Jesse Frohman

It would be too easy to point an accusatory finger towards the whiffet-like nothingness of Vampire Weekend and Imagine Dragons, attempting to tie them up together in a bow labeled “the demise of rock & roll.” But the seeds of rock’s downfall were arguably planted all the way back in the early ’90s, when a pair of American cities – New York and Seattle – played host to the unintended castration of the counterculture’s greatest ever weapon.

In NYC, a band called Pavement, in league with their entire irritating ilk, quite successfully cultivated the notion that rock should seem more like a university bookstore reading of The Catcher in the Rye – incidentally, one of the most insufferable texts ever to take up space on a shelf – packaging insidery, college boy irony and perpetual complaining into one tidy, confoundingly sexless package. While over in Seattle, an assortment of sourpussed, grumpypants acolytes of the West Coast hardcore scene hatched the collective idea to combine grimy sludge rock with a lot of incoherent, sullen grumbling, and, um…denim shorts.

The latter fueled a whole new “pity party” zeitgeist to the tune of tens of millions of record sales, by bands mostly fronted with dudes who sounded like they were really, terribly constipated (comedian Chris Hardwick explicates it perfectly in a biting 2016 routine). And now a new exhibition titled Grunge – The Rise of a Generation opens March 8 at the Morrison Hotel Gallery, visually capturing all the brooding, anti-glory of that time. Featuring images by world class snappers including Lynn Goldsmith, Lance Mercer, Bob Gruen, Danny Clinch and a dozen more, it pictorially follows the general ’90s goings on of the likes of Soundgarden, Pearl Jam, L7, Alice in Chains, and, of course, Nirvana.

Image by Danny Clinch

Now, let’s be clear – merely lumping the monumental Nirvana in with the rest of the pack is like suggesting that Led Zeppelin were just some metal band. To wit, a most rankling feature of grunge was its overarching maleness – especially startling after the fervent feminist revolution that accompanied punk. Tellingly, Kurt Cobain famously remarked, “Because I couldn’t find any male friends that I felt compatible with, I ended up hanging out with girls a lot.”

To be fair, Soundgarden did at least throw some striking poses, and churn out a few impressively big riffs. But with Eddie Vedder & Co. leading the way, rock & roll was nevertheless sent careening unstoppably towards a flannel-clad “Bummersville,” never to return to its previous heroic, subversive, flamboyant, glamorous, ridiculous and dangerous manifestation.

Perhaps Rob Zombie said it best in a recent interview with TeamRock Radio: “When the grunge rock thing hit, everybody thought it was cool to be anti-rock star. [But they] anti-rock starred themselves right out the door, because the rap guys came in and they said, ‘Fuck it. We’ll be the rock stars then, if you guys are going to wear flannel shirts and stare at your feet.’ And truthfully, rock has never recovered from that.”

Grunge – The Rise of a Generation runs from March 8 – 31 at the Morrison Hotel Gallery locations in New York City, Los Angeles and Maui.

Top image by Henry Diltz; above image by Lance Mercer

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