By the end of the 1980’s the music scene in the United States had gradually become dominated by two major genres. In addition to the pop sounds of Michael Jackson and Madonna, there was hair metal, a form of heavy metal music personified by bands like Poison, Whitesnake, Bon Jovi and Motley Crue, good time party music fronted by men in spandex with elaborate hairdos and high octane vocals. Frequently misogynist and rarely containing any type of social message, hair metal was nonetheless so popular that MTV was planning on expanding their ‘Headbanger’s Ball’ metal program into a spin-off channel that would play nothing but metal 24 hours a day.
There were, however, a large demographic of people that this type of music just didn’t connect with. In the mid-1980’s, young musicians and artists who were inspired by other, heavier genres of metal and the do-it-yourself aesthetic of punk began to form their own unique form of music that combined loud guitars with emotionally introspective lyrics far removed from the polish and sequins of popular metal. A large concentration of bands representing this sound congregated in the Seattle area, and by the end of the 80’s, a record label named Sub Pop, managed by Jonathan Poneman and Bruce Pavitof, was regularly releasing records that captured these new artists.
The pioneering Seattle bands, Mudhoney, the Melvins and Green River, had a huge local following but had difficulty breaking out of the region to attract a more national audience. It was around this time that several of the most well-known groups of what would later be termed the ‘grunge’ movement began to release their first successful records, notably Soundgarden, who by this time had several early releases behind them and Nirvana, who’s initial record ‘Bleach’ would come out in 1989. However, it would take Nirvana’s 1991 album ‘Nevermind,’ given a glossy sheen by producer Butch Vig to breakthrough to the mainstream, catapulting band leader Kurt Cobain into international stardom and focusing an enormously bright media spotlight on Seattle itself.
It was at this point that record labels began to frantically sign any bands that hailed from the Pacific Northwest. Nirvana’s ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ was ruling the charts from the number one spot, and suddenly it seemed like no one was interested in having anything to do with guys in eyeliner singing metal ballads. The intense scrutiny from the musical press regarding what was termed the ‘Seattle sound’ or ‘grunge’ music caused several bands to be swept up in the genre despite the significant differences in their musical styles. While groups like Pearl Jam, Alice in Chains and Soundgarden found enormous success in the early 1990’s, their musical output ranged from drug-addled melodic metal to sludgy Sabbath-era Pearl Jamriffing to straight-forward pop songs. However, to mainstream radio and MTV it didn’t matter, and if it could be packaged as grunge it could be sold to millions of musically starved teens who had suddenly found an outlet for the angst that had been building up inside of them for years.