The grunge equation of success = death sealed the fate of guitar music in the Nineties. But, as Y2K approaches, Guitar World sees a silver lining.
By J.D. Considine
Instead, it landed with more of a thud, barely making the Top 10 in its first week of release and slipping steadily from the charts. Though hardly a flop Ė the album did go Gold Ė it was nothing like the success Love and her label, DGC, had hoped for.
Nor was Holeís "Celebrity Skin" the seasonís only sales disappointment. Marilyn Mansonís much-anticipated "Mechanical Animals" fell even faster, spending barely a dozen weeks in Billboardís Top 200 after debuting at No. 1, while Pearl Jamís "Live on two legs" never even cracked the Top 10. Alt-rock, it seems, is no longer a particularly popular alternative.
At the beginning of the decade, such commercial inconsequence would have been unimaginable. Hard rock was riding on the strength of "Metallica" (a.k.a. "The Black Album"), Van Halenís "For unlawful carnal knowledge" and Guns Ní Roses' two-part "Use your illusion". R.E.M. was enjoying the biggest hit of its career with "Losing my religion", and U2 successfully reinvented its sound (and widened its audience) with "Achtung baby". And when 1992 kicked off with Nirvanaís "Nevermind" at No. 1, it was obvious that punk rock had finally conquered the mainstream.
So what happened? How could all that success have been undone in such a short amount of time?
Simple: We blew it.
Although itís tempting to blame hip-hop and teen idol pop for stealing guitar rockís thunder, the sad truth is that hard rockers and alt-rockers alike have only themselves to blame for their musicís descent into apparent irrelevance. Because, on a basic level, the history of guitar rock in the Nineties is one of squandered opportunities and serious mistakes.
The Decline and fall of Grunge
Nowhere is that more apparent than in the decline and fall of grunge. In the early Nineties, the Seattle scene was at critical mass. Between Nirvana, Pearl Jam and Soundgarden, the city was home to three of the freshest, most vital guitar bands in rock. Even better, there seemed plenty more where they came from, as grunge aficionados touted the likes of Mudhoney, the Young Fresh Fellows and Tad as Next Big Things. For a moment there, it looked as if Seattle was going to dominate the music scene as completely as Microsoft ruled the PC market.
Instead, it all fell apart. The first and, as it turned out, most decisive blow came in 1994, when Nirvanaís Kurt Cobain was found dead of a self-inflicted gunshot wound. Then Pearl Jam, deciding to take the moral high ground in the battle to keep ticket prices down, announced that it would no longer perform at venues that used Ticketmaster Ė effectively banning itself from nearly every major concert hall and arena in the country. Factor in the failure of Mudhoney, the Young Fresh Fellows or Tad to reach anything approaching a mainstream audience, and itís not hard to see why the grunge revolution failed.
Of course, some in the alternative music camp would argue that grunge didnít fail, because mass-market success is inimical to the true spirit of rock and roll. As the folks at SST Records insisted, right around the time they released Soundgardenís "Ultramega OK", - "Corporate Rock Sucks."
But, the alt-rockersí insistence that success = death was, ultimately, just another example of the music community shooting itself in the foot. It was fine for artists like Nirvana, Afghan Wings or Liz Phair o prefer unadorned honesty over soulless perfectionism, since blunt, emotional self-expression was at the heart of their music. But as the ideal of alt-rock authenticity became fetishized by writers and musicians, the very notion of melodic accessibility and instrumental competency began to seem suspect.
So where once fans only believed a band had "sold out" after it made a blatantly commercial move like appearing in a soda commercial, die-hard alt-rockers began acting as if popularity itself were some sort of stigma. "They must suck," went the thinking. "Look at how many people like them!"
So instead of capitalizing on the movementís creative momentum, its would-be stars stepped away from the limelight, surrendering the stage to the "alternative lite" sound of Third Eye Blind and Matchbox 20.
Between a rock and a hard place
Still, at least alt-rock had some momentum behind it, which was more than could be said for the hard rock scene. At the beginning of the decade, Guns Ní Roses was the biggest rock and roll band in the world, with not one but two albums at the top of the charts. Never mind that the group courted controversy as avidly as its members dated supermodels; GNíR was so popular that sextuple-Platinum sales were considered average for the band.
So how did Axl Rose and the boys spend the decade? Squabbling, getting fired (mostly by Rose) and holing up in the studio in an attempt to cut a sequel to "Use your illusion". With any luck, they might actually finish sometime before the end of the millenium.
Metallica, whose self-titled fifth album Ė a.k.a. the "Black Album" Ė pushed trash squarely into the mainstream faced a different problem, to wit: How do you improve on perfection? [God damn right!, NFC]. As Lars Ulrich put it, anything the band did as a follow-up "would always be ĎThe Record After the "Black Album,"í and people would deconstruct it to the point where it got ridiculous." So instead to trying to reinvent the wheel, Metallica decided to try a different tack altogether, and thus flirted with everything from modern rock to old-fashioned boogie on "Load" and "Reload". Neither album was quite the artistic or commercial success "Metallica" was, but at least the band was trying to do something new.
Granted, "new" and "guitar rock" didnít often go together. While in some cases that may have been because of the extent to which synthesizers and sampling have come to dominate popular music, in others itís simply because guitarists themselves havenít tried to come up with anything new. Take the blues as an example. Would Jonny Lang or Kenny Wayne Shepherd even know what to play if someone else Ė mostly, the late Stevie Ray Vaughn Ė hadnít played it first?
Fortunately, the future for guitar rock isnít entirely dark. There are still players (Tom Morello springs to mind) whose sound and aesthetic is bracingly new and utterly original. Anyone who thinks the guitarís potential to create new sounds is exhausted just hasnít been listening.
Even better, there are a whole host of bands Ė Korn, Limp Bizkit, Suger Ray and others Ė who have grown up with the sound and attitude of hip-hop and use it as a filter to shape their own generationís heavy rock.
In that sense, the fact that Kornís "Family Values" roadshow (which features Korn, Limp Bizkit, Rammstein, Ice Cube and Orgy) was one of the most successful package tours of 1998 is, in its way, every bit as heartening as limp sales for Pearl Jam and Hole might be dispiriting. Because despite all the missteps and mistakes made along the way, it looks guitar rock might just come out of the Nineties as healthy as it went in. Guitar World Magazine.