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In Defense of Post-Grunge Music

on October 07, 2013, 12:00pm

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Component is a section of  Aux.Out. for one-off pieces, special editorials, and lost orphans of the music discussion. Today, Sasha Geffen talks about her relationship with Post-Grunge, and how it might be overlooked as both nostalgic and useful music.

I don’t have to wonder what kind of person owns a Nickelback CD because I was one. Not a standard-issue American release, either—a double album imported from Japan. There was some kind of hologram on the cover. It never got much play next to the Coldplay and U2 I was spinning, but what’s weird is that my dad bought me the record. This is a guy who bases a large part of his identity on his taste in music. He owns more than 10,000 LPs. When our basement flooded, the insurance agent who surveyed our house accused him of running an underground record store because of the sheer number of records that got ruined. He’s the closest real-world analogue to John Cusack’s character in High Fidelity, and he’s never shy to call contemporary rock boring and derivative. He would happily rip apart The White Stripes or The Strokes after a single chord progression, yet he bought me a Nickelback CD after hearing “How You Remind Me” on the radio every time he drove me to middle school.

Despite its canned affect and scuffed-up bombast, I liked “How You Remind Me” when I first heard it at 12. It hit me in a lonely place; I had just transitioned from a tiny, urban elementary school to a middle school in the suburbs. I had no idea how to engage with my surroundings. Suddenly, I was at a school big enough to harbor cliques. I’d never really had to stake a claim for myself in a social environment before. It was middle school and I was awkward. And, while I couldn’t literally relate to most of the lyrics in “How You Remind Me”—substance abuse and dysfunctional relationships were demons I had yet to meet—the song’s core loneliness resonated. “This is how you remind me of what I really am.” I was stuck in a place where no one seemed to be like me, and all I wanted was to find a fundamental sameness in someone else.

I don’t know if there’s ever been another band maligned the way Nickelback has been maligned. They emerged as part of a moment in popular music that still functions as the perfect locus of hate for people who consider their taste to be good. Just last month, L.A. Weekly ran a listicle called “The 10 Worst Post-Grunge Bands.” Nickelback topped the thing. Of course they did. In April 2012, Chuck Klosterman went on a double-dare of music journalism and saw Creed and Nickelback on the same night, like a Greek hero sneaking into Hades.

“Over the past 20 years, there have been five bands totally acceptable to hate reflexively (and by ‘totally acceptable,’ I mean that the casual hater wouldn’t even have to provide a justification — he or she could just openly hate them and no one would question why),” Klosterman writes. He’s right on all five (Bush, Hootie and the Blowfish, Limp Bizkit, Nickelback, and Creed) but I don’t think the list stops there. That apparently self-explanatory loathing is focused on whole moment, a period of time around the turn of the millennium when post-grunge kept topping the alternative charts and people who felt they knew better than the masses kept hating it with every fiber.

That moment seemed to last five years, from 1998 to 2003, when bands like Fuel, Puddle of Mudd, Lifehouse, The Calling, 3 Doors Down, Staind, and Hoobastank saw singles flicker up to the top of Billboard’s Modern Rock Tracks chart. Many scored hits over on the Hot 100, too. These songs were ubiquitous, and many were so fundamentally similar to one another that they felt like one song played over and over again for five years straight. As soon as you were done with “Higher”, it crept back into your car stereo as “Blurry”.

Still, the lingering, unanimous aversion seems strange. Homogeneity itself isn’t usually enough to provoke the hatred that the post-grunge moment still inspires, a moment that Chris Molanphy calls “possibly the most loathed period for music of the last half-century.” Kids who grew up in the ’90s now look back glowingly on the glut of dance-pop that populated the same radio stations, and same-y soft rock bands like the Goo Goo Dolls, Third Eye Blind, and Matchbox 20 always brought on giddy waves of nostalgia at the college parties I attended. But everyone still talks about Nickelback like they were part of a scourge we were lucky to survive.

I connected to Puddle of Mudd too, a band that nearly beat out Nickelback to become the bottom-barrel offender of the post-grunge moment. “Blurry” started getting airplay in 2001, the same year as “How You Remind Me”. I was in seventh grade then. “Everything’s so blurry/ and everyone’s so fake/ and everybody’s empty/ and everything is so messed up.” It was like an echo of my inner monologue. One way to defend yourself against the feeling that you don’t exist is to turn the tables and insist to yourself that you’re the only one who’s real. I think a lot of girls in seventh grade think up the same stuff. Puddle of Mudd nailed it. The song was a comfort. I wasn’t the only person who felt the entire world around me was lonely and hollow. Some scruffy guy from Kansas City was there with me.

I hadn’t yet heard of Nirvana, but their legacy was all around me. Kurt Cobain’s death left an aesthetic void in alternative music that labels jumped to fill. The novelty of grunge had worn off by 1998, but its pull hadn’t. In the shadow of Nirvana’s fame, major labels mass-produced an alt-rock that gestured toward grunge, but lacked its rawness and nuance. These bands pissed off people with taste by dressing up in Nirvana’s gruffness, while hollowing out their strangeness. Post-grunge was a surge of vanilla pop hits costumed in flannel and shaggy hair.

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In his recap of the Modern Rock chart’s history, Molanphy names Fuel and Puddle of Mudd as part of post-grunge’s “amelodic grunting” faction. But songs like “Blurry” and “Shimmer” rely more on vocal melody than most Nirvana cuts. The vocals on “Shimmer” dart up and down the C scale while constantly modulating their syllabic density, a strategy that cuts closer to “Save Tonight” than “Smells Like Teen Spirit”. In 2003, Staind released a string of singles that were easily mocked for their melodrama, or “self-righteous self-pity,” as Molanphy puts it, but succeeded on the grace of their melodies. These bands hid pop songs in an aesthetic derived from Bleach, an album that privileged texture and energy over melody. Grunge may have fused stoner rock and punk into something that sounded like primal grunts at first listen, but post-grunge had melody. It had the same kind of melody as the bubblegum pop it followed up the charts. It was melodic pop engineered to sound like amelodic grunting.

The post-grunge moment suffered from an overpopulation of solid pop songwriters who got shoehorned into trendy, corny production choices. The formula was reliable: Most of the period’s biggest hits began with a guitar arpeggio. Sometimes two guitars, an electric and an acoustic, would harmonize with each other. There were ham-fisted crashes of distorted power chords. There were drum fills that put Phil Collins to shame. Thanks to “Dumb”, there were cellos. Lifehouse even sprinkled in some flutes. These memes coagulated into the perfect object of hate for music snobs. They were constant, they were everywhere, they were easy to peg as bad.

But another rift separates grunge from post-grunge. The lyrics changed. On a textual level, frontmen like Cobain and Chris Cornell opted to perform the roles of storyteller, soothsayer, and occasional comedian in lieu of strictly confessional songwriter. Grunge’s heavy hitters stayed oblique on paper, outlining emotional states with loose, tangled metaphors (“Black Hole Sun”, “Heart-Shaped Box”) or detached third-person narratives (“Jeremy”, “Daughter”—Pearl Jam was especially comfortable in this mode). Even Nirvana’s first person list poem “Pennyroyal Tea” condensed its ennui into the consumables that soothed it. Cobain never sang bluntly about desire, or self-loathing, or pain. He sang about their mundane indicators. He balanced raw feeling with deadpan humor: “I tried hard to have a father/ but instead I had a dad.”

Post-grunge plunged directly into the “I.” There is no mystery in the lyrical narratives of Fuel, and Staind, and Lifehouse. There’s only longing in its plainest terms. Most of the hits call after a prospective or past companion in the first person. There’s a lot of talk about distance. “It’s too far away for me to hold,” sings Fuel’s Brett Scallions on “Shimmer”. “There’s oceans in between us/ but that’s not very far,” Puddle of Mudd’s Wes Scantlin agrees. The Calling’s “Wherever You Will Go”, 3 Doors Down’s “Here Without You”, and Audioslave’s “Like A Stone” are all sung to someone from an imagined or metaphorical afterlife. Even Lifehouse’s hopeful “Breathing” imagines a longing at the edge of death: “I want nothing more than to sit outside heaven’s door/ and listen to you breathing.”

Meanwhile, Staind and Nickelback shouted out from a personal hell, lamenting relationships ruined by substance abuse. On 2003’s “It’s Been Awhile”, Aaron Lewis confesses, “It’s been awhile since I wasn’t addicted.” Chad Kroeger used “How You Remind Me” to admit that he’d “been down to the bottom of every bottle.” “It’s Been Awhile” adopts a passive aggressive tone (“It’s been awhile since I’ve gone and fucked things up/ just like I always do”), but “How You Remind Me” approaches apology: “It must have been so bad/ ’cause living with me must have damn near killed you.” Alice in Chains’ Dirt illustrated the throes of heroin abuse with “Junkhead” and “God Smack”, but Layne Staley defended his addiction like it was a natural reaction to enlightenment: “If you let yourself go and opened your mind/ I’ll bet you’d be doing like me/ and it ain’t so bad.” Grunge’s frontmen posed with their addictions; post-grunge’s songwriters sought redemption for them.

These were all songs made by tough-looking men with long hair and tattoos, ostensibly intended for an audience that was at least half male, but their lyrics echoed the confessional alt-rock made by women songwriters a few years before. Alanis Morissette rarely sang in anything but the first and second person; there was nothing oblique about her 1995 chart-topping barb “You Oughta Know”, just good old-fashioned anger aimed at a very specific “you.” No Doubt released “Don’t Speak” in the same year, and in 1997 Sarah McLachlan looked back at her own ruined relationship with “Adia”. Morissette, McLachlan, and Gwen Stefani eschewed grunge’s vagueness in their songwriting. They weren’t trying to be enigmatic. They sang songs to people with whom they shared emotional experiences, to express anger, or ask forgiveness, or simply to cauterize severed ties. Their alt-rock was personal, and they crystallized the songwriting strategy that would form the emotional core of the post-grunge moment.

But post-grunge didn’t just share DNA with songs made by women. It fit the mold of songs made for women, too—or more specifically, songs made for teenage and pre-teen girls. At the same time that alt-rock was recuperating from the death of grunge, mainstream charts started seeing an eruption of perfectly candied boy band hits. Throughout the mid-’90s, Backstreet Boys, 98 Degrees, and ‘N Sync soundtracked my childhood and millions of others. In 1999, Backstreet Boys achieved international superstardom with the single “I Want It That Way” off their now 13-times platinum record Millennium: the first CD I ever bought for myself.

Listening to “I Want It That Way” now, I notice fundamental similarities to the post-grunge with which it shared airplay. Like “Blurry”, “Hanging By A Moment”, “It’s Been Awhile”, and pretty much every song by Creed, “I Want It That Way” opens with a fingerpicked guitar riff. Lyrically, it focuses on a longing for a distant someone. It’s full of regret for a relationship tarnished by misunderstanding. It’s a dead ringer for “Blurry”. “We are two worlds apart” could easily be swapped out for “there’s oceans in between us” in the magnetic poetry kit of ’90s lyrics. “No matter the distance, I want you to know/ that deep down inside of me/ you are my fire.” “This is how you remind me/ of what I really am.”

Post-grunge led me from Top 40 airwaves to Nirvana, to Soundgarden, to Alice in Chains, and to Pearl Jam, but it hooked me because it was music I already knew dressed up tough. It adopted the emotional themes and lyrical strategies of music that 12-year-old girls tend to gravitate to, and it pointed to a history of music considered sacrosanct by male critics and fans in their 20s. No wonder the post-grunge moment pissed off so many angry dudes. These bands took songs that wore signs of femininity and closed them tight inside hypermasculine shells. If there’s one thing angry dudes can’t stand, it’s gender scraping against gender.

The genre repeated itself ad nauseum, and plenty of its affect feels contrived. But, it rings with me because it posits a masculinity that’s content to state its intentions and let the object of its affection make her decision. “Even if you don’t want to speak tonight/ that’s alright, alright with me,” sings Jason Wade on “Breathing”. On “Like A Stone”, Cornell promises “in your house/ I long to be/ room by room/ patiently/ I’ll wait for you there.” These aren’t love songs about imposing your will on somebody else, about “winning” anybody. They’re passive displays of affection. Maybe that’s what prompted one reviewer, on one of those early-aughts websites with black backgrounds whose gimmick was making brutal fun of everything, to call Audioslave’s debut “cock rock for pussies.” Audioslave made their share of weak production choices—the rhythm section on “Like A Stone” sounds like they’d be more comfortable in a classic hip-hop outfit—but did we have to drag everybody’s genitals into it?

9316245 large In Defense of Post Grunge MusicI can make fun of “It’s Been Awhile” with the rest of them—these dudes tended to sing like they were dredging mud up from the back of their throats, I’ll admit—but I can’t rag on Staind’s “Zoe Jane”. This is a ballad from Aaron Lewis to his daughter about how he wants to be a better father, how he wants a better life for her than the one he had. “I want to hold you/ protect you from all of the things I’ve already endured.” This is dad rock in the purest sense. He sings it like he means it, like it’s the only thing he means.

Even “Blurry” and “Shimmer” feel warm when I listen to them now. There’s a comfort in hearing corporate alt-rock with a little more lyrical nuance than, say, Imagine Dragons, a little less mismatched aggression than AWOLNATION. Sometimes turning on alternative radio these days feels like getting hit in the face. There’s a comfort in hearing Nickelback from when they meant something to me, when Kroeger still sounded like he was apologizing for mistreating women instead of indulging in full-blown misogyny. There’s a comfort in hearing songs written during a time when you could miss someone completely, when you couldn’t check up on their online presence, when it was still possible to have no idea where someone was or what they were doing.

This feeling is at least part nostalgia; After all, I seem to have no trouble getting behind hate for the folk rock and brostep poles that are churning out the Nickelbacks of today. I’m not above reflexive disdain for music beloved by people who hear something different than I do. But, post-grunge was my hinge into alternative as it existed before the term got swallowed up by the mainstream. I’m not mad that it got me there. I was on the inside of that hatefest. Maybe it’s awful, but if it’s an awful that works for sad girls in seventh grade, it’s an awful I’ll own.