What is grunge?

The dictionary defines grunge as “dirt; filth; rubbish” and “something of inferior quality; trash.” The word originated sometime around 1960-1965, “perhaps reflecting grime and sludge; sense “grind” perhaps by association with drudge” (dictionary). Those definitions are representative of the alternative rock genre also known as grunge.

Grunge was used to describe the musics sound: dirty, filthy, distortion, fuzz, etc. The style of clothes worn by grunge musicians reflected an everyday, lazy, untidy look.


“24,900 Miles per Hour” by 7 Year Bitch reflects the trash, unkept, lazy vibe of grunge music in just the opening lines of the song:

She came down the staircase
Climbed into a dumpster
She grabbed an index card and she taped it to her forehead and it read
Poor white trash
She grabbed a gun, put it to her heart and pulled the trigger
Now she’s dead

The song also  reminds me of Nirvana’s song “Lithium” because of the shared fascination of one hearing voices in their head.

7 Year Bitch: “It’s just a thought inside my head Those little voices, they’re talkin’ to me.”

Nirvana: “I’m so happy ’cause today I’ve found my friends, They’re in my head.”

Grunge performances became popular because they were an expression of self-loathing, apathy, death, sadness, and love…. all at once. It was honest. It was depressing. But it was also blissful because it was music people related to.

. . .

To someone who had never heard of Nirvana or Kurt Cobain before, I would describe Kurt Cobain as the king of grunge. He was a depressed soul who expressed his misery through his style and music. It seemed as if his one true desire was to attain peace, a state of Nirvana (as the name of his band indicated).

Cobain certainly demonstrated his feminism through grotesque expressions in his music. Cobain sometimes wore makeup during performances, he had a fascination for reproduction, and he even declared his mistrust in American masculinity.

“I definitely feel closer to the feminine side of the human being than I do the male, or the American idea of what the male is supposed to be” –Kurt Cobain.


Kraftwerk: electronic vs. industrial


Buenos Aires bans electronic music festivals and any concerts using synthesizers and samplers – Kraftwerk’s show gets canceled (2016)

In Woods’ thesis Industrial Music for Industrial People: The History and Development of an Underground Genre, he states that industrial music can be classified as a stand-alone genre due to “the use of synthesizers and anti-music, and extra-musical elements” (41). He continues to define these elements as…

  1. synthesizers- “center of the industrial sound”
  2. anti-music- “against the contemporary trends of what is aesthetically acceptable in music acts” (i.e. silence)
  3. extra-musical elements- “benchmark of industrial sound and style” (i.e. spoken word, machinery)


The German band Kraftwerk and considered one of the heads of the electronic music genre. Their sound is best described as robotic. Some may argue that they should be considered a part of the industrial music genre, and though they largely influenced and embraced industrial music, their music is electronic at heart.



Nine Inch Nails, one of the most prominent American industrial bands, exemplify the difference between electronic music and industrial music. Their song (and music video) “Closer” is very different from the style of Kraftwerk’s “Roboter.” Though you can hear electronic tones in this Nine Inch Nails song, the execution and performance is outside of the boundaries of electronic music. For example, the sound is more harsh and the imagery is much more disturbing than the visual displays of electronic music. The anti-music and extra-musical elements are more apparent in this Nine Inch Nails song and are far less developed (and possibly nonexistent) in Kraftwerk’s music.

Did Madonna Appropriate Ball Culture?



The underground ballroom culture originated in NYC’s Harlem within the Black and Latino queer communities. At the balls, people entered competitions where they worked hard to genuinely appear to be a certain gender or social class.

A very important aspect of ballroom culture is voguing. Voguing consists of duck walking, catwalking, exaggerated hand use, and more.

Madonna’s video for “Vogue” featured this aspect of ballroom culture. Although some may argue that Madonna created national attention to the ball subculture, her video is better described as an appropriation of ball culture’s style due to her lack of acknowledgment to the Black and Latino queer communities who created ball culture and vogue.

When Madonna came out with her hit “Vogue” you knew it was over. She had taken a very specifically queer, transgendered, Latino and African-American phenomenon and totally erased that context with her lyrics, “It makes no difference if you’re black or white, if you’re a boy or a girl.” Madonna was taking in tons of money, while the Queen who actually taught her how to vogue sat before me in the club, strung out, depressed and broke.

From Terre Thaemlitz’s Ball’r (Madonna-Free Zone).

NWA’s Music for the People



NWA changed the music game in America with the release of their album “Straight Outta Compton” in 1988. Their music was an expression of the realities of inner city life with songs directly protesting police brutality and racial profiling.

NWA had a great impact on America and gangsta rap as a whole. Their songs were raw, uncensored, controversial – especially for the openly racist United States of the 1980s / 1990s. In fact, the FBI sent a warning to NWA’s distributing company implying that they would take action if the rap group continued to ‘promote violence against law enforcement.’ NWA didn’t care and they continued to perform their song “Fuck tha Police” and make music that commented on the police’s treatment of African Americans.

NWA gained widespread popularity among people from all over America because of their respect for NWA’s passion and honesty. They also genuinely liked the sound. The beats produced by Dr. Dre were exceptional and their lyrics were always made with purpose. People vibed with NWA’s music – even people who didn’t grow up in gang affiliated, “hood” areas such as Compton. NWA is still listened to today because they are classic to gangsta rap. They created a sound that inspired other rap groups / solo artists to make music and create lyrics that challenge the (racist) system in America.

Keep Ya Head Up (1993)


On June 16, 1971, Tupac Shakur  was born in East Harlem, New York, to Afeni Shakur, member of the Black Panther Party. He was also known by his stage names 2Pac and Makaveli. He was an actor, poet, rapper, and activist. He is considered one of American’s best selling artists and many argue that 2Pac was the greatest rapper alive.

2Pac’s song “Keep Ya Head Up” is an expression of the black experience in America during the 1980s and 1990s. It touches upon the struggles black women, men, and youth go through. 2Pac wrote his activist song “Keep Ya Head Up” to promote a change in the treatment and perception of black women. Not only does the song have a feminist agenda, but it also touches upon class issues, racial issues, and Tupac’s personal struggles. “Tupac’s life and political advocacy prove that hip hop music and activism are not mutually exclusive” (Stanford).




Some say the blacker the berry, the sweeter the juice
I say the darker the flesh, then the deeper the roots

“Keep Ya Head Up” by 2Pac

These lyrics are meant to encourage self-love and pride in black women, especially those who have darker skin. Light-skinned women have been historically glorified and glamorized over dark-skinned women. He also references the deep history that darker skin carries.

“And since we all came from a woman
Got our name from a woman and our game from a woman
I wonder why we take from our women
Why we rape our women — do we hate our women?”

These lines comment on the demeaning portrayal of women and the hypocrisy of disrespecting them. Women give life. Women are the ones who carry a child for 9 months. Women (typically) raise children. 2Pac is addressing the wrongdoing of abusing, raping, and degrading women.

“And I realize Mama really paid the price
She nearly gave her life to raise me right
And all I had to give her was my pipe dream
Of how I’d rock the mic and make it to the bright screen”

Here, 2Pac discusses his respect and understanding for his mother. He appreciates all mothers for their sacrifices. However, 2Pac also references his personal issues with his mother (which he goes into more depth about in his song Dear Mama). He mentions his mother’s addiction to crack cocaine when he wrote “pipe dream of how I’d rock the mic” and “I blame my mother for turnin’ my brother into a crack baby.” By addressing his mother’s addiction, 2Pac is also underlining the crack cocaine epidemic of the 1980s and 1990s that had considerably damaged the black populations of urban cities in America.

“I’m tryin’ to make a dollar out of fifteen cents
It’s hard to be legit and still pay the rent

You know, it’s funny, when it rains it pours
They got money for wars but can’t feed the poor

While the rich kids is drivin’ Benz
I’m still tryin’ to hold on to survivin’ friends”

2Pac writes these lyrics to emphasize the divide between the rich and the poor and their contrasting realities. He asserts that survival is much more difficult and important for the poor due to their many barriers and lack of resources. Furthermore, 2Pac draws attention to America’s greed in prioritizing and funding war instead of its very own impoverished people.


The Real World and its Implications on American Culture



“This is the true story… of seven strangers… picked to live in a house… and have their lives taped… to find out what happens… when people stop being polite… and start getting real…The Real World” (The Real World).

Many people consider the release of MTV’s television show The Real World (1992) to be the birth of modern reality television.

Inspired by 1990s youth-oriented shows, the original producers of the show, Mary-Ellis Bunim and Jonathan Murray, decided to cast regular people and tape their daily interactions as roommates in an apartment. The Real World delved into a realm never touched before in television by being an unscripted series.

Each season of The Real World takes place in a new city with a different cast of seven (or eight) people. People from all over the United States apply to be on the show and the “lucky seven” are chosen after being auditioned and interviewed.

I argue that the show evolved into a pursuit of raising viewership and increasing ratings, and that The Real World serves as the primary influence of the reality TV industry. The people on The Real World are presented as one-dimensional, stereotypical characters in order to create the perfect environment for drama.


Season 1’s NYC Cast of The Real World

For example, “the cast (of the first season) includes a young, innocent [virgin] Southern women (Julie); an African American [ghetto] female rapper (Heather B); a long-haired aspiring rock star (Andre); a bisexual artist (Norman); an all-[European] American jock—turned professional model (Eric); a sexually free budding musician (Becky); and the young angry Black man (Kevin)” (Orbe).

The Real World: Season 1 Episode 1

Excerpt from Chuck Klosterman’s Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs:

Screen Shot 2018-03-20 at 12.04.54 AM.png

Is MTV’s The Real World really creating the youth of America? The characters on the show are solely defined by one of the traits they possess – and that is what they are remembered as. The show did not display a raw truth of what America’s youth was like, but instead, The Real World defined it through its deliberate use of cast selection and editing.

  • Cast selection: “The producers of the show select cast members who have the greatest potential for cultural clash and conflict. Within the process of cast selection, for instance, viewers hear comments like, “She has a personality that polarizes others, we have to keep her.” ” (Orbe).
  • Editing: The camera crew of The Real World follows each season’s cast closely, recording their interactions for three months. The footage ultimately gets edited into 30-minute episodes that make up the season. Through its process of editing, the producers of the real world are synthesizing a reality of American youth. Ironic, right? They have the power to decide how the characters are portrayed to its viewers.

The producers have the ability to edit clips in such a way that makes the characters’ behaviors seem habitual, as if one aspect of their life happens all the time. The editors obviously give screen time to the incidents that are most entertaining and dramatic when the reality of it is that the selected clip(s) occurred once over the span of three months.

After the first season of the show, critics mostly wrote negative reviews about the show because it wasn’t real enough nor was it very entertaining. Despite this criticism, viewers loved the show. And it ran for 32 more seasons. What does this suggest about American culture?

Answer: Drama is entertaining and sensationalism gets results.

Next question to consider: how real is reality TV? Is it truly “the real world” if the characters are presented as one dimensional rather than the multi-faceted beings that all humans are? Does being conscious of a camera crew at all times compromise the authenticity of the characters’ behaviors?

“Some cast members discussed how MTV manipulated the footage by editing it in a way that portrayed them in certain ways. Others focused on the unrealistic nature of the three months of taping: Being surrounded by cameras, living rent-free in a beautiful house/apartment, and having access to special events and places. However, other cast members maintained that the initial novelty of the cameras wore off and explained that no one could maintain a certain media persona without revealing their real selves” (Orbe).

Cutting down three months of interactions and experiences through a deliberate editing process will deprive the characters of any persona outside of their depicted stereotype. The scenes that will receive screen time reinforce each character’s one defining trait on the show.

Another excerpt from Chuck Klosterman’s Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs:

Screen Shot 2018-03-20 at 12.07.07 AM.png

Moreover, the mere fact that the characters become aware (after season 1) of their viewership has caused a change in the future casts’ behavior to appeal to its audience by actively trying to be entertaining. If picking fights and overreacting to everything will give characters more screen time, then they will behave as such.

Consider this clip:

The Real World developed into Real World: the typical reality TV show that exaggerates drama, fights, and conflicts involving the lenses of race, homosexuality, and gender.




NYC Punk Scene: Born to Self-Destruct


Inside CBGB, a shot of the back of Dead Boys guitarist Cheetah Chrome

To save the NYC punk scene would be to contradict the attitudes and ideals of those involved. The fall of NYC punk was inevitable.

The NYC punk scene gained traction around the mid-1970s. It was an expression of people’s dissatisfaction of American culture, American values, and the country’s broken promises from the 1960s and 1970s. In essence, punk was a criticism of anything mainstream.

Therefore, for the New York City punk scene to thrive, it would have to become what it despised: mainstream and popular.

For the NYC punk scene to survive, it would have to become commercialized. The commercial success of some bands (i.e. Blondie) would ultimately kill punk.

“Fan and roadie James Sliman described the situation stating, “When the level of success gets higher, the band members are separated from the crew more. . . because they’re surrounded by record-company people and press people and kids wanting autographs and stuff like that. So there begins to be a bit of a class system there”” (Kvaran).

Another factor to consider is the destructive, chaotic forms of expression native to punk subculture. How can the NYC punk scene survive if its nature is to destruct?

“According to Fields, “When the Sex Pistols broke up in San Francisco, it showed everyone that this punk thing wasn’t viable. That they were meant to self-destruct and so what’s the point in investing in any of them?”” (Kvaran).


Gendered Underground: Men, Women, and American Punk Rock, 1965 – 1995 by Kara Margaret Kvaran