Group 1: What is Grunge? Sonic Youth and the Artists Cindy Sherman and Sue Williams

Everyone: What is grunge? Select one video from the search-terms on the syllabus and reflect on what is being performed. Are there any similarities to Kurt Cobain (if you selected someone other than Nirvana)? Additionally, tell us why you think this type of musical performance was popular? 

Group 1: After reading about Cindy Sherman and Sue William’s work do you see any similarities to the work of Kurt Cobain? Refer to both the video and the work of Sherman and Williams. Additionally, how would you categorize this art? Reflect on our semester investigating different cultures…are there any correlations to other artistic expressions?

Grunge fuses elements of punk rock and with heavy metal usually with various vocals that are harsh or appear lazy.  Grunge musicians often demonstrated a look representative with apathy and disdain for a lot of what the world had to offer.  I searched the band Sonic Youth which was a popular grunge band in the 80s/90s which had various similarities to Kurt Cobain.  Specifically the song “Bull in the Heather” had similar sounds to various Kurt Cobain songs.  The droning on of the vocals and the rough guitar in the background showcase a different style of music from the main stream pop.

After reading about Cindy Sherman and Sue William’s work I do see several similarities to Kurt Cobain and how their work criticizes various aspects of society.  It was interesting to hear about Sherman’s Bus Riders photography which showed the individuals waiting in line for the bus, but the black riders were all given blackface to appear the same color.  She was attempting to use visual irony by contrasting these passengers with that of the white individuals to show how even in today’s age companies still mistreat people based off race.  Just as Kurt Cobain used his lyrics to talk about his dissatisfaction with parts of society so did she in her visual art.

Also, Sue William’s pieces showcase this various out side of the main stream often using feminist ideals in her art.  She completed a piece titled “Are you pro porn or anti-porn?” demonstrated how women in pornographic films are being treated as objects for the desire of violent men.  She relates this to young men viewing this film internalizing this issue and deciding that it is okay to treat women this way, even if it is acting.  Kurt Cobain also used his music platform to point out other issues in society such as drug abuse and suicide.

I would categorize this art as a type of performance/social activism art as it is using various mediums to explore negative aspects of society.  I think this is very similar to the punk music and culture that went against the mainstream societal norms, because it was causing pain by out-casting individuals.  These punk rockers shunned mainstream culture and created their own outlet for expression by including all the “rejects” of mainstream society to create their own culture.



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Artistic Grunge

2. What is grunge? Select one video from the search-terms on the syllabus and reflect on what is being performed. Are there any similarities to Kurt Cobain (if you selected someone other than Nirvana)? Additionally, tell us why you think this type of musical performance was popular? After reading about Cindy Sherman and Sue William’s work do you see any similarities to the work of Kurt Cobain? Refer to both the video and the work of Sherman and Williams. Additionally, how would you categorize this art? Reflect on our semester investigating different cultures…are there any correlations to other artistic expressions?

Simply put, grunge is grotesque. Many grunge artists utilize disturbing imagery and/or lyrics to provoke the audience into questioning social order. For example, the music video to one of Nirvana’s most popular songs, “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” shows the band playing in front of a high school pep rally. The whole scene is dimly lit and pretty glum – the cheerleaders are slowly and calmly shaking their pom poms, and the audience just sits and stares. Kurt Cobain evokes a similarly morbid scene during the live MTV Unplugged performance, utilizing star-gazer lilies and purple lighting to create a funeral-like effect. These dark stylistic choices are meant to simultaneously reflect and satirize society as Cobain experienced it.

This is not an isolated phenomenon, however. After reading about artists Cindy Sherman and Sue Williams, there are many similarities to Cobain’s work. Sue Williams creates “tragicomic” pieces based on her experiences with men. She manages to take negative encounters and transform them into beautiful works of art that help give a voice to the many women who have been through similar traumatic experiences. Her work provides commentary on abusive relationships from a seldom-heard perspective. Her somewhat satirical style is analogous to Cobain’s satirical performances. Likewise, Cindy Sherman’s caricature-like “portraits” convey images of putting on a mask in order to fit in with the culture, which is a main theme in Nirvana’s songs. I would categorize this type of art as dark/grotesque satire. Not every piece might have these dark characteristics, but when viewed as a whole entity, the reoccurring themes have dark and disillusioned undertones.

As for other grunge bands, such as Sound Garden or Pearl Jam, there are also many similarities to Nirvana. The images associated with the majority of grunge music are often of a distorted or dystopian reality. For example, Sound Garden’s music video of “Black Hole Sun” shows upper class white people performing mundane yet depraved acts while their facial features are digitally exaggerated. This is a more extreme version of Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” video, as I discussed earlier. I think this type of performance was so popular in the 90’s, especially, because it reflected the disillusionment of the community. People were tired of happy-go-lucky disco and pop, so they were subsequently drawn to the cynical sounds and images of grunge music.

Nirvana.jpgSound Garden.jpg

Kurt Cobain and Nirvana’s Unplugged


If I were to describe Kurt Cobain and Nirvana to someone who hadn’t heard of them, I’d start with terms like “grunge, rock, hard, and agressive,” but they were much more than that.  I agree with the assertion made in the video “kurt cobain and the female grotesque” by Linnea Zeiner.  Kurt Cobain was an active feminist, but not in the normal sense of the world.  He was radical and chaotic, but with good intentions.  He purposefully dressed in ways that confused the two accepted genders and embraced his feminine side, which he identified more with.  He tried to show that as time is progressing and humanity is evolving women should be given a better share of the world and should be able to protect and provide for themselves without relying on Men.

I do also believe that “Unplugged,” a show on MTV, was culturally significant because it brought many popular artists into a more wholesome and contained world to play their music, usually their hit songs.  This gave a new layer to each band that appeared on the show, and focused more on their connection with the small audience.  Unlike Nirvana’s performance on “Unplugged,” most artists simply played their biggest hits on acoustic.  Even with this simple formula, “Unplugged” was able to show that while some bands change their sound to appeal to the mainstream, they can still put on a personal show at a small location.


Zeiner, Linnea. “kurt cobain and the female grotesque.”

NIN: Defining Post-Industrial Youth in America

The focus of this discussion is on the band Nine Inch Nails, led by singer-songwriter Trent Reznor. Reznor had an ability to combine the elements of industrial music (experimentation with electronic sounds) with the structure of popular music to create a unique sound that was successful in the public sphere, while maintaining a dark, heavy aesthetic that was oftentimes horrifying and difficult to listen to. His artistry defined a period of economic instability in the United States during the late 1980s and 1990s, when middle-class American youth were aware of this turmoil and therefore angry at the world.

The foundations of Industrial music started in the 1970s with the band Throbbing Gristle, whose lead vocalist was a woman named Genesis P-Orridge. The members of TG lived in a time when the physical world around them was changing: human-run factories were closing, and anarchy was springing up against the political scene in England. P-Orridge and her bandmates, living in post-industrial Europe, had this philosophy: any object that makes noise is an instrument, any person who can create the sounds is a musician, and there are no rules about how to make music.  They had no formal musical training, no frame of reference for how to create sounds, they just did what came to them organically, from their environment. Their sound was weird, to say the least: it did not have any of the patterns or chord progressions that were used in music up to that point; it was more ambiance, noises that they layered together to convey their feelings.

Throbbing Gristle – Maggot Death (youtube):

The movie “Nine Inch Nails and the Industrial Uprising,” posted on YouTube in a seven-part series, goes into a lot of background and influencers of the industrial sound, of which there is no one specific style. Brent D. Woods, in his thesis Industrial Music for Industrial People: The History and Development of an Underground Genre, also discusses  bands and sounds that contributed to this genre, among them Depeche Mode, Cabaret Voltaire, Kraftwerk, and styles like electronic body music (EBM) and the avant-garde. He defines industrial music as having four key components: synthesizers, anti-music, extra-musical elements, and shock tactics (Woods 41). These components developed through experimentation and the use of electronics to turn sounds into music, which is industrial music at its core.

When industrial music reached North America, the artists combined its electronic sound with elements of rock and roll, metal, and thrash. Examples of these bands are Skinny Puppy, from Canada and Ministry, from Chicago, Illinois. They took synthesizers, which had already been around in music, but used for structured pop music, and created deep, scary sounds to add to their metal elements of guitars, bass, and drums.

Skinny Puppy – The Choke (youtube):

These early industrial acts influenced Trent Reznor directly, when he moved from Philadelphia, where he was receiving formal education and apprenticeship in music, to Ohio, along America’s so-called “rust belt.” The environment there during the 1980s was similar to that of England in the 1970s: industry changing, steel mills closing, people losing jobs. All of this, combined with miserable weather, contributed to a general feeling of pessimism and meaninglessness, especially among the youth, as described by NIN member Chris Vrenna and scholars in the documentary (part 2, 2:40-4:30).

What ended up happening is that artists began to create music that was more and more abrasive, never being satisfied with the sound that they were producing, and always seeking more thrill and shock value. This phenomenon was described by Luigi Russolo in his “Futurist Manifesto” (1983), as cited by Woods:

“The ear of the Eighteenth Century man would not have been able to withstand the inharmonious intensity of certain chords produced by our orchestra (with three times as many performers as that of the orchestra of his time). But our ear takes pleasure in it, since it is already educated to modern life, so prodigal in different noises. Nevertheless, our ear is not satisfied and calls for even greater acoustical emotions” (Industrial Music, 38).

So you have bands taking typically pop-oriented instruments, synthesizers, and using them in their thrash metal, reflecting the angst that they felt toward the political and economic system.

Reznor was able to market the industrial sound by being relatable to a large audience, having a hook, telling a story. When NIN’s first single “Down In It” came out, people were a little confused because the production was polished, making it sound like pop, unlike the stereotypical, rampaging, chaotic industrial music of the time, but it was also experimental, as industrial should be. He brought production value to industrial music. Other pop bands, like depeche mode, were not afraid of a hook, could make industrial “noises” into structured “songs,” but Reznor kept that unsettling element of industrial as a key component of his music while making it just pop enough to be well-received.

NIN – Down In It (youtube):

Compare that with the following work by NIN, the EP Broken, and the song “Happiness in Slavery.” The video for this song was grotesque and gut-wrenching (literally). Reznor had some fascination with morbidity, and though it is extremely disturbing, he definitely had fans who supported his art, otherwise he would not have achieved the level of fame that he did. A very important aspect of his popularity is the fast beats at low frequencies and catchy bass-lines that have a heart-pumping quality about them, making people want to move and dance, even if that dancing was rather violent. This theme persisted throughout the band’s career.

Violence is another aspect of the industrial music scene that Rich Patrick of NIN describes in the film. The youth at the time had all this pent-up anger, and it came out as violence at live shows, which is a typically masculine behavior. Not only were fans in the audience moshing and slam-dancing, the performers themselves incorporated violence into their shows, and that was a very masculine depiction of them. The physical violence went hand-in-hand with the destructive noise.

Finally, I wanted to mention the song “Closer,” which is by far their most popular song, off the album The Downward Spiral. I remember hearing this song on LA radio station 106.7 KROQ in middle school, and having the uncensored version on my iPod. There is no way my parents would have let me listen to it if they heard the actual lyrics, yet it achieved such fame. This is the perfect example of how Reznor was able to penetrate the music industry with his perfectly-imperfect formulated sound, brutal as it may be. He borrowed from many styles of music that existed in different times and spaces and was successful in bringing industrial music to the masses during a time of economic disparity in the United States.

NIN – Closer (youtube):

Cultural Appropriation of Drag Balls


Madonna, in her music video for her song “Vogue” very obviously steals the looks and actions from drag balls, but does so with respect.  The above image is from the movie, “Paris is Burning,” and shows the extravagance and eloquence of the balls.  Voguing, the syle of dance that was created by these balls is heavily incorporated in Madonna’s music video.  It features expert voguers dressed in similar attire (although arguably toned down in some cases) to what would be worn at the balls.  While this is obviously taken right from the drag ball culture, I do not see any evidence that it was done with mal intent or disrespect.  The dancers and drag performers in the video are given center attention and often seem to be the object of envy.  There is also no racial bias as covered in Tim Lawrence’s article “A history of drag balls, houses, and the culture of voguing.”  Performers and dancers of different races are shown side by side or one after another with no obvious preference in Madonna’s music video.  I would argue that the music itself also takes from the drag culture in its grandiloquence and over-the-top nature.  Madonna obviously did this for an effect and likely used all the appropriations from the drag ball culture because it inspired her to create the song.


Lawrence, Tim. “A History of Drag Balls, Houses, and the Culture of Voguing.”

Livingston, Jennie, et al. Paris Is Burning. Prestige, 1990.

Madonna. I’m Breathless. Vogue. Sire Records, 1990.

Bob Marley vs NWA Activism


Bob Marley and the rap group NWA had similar political goals, but attempted to accomplish them in different ways.  Bryan John McCann, in his dissertation “Contesting the Mark of Criminality: Resistance and Ideology in Gangsta Rap, 1988-1997” provides a link between reggae and rap with his statement that “The nationalist politics at the heart of Jamaican cultural traditions, as well as the residue of the Black Power movement still
occupying the streets of New York and other urban centers, gave early rap music a
decidedly nationalist character (124).  Marley and NWA both encouraged Black nationalism and wanted everyone of African descent to be proud of where they came from.  Marley took strides, even outside of his music, to encourage peace as well as Black nationalism.  According to JTMP, there was even one concert where he was able to get “the two political candidates running for office in the violent and deadly 1970s Jamaican politics to hold hands and call for peace” in the middle of his concert (JTMP).  This is one main difference between Marley and NWA as general peace was not a main political focus of NWA.  Much of NWA’s focus surrounded the Black Power Movement with the goal of giving African Americans a solid foundation and a way out of poverty through legal means.  Much of Bob Marley’s influence was worldwide and NWA was limited just to the US, which was another key difference.  NWA makes many more references to US culture and locations, such as Compton, which allows the group to focus more on American sociopolitical issues.  Marley’s music emphasizes peace talks and bringing together of separate parties, while NWA’s music encourages the political mobilization of African Americans, pushing them to become more politically involved and conscious of their “Black Power.”  The style of music is also very different between the two artists.  Rap was founded based in part of influences from Reggae, but Reggae is usually much slower and in many places more instrumental than rap.  Regardless of the differences, both artists were crucial in the formation of a national Black identity in the late 20th century.


McCann, Bryan John. “Contesting the Mark of Criminality: Resistance and Ideology in Gangsta Rap, 1988-1997”. The University of Texas at Austin. August 2009

JTMP. “The Greatest Activist Musician in History: Bob Marley.” Justice Through Music,

Group 1: Major Scene in “Straight Outta Compton”



Straight Outta Compton poster.jpg

Group 1: Pick a quote or a scene from the movie that you think encapsulates the social commentary of this movie.  Explain your Selection.

One scene that I felt demonstrated clear social commentary on issues such as police brutality and racial injustice, was when the government told N.W.A not to perform specific songs.  During a 1989 concert tour, the FBI demands that N.W.A stop performing “F tha Police” because it encouraged violence against law enforcement. Police in Detroit forbid them from performing the song, and a riot breaks out when they perform it anyway.  This scene from the film truly tries to capture the tensions between African-American communities and local police departments.  It is important to note that this movie had a specific goal to showcase the historical component of race relations during the 1990s and decided to include this scene as a climax of these tensions.

N.W.A was a very controversial group at the time and it is important that the film demonstrate their obvious politically charged lyrics.  The rap group purposely used their lyrics to tell their stories of racism, police brutality, and other injustices in order to expand this into a wider audience (McCann).  The movie specifically showed the group defying the government’s request to not perform the song, which leads to a major riot in the city of Detroit.

I strongly believe this scene encapsulates the social commentary of the film, because it demonstrates that N.W.A will not back down when they truly believe in a cause.  They felt mistreated by authorities and wanted to play their music which they felt they had a first amendment right to play.  To them, this was another instance of the system being unjust towards them due to their race and controversial nature of the music (McCann).  Overall, this scene shows they are not afraid to take on deeper issues with harshness as well in order to improve the lives of themselves and others from their communities.  The movie does a good job in portraying this strict social commentary from the rap group during this climatic scene, as well as throughout the entire film.


Article: “Contesting the Mark of Criminality: Race, Place, and the Prerogative of Violence in N.W.A.’s Straight Outta Compton”, Bryan J. McCann

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