Grunge, Kurt Cobain, and Pearl Jam

Pearl Jam – Alive

  1. Grunge is a unique hybrid between punk rock and rock and roll, in the sense that its sound is hard and aggressive while incorporating an artistic, intimate flow in either the sound or the lyrics that make it very personal and emotional rather than straight adrenaline-pumping. The music is not really a catharsis of some sort, but a personal take on positions of grotesqueness–especially in the music video that I chose, the meaning of being alive is used ironically and as a story. Pearl Jam provides a raw narrative regarding anger and frustration, saying that “being alive” meant that he would be continuously, consciously suffering what he had lost (in this case, his biological father who had been dying and hidden from him for all of his life). The audience twisted the meaning of his song, which shows the difference in the cannibalistic cycle of “commodified categories/ traditional devices of pop culture” (Zeiner) (happy and pleases everyone) and the subversive personal style of grunge music. (Lyrics – )
  2. Kurt Cobain and Nirvana had a style in which Dr. Zeiner would describe as adhering to the female grotesque; as a feminist figure, he frequently dressed as though he were to mix the style of both genders and blur the lines between femininity and male masculinity. He identified more with his female side rather than his male side due to his distrust in the idea of American masculinity (Zeiner). His radical style, on a surface level, was very progressive and chaotic, mixed with the harder styles of punk rock, grunge, and aggressiveness. His embrace of the more female aspects of his character inadvertently pushed for the support of significant female images in grunge music and in the music industry. If one were to go deeper into the musician who Kurt Cobain was, the obvious expression of the female grotesque and emotional instability/depression would be found. Cobain’s music expressed much sadness, intimacy, and misery, which is a recurring theme among most, if not, all grunge music. This particular self-loathing proved to be an attractive aspect of this genre, as it was more emotionally relateable than that of pop music. Grunge music, especially by that of Nirvana and Kurt Cobain, did not necessarily lead to the formula creation of a rock star, nor did it focus on selling ideas or making celebrities.
  3. MTV’S show Unplugged provided a perfect medium for an actual expression of performance. Granted, Nirvana’s performance on this show was slightly less extravagant, the bands and artists who played were able to share their music in a raw, acoustic fashion. This is important to note, as it both exposes the changes made to music that fulfill the mainstream necessity of specific, commodified details as well as display the actual artwork made by each artist. This show is culturally significant in the sense that it provides a distinction between the pop music industry products and the music and lyrics themselves. Unplugged simply created a world in which artists could share their biggest hits in a smaller, contained environment.

pearl jam


group 4 – Jeremy


First off what is grunge? Google defines it as “a style of rock music characterized by a raucous guitar sound and lazy vocal delivery.” I think that is somewhat accurate but not fully. I think it needs to have an element of energy as well which this doesn’t mention. Also, I think “lazy vocal delivery” is not really accurate. They have lots of passion for their delivery so I don’t think lazy is correct.

I know it is kinda basic to post this song but it is one that really draws me in. I think its also important because I’m not a big fun of grunge or rock in general. I like it, but I don’t usually listen to it. But when it comes to songs like this, I just HAVE to listen to it. Even though it isn’t my genre, I still find it really good and enjoyable. I think this is another reason why this genre and the bands that created it are so unique. They are really able to translate their artistic expression to fans of all different types of music. It has passion, energy, heart, and talent, and people will respect that no matter what type of genre it is.

I think that this was a very interesting episode. I didn’t know too much about the Seattle music scene and I definitely did not know that so many of these bands came from Seattle, that blew my mind. Anyway, if I was to describe Nirvana to someone I would describe them as innovators that are full of energy and knew how to create a new style of music that would appeal to many different types of people. Grunge was a great typer of music and a huge opportunity for bands in America. I think the video was pretty accurate showing how it still influences music today. I wasn’t sure how important it was to have Macklemore in there…but I get how it is showing how Seattle still develops plenty of independent artists.

Going to Unplugged, I would definitely say that it was an important show culturally. Culture traveled much slower back then and having a show where you could showcase more “underground” artists and people of that nature would have been really useful. In addition, I think it is just a really cool concept overall. To have bands on national TV, playing in a much more casual setting, is something you could never have really seen. Nirvana played at their shows with super high energy and really loud and passionate which is awesome, but sometimes you want to see them in a more relaxed environment like they had in their Unplugged performance. I actually watched them perform “Come as You Are” and I thought it was a really incredible performance. Definitely going to be listening to a lot more Nirvana and Soundgarden, etc. after this week.

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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Video 1:

Expression and Opinion Through Art

Grunge includes elements of low, hidden, earthly, dark, material, immanent visceral (Zeiner).

Additionally, Seattle can be considered as grunge due to the noise, style, people are into rock n roll, rain, musty garages (1991)

In regards to the art in this section, there are definitely similarities between the work of Kurt Cobain and that of Cindy Sherman and Sue William.

For example, in Ms. Zeiner’s video about Kurt Cobain, I noticed that Cobain had works which showed his fascination with the female reproductive systems, illness, and disfigured human beings. Images related to this appeared in album covers, his photography album, and more of his art. Exemplified below are images from his album, In Utero

Image result for kurt cobain in utero album  Image result for kurt cobain in utero album

Similarly, Cindy Sherman used grotesque images within her art, mainly photography. Sherman is a respected photographer from the 20th century. She first began interest in painting, though she later realized her greater passion for photography. Sherman had yikesmultiple styles and depictions throughout her career as a photographer. In 1992, one of her styles was more sexual; her series of photographs at this time was titled “sex pictures,” which included photograph of dolls and prosthetic body parts usually in “highly sexual poses,” which contained “prosthetic genitalia – both male and female – often used in extreme close-up” ( This was somewhat similar to Cobain’s artistic form in that there were sexual aspects of the human body; Cobain, for example, used the female reproductive system in some of his works while Sherman included male and female genitalia in her work.

Image result for sue williams art

The work of Sue Williams was also similar to that of Kurt Cobain, though in a different light. Williams is an artist from the 20th century who had works which depicted her own thoughts of “sexism and the position of women in society” (Smith, NY Times). Williams had strong feelings about this topic, which were depicted within her work. Sadly, Williams herself had been in violent, abusive relationships, and this artwork seemed like it was her way to express her built up resentments from within.

Image result for kurt cobain dragThough Cobain did not have directly the same type of artwork, there are some underlying elements which are similar. It seems that both the work of William and Cobain had principles of going against society’s gender norms. While Williams depicted her strong opinions of sexism, “Cobain dragged his performances and left masculine identity behind, showing his disdain for hegemonic masculinity” (Zeiner).


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


To me grunge had always been a commentary on societal beauty standards and refocusing on what is special. Wearing grunge attire takes focus away from the superficial ways of becoming culturally beautiful and leaves you with only natural forms of beauty. In this way I always saw grunge as a raw and organic form of style. Grunge musical artists in particular strip away the fake parts of popular music like sequin costumes and over processed voices. This makes listeners focus on their music and their voice rather than their labels, bodies, and fluff. Grunge is taking away focus from gendered clothing and bodies to see the person underneath. While it is grotesque and harsh I have always thought it was beautiful because the people who were able to pull it off were always such special artists. For example, I always think of Janis and how she didn’t need makeup and hair to be this incredible singe. She had such a powerful voice that she could strip everything else away, be completely vulnerable, and with just her voice attract millions of fans. Janis defines grunge to me, she embodies how taking away the power of looks lets the unique and best parts of an artist stand at the forefront.

Looking at HOLE, and specifically the music video violet you can see the juxtaposition of conventional sexuality and beauty with disgust. There are delicate ballerinas and beauty pageants next to rats and burlesque. This strips away the femininity of the performance by undermining what is traditionally beautiful. Nirvana also played with the boundaries of feminine ideals and Kurt often took them apart in his own style. I think this style was so popular because these artists chose to resonate with their audience based on their voices and their emotion instead of their looks.

William and Sherman’s styles are both very dirty, shocking, feminist, and grunge. They both use that grunge factor to get their viewers to focus on the message of their work rather the beauty of the art. It all comes from a place of making a message from an image and not creating something beautiful or common. Kurt’s art was also different and about the meaning rather than the appearance. All 3 artists also have a strong focus on the body, usually the female body and how it can be deconstructed. I think this shows the   pedestal that our society has for the female image.

43:00- Analysis of Kurt Cobain’s MTV performance from a different perspective

More Than Rock and Roll

If someone had asked me who Kurt Cobain of Nirvana was I would have said a rock star.  I would have watched videos like Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” above and moved on without much other thought.  I did not know anything else, but now that I am actually examineing the culure I am starting to see different influences.

With an understanding of what grunge is, I can see it start to materialize in videos like the one above.  First, it is physically dark.  The video seems to be set in a high school auditorium with cheerleaders performing alongside the band.  This, when complemented by the lyrics, portrays a different message, closer to grunge, with the female image and body cast in a negative way.  But then the cheerleaders leave and the audience flock the stage, it becomes closer to punk.  The audeinece is danceing around, headbanging, fighting eachother, and breaking things.

Like MTV, the visual aspect is esbecially important, and with it the actaul lyrics can be overlooked allong with its grunge message.

When comparing it to the art of Kurt Cobain, a man I previously knew as no more than a rock star, the dualility of the two artists and grunge as a whole becomes clear.  Grunge is dark, dirty, a mulipitation, and an artform that is known for appling that to the female body.  It can be both feministic and ant-feministic.  When applying grunge to music it takes a similar turn, it can both support female empowerment and call attention to the negative view of society or it can work against it and reafirm that same negatvie perspective.  Artists like Nirvana and Kurt Cobain have been known to participate in both sides.