My favorite song from the grunge era is the debut single from Pearl Jam, “Alive.” The third verse of this song has the following lines:
“”Is something wrong,” she said. / Of course there is. / “You’re still alive,” she said/ / Oh and do I deserve to be? / Is that the question? / And if so, if so, who answers, who answers? ”
I do not intend today to examine the song lyrics for this entire song, although I would like to touch briefly on its personal meaning to me and the context of why this song resonates so deeply with me. Let us conceive of a partially overlapping series of circles that stands for a given person with a given perspective about the song, the artist, the time period of the early 1990’s and its music as a whole. It is a fashionable belief that there is no such thing as ultimate truth and that what is true depends on the perspective. This particular radical form of relativism denies that there is any means of communicating between the gulf that separates one people or one perspective from another. Yet these pernicious and mistaken thoughts are communicated in weighty and intellectual books wherein their point can be understood clearly even by those who do not agree with their perspective. The truth is more complex, in that it takes into account that which is the case for all perspectives. Absolute truth does not stand outside the perspective of everyone, but rather includes the complicated and nuanced relationship of truth as it applies to all, and those who purport to deal with truth need to be sensitive to the application of truth for others, because all perspectives count with regards to the truth, even if we are not used to giving respect to them.
In the early 1990’s the grunge movement exploded out of the Pacific Northwest, mostly in Seattle, although in other areas as well (like Portland). Why was it this area of the United States that gave birth to the heavily distorted sound made popular by bands like Pearl Jam, Nirvana, Soundgarden, Everclear, and many others in their wake? The answer, as is often the case, is somewhat complex. The grunge music that first reached mainstream success in the early 1990’s was itself a successor to the obscure independent music of bands like Mission To Burma, Husker Du, The Minutemen, Sonic Youth, and many others, whose tale has been told at length and in grim detail by historians of music . Grunge music followed the template of these bands and came about at a time when music labels were willing and able to give substantial exposure to a sound that a decade before had been limited to seedy clubs and labels with no distribution channels aside from the bands’ own efforts. These early grunge bands were in Los Angeles, Washington DC, Seattle, Minneapolis, and other places, all of which have a healthy music scene to this day (Minneapolis’ own scene, which first launched Husker Du, later launched the careers of bands like Soul Asylum, Trip Shakespeare, and Semisonic).
Yet it was Seattle’s scene that became particularly famous, giving its name to the sound that took over their rock radio airwaves in the early 1990’s, when I was in late childhood and my early teen years, and the Pacific Northwest as a whole that was the core of this style of music. Why this location, among the many others that are possible? A large part of the answer is in the context of the area. Seattle is home to Sub Pop records, an independent label that has the distribution channels to lead to substantial sales, and which is still going strong as the label of excellent independent bands like The Head And The Heart . So, a band that was under the mainstream radar could still find success and a decent living, along with help in distribution of singles and albums (which is essential for having a following and making a good living as a rock & roll musician) by being in the Pacific Northwest. Likewise, there was a critical infrastructure of studios, including that owned by the lead singers of the band Heart . This studio infrastructure allowed bands in the Pacific Northwest to record cheaply, have the support of a strong independent label, and be a part of a successful community of similar bands and musicians that could all give each other encouragement and provide competition so that everyone got better by competing for the attention of an appreciative body of music fans in the area who were accepting of bands and genres that were out of the mainstream . The combination is a perfect set of qualities that to this day nourishes a strong independent music tradition, even after the days of grunge are over.
Pearl Jam as a band is a strong contender for the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, although they do not become eligible for induction until 2016. The music of their debut album, Ten, is particularly dark. The song “Alive,” for example , tells a semi-autobiographical tale (that is, similar to the singer’s own troubled childhood) of a teen boy who finds out that the man he thought he was his father was actually his stepfather, and his real father had died years before. Even more disturbing, the similarity in looks between the boy and his father lead to an incestuous affection between mother and son. This is not music for the lighthearted and carefree, but it is music instead that deals with people of dark and immensely dysfunctional family backgrounds. The deceptively uplifting chorus of endurance despite suffering does not wipe away the darkness that inspired music like this. Small wonder, then, that such music (especially when it received mainstream success and attention) was considered as even more troublesome than rock & roll music as a whole. The fact that such heavily distorted and grim music and lyrics spoke to the grimness of life for late-generation Xers born just before children were once again protected from evil and harm while vulnerable was even more troubling for many cultural and religious authorities. It is entirely unsurprising that such authorities would feel threatened by the broken music and lyrics of Pearl Jam and bands like them, which hinted at the broken nature of many lives that had not received sufficient attention or care.
I have long sought to understand why life was so savage in the 1980’s and early 1990’s. There are two dominant social narratives and as is often the case, both of them are partly correct. One narrative emphasizes the collapse of the family and community and trust in institutions like churches, which led to childhoods of immense suffering. This focus on personal responsibility and the importance of local and familial protection is itself true, as people do need care and concern where it is most effective, on a small-scale and personal level. Yet the other narrative is also partly true, in that since the early 1980’s we have had a governmental culture of austerity in many areas of the world (including the United States and Europe) where mounting debts and reducing compassion for the suffering have led to a rolling back of social welfare programs that had been promised as a way to deal with the failure of families and communities and business and other institutions. Yet even the power of governments was unable to reverse the troubling conditions and the costs eventually became too much to bear for those who were bearing the cost. Ultimately, because of the confluence of what may be considered left-wing moral corruption and right-wing fiscal austerity, those in immense suffering have been left to comfort themselves, and the result in terms of art and culture is somewhat predictable.
In that sense, both misguided fans from more affluent and less troubled backgrounds who saw the music as a way to cast off restraint and support anarchy and misguided critics who viewed the music as an inducement to evil both missed the point. The music was not primarily a siren call to living wickedly or brokenly, but rather the natural outpouring of deeply broken lives. Broken people make broken art and culture. Those who have no understanding of wholeness or innocence cannot be blamed for creating work that speaks of their experience. To the extent that some people from such horrific backgrounds are able to strive, however timidly and haltingly, for wholeness and pursue ideals more noble than their experience are to be praised and encouraged, but not everyone has such noble and massive ambitions. Is it just to blame people for creating out of their own pain and suffering? Is that not what drives sensitive people to pour out their hearts in words and music and graphic art to begin with? Rather than being quick to condemn others for creating art out of brokenness that we find unpleasant, we should praise such people for being canaries in a coal mine, and for bringing our attention to problems that urgently need attention, even if their solutions are vexing and complicated. A godly society does not shunt aside those who need care and are under distress, rather, a godly community seeks to edify all and look out for the best interests and needs of all, letting none be ignored or abused.
To be sure, we have a long way to go to reach this ideal. In many places and in many ways we have not even begun to strive towards this ideal. And yet it is our perspective that is a key element in recognizing and resolving the problems and issues of our time. About 2750 years ago, the prophet Amos (who was himself a shepherd of modest means) was sent as a prophet to the nation of Israel, which was then enjoying a temporary and partial prosperity. Amos’ message of repentance from social evil and sexual immorality, and his pointing out of the economic exploitation and evils (like abortion ) did not go over well to an audience that did not want to turn their hearts and change from their wicked ways. Amos, in a sense, served as a voice for the suffering people being sold for a pair of shoes, or being taken advantage of by and father and a son without pity or remorse. How long will we attack those who give us messages we do not want to hear, but which are useful to hear to remind us of the evils that exist in our own midst? How long will we silently pass over injustice, while the cries of the exploited rise up to our God and King, who will eventually avenge their suffering on our heads?
 See, for example:
 See, for example: