Thursday, February 02, 2006

On the Distinction between Grunge and Metal

Moise respectfully dissented to my list of ten essential metal albums on the ground that the list did not include Nirvana. After I asserted without explaining that Nirvana is not metal, but grunge, he responded thusly:
I suppose I am a silly person who cannot separate the subtle distinction between "Alice in Chains" as "Metal" with "Nirvana" which is so obviously grunge one would be an idiot for saying they're hardcore.

Now, a defense of Nirvana as Metal.

I agree that their most popular album "Nevermind" has little of anything to do with Metal. But their earlier work, Bleach and their later masterpiece, In Utero, are so obviously rooted in metal.

Maybe we would be helped by a definition Kelly? What does "metal" mean? If your saying that Nirvana can't be metal you must have a different definition than I.

(I understand you would never find Nirvana in the "metal" section at a Tower Records, but to me it has all the emotion and guitars that would make up metal) Sorry for the misused "quotes".
I certainly don't think the distinction between grunge and metal is that obvious, actually. My overstatement was meant to be humorous. But regardless, I can no more define "metal" or "grunge" than you can define "punk" or anyone can define "classical." Perhaps what we call classical or baroque was once seen as a diverse mixture of different genres which have disappeared with time, and perhaps in time grunge will be viewed as metal. I suppose only time will tell.

As a general matter, the view of grunge as distinct from metal came from its origins. Instead of growing out of a highly theatrical, bluesy European influence, it grew out of a pessimistic, punky Seattle influence. At the same time, however, they did borrow a lot from metal. This is why Alice in Chains is often confused with the grunge movement (as exemplified by Nirvana, Soundgarden, and probably also Pearl Jam). Alice in Chains was also very dark (what do you expect from rainy Seattle?) and they also came from Seattle. Alice in Chains is not as much punk-based as, say, Nirvana, even though they do have some punk roots (see some of their early demos).

Also, I've heard another characterization of the distinction: metal encourages channeling your rage outward, and this is healthy, whereas grunge is all about channeling rage inward, which is unhealthy. This was probably true at the time, but Alice in Chains is almost precisely on the border between the two. I think that recent history has claimed AiC for metal, however, because the metal artists cite them as an influence today where they don't cite Nirvana, and they borrow more from the AiC style.

So there was a lot of intermixing of punk and metal in the Seattle music scene of the late 80's and early 90's, which led in large part to the creation of grunge. Hence the confusion. But to add to this confusion, now today MTV and the "rock" radio stations have decided that all the distinctions are unimportant, and they no longer speak of metal or grunge but of "rock" music, and therefore Nickelback and their ilk (most certainly grunge bands) get played on the same air time as Disturbed, Metallica, and Static-X.

I think you need to look at the bands on the whole, on balance, and when you toss them into the graduated cylinder to find their specific gravity you find that Alice in Chains is metal and Nirvana is grunge. I suppose, if you wanted, you could enlarge the sphere of metal to include grunge, but I think if you did that then it would also swallow up a large amount of punk music, and that would offend the musical sensibilities of both punks and metalheads.


  1. Good post. I liked the inward v. outward distinction. That really made a lot of sense to me. However, I'm going to have to object on this point.

    Nickleback is to Grunge what Sum 41 is to Punk or what Ratt is to Metal.

    Would you like me to call Van Halen Metal? Or perhaps Motley Crue?

    There are similar distinctions.

    Maybe the real difference is Popular v. Underground rather than anything more specific. It is "cooler" to like something underground than it is to embrace and enjoy something popular. This is based on the assumption that some (if not all) music elites which to be "cool".

    I'm reminded of a quote I heard attributed to Nat King Cole, "There are only two types of music, good and bad". I'm more comfortable with only that distinction.

  2. Oh, and I want to say that I understand this is music and it's completely up to personal taste. :)

  3. I would definitely agree with your analogies, but the categorizations stands nonetheless in my mind. Sure, Van Halen is metal. And a Ford Festiva is a car.

    I think the many different sub-genres are useful to speakabout music in an abstract way, but the bad-good distinction is useful too. It definitely shows a different attitude toward music.

    And the popular-unpopular distinction is great for anyone who likes anything other than Top 40, but it should never be the basis for liking/disliking something. I think that's a sad elitist attitude.

  4. Excellent distinction btwn metal and grunge.

    I've always been fascinated by the overwhelming desire we all seem to have (me included) to categorize music, particularly when so much good music and new music defies categorization, and the categories seem to be so subjective. Back in my music biz days, the first question out of just about everyone's mouth was, "What kind of music do you do?" "Well, good music" would be my standard reply ;)

    Regardless, I think you've gotten us a step closer too understanding grunge vs. metal. I'm a fan of both.

    P.S. I mea culpa'd after your comment - you were right. Nothing wrong with a conservative majority. My issue is somewhat different. Thx.

  5. Superbowl Sunday means nothing's on TV, so I'm avoiding homework by commenting on alot of your posts instead of avoiding homework by watching Law & Order: CI.

    I'm disturbed by the categorization of Nickelback as "grunge" and Moise's comment didn't do much to ease my psychic pain. The Sum 41/Ratt parallel works, but only to the extent that both bands are at the "lite" end of their respective genres. Punk is generally characterized by minimum chordage and aggressive lyrics which are frequently intended to make a sociopolitical statement. Sum 41's musical content certainly meets the punk criteria musically, although their lyrical content is a bit on the fluffy side... Metal on the other hand tends to be characterized by technical guitar work and fairly harmonious vocals. Ratt meets the criteria for metal but, like Sum 41, are rather "fluffy" insofar as they're kind of a party band..

    Now, where I disagree with you AND Moise, Kelly, is where you categorize Nickelback as "grunge". Grunge to me is characterized by minimal chordage, indistinct notes and abstract lyrics while still maintaining a certain amount of melodiousness. Nirvana, Soundgarden and yes, Alice In Chains, are all grunge bands in my mind. MTV in the 90's also considered AiC to be grunge...

    As reluctant as I am to make the popular v. underground distinction, I think Moise is on to something. But it's not so much whether the band is popular or not so much as it is their intent in writing the music. I think we can infer from Ratt's music that they're seeking the widest audience possible. Likewise for Sum 41 and Nickelback. Then there are the artists who make music for the sake of expression and, as much as I don't want to be thought of as an elitist, this is generally the music I wind up listening to... 'Cause, well, when you try to appeal to the masses you inevitably wind up singing about your ex-girlfriend and let's face it, that really only works for the blues and Sinatra...

  6. A bit of vindication here. At the time of this discussion, Wikipedia was not your first go-to source. It lists Nickelback as post-grunge, in line with my assessment as grunge.