A Sort of Multithematic Post (Great Title, I Bet That'll Become Standard Usage) [Enlarged Edition, Now with Five Parts]

JAC gives us the first installment of his list of the 40 greatest grunge songs of all time. Which inspired me to come up with a few points while lying in bed this morning. Here they come.

I Defining Music Genres

... is notouriously hard. JAC defines grunge as
music that was made mostly in the '90s, drawing on the early punk and heavy metal of the '70s-'80s as far as dynamics and tone quality (namely, loud and distorted), but drawing more on the songwriting of the '60s. There's usually a loose, lazy, "Anyone could play this" vibe, and there are rarely any instruments other than guitar, bass, drums, and vocals.
That certainly seems too wide to me (he already has on his list a song by Dinosaur jr., whose music most people would call emocore), but I couldn't give you a better one. It's one of those I-know-it-when-I-hear-it things.

What I was actually going to say was that for years I couldn't tell the difference between techno and house. Then one day I suddenly could. (I still can.) Sometimes the way my mind works frightens me.

II The Grand Lemmus Theory of Music Socialization

JAC writes:

People always say the music that's popular when you're an adolescent makes the biggest impression on you. I think that's overstated -- a lot of people who were born in the early '80s (like me) seem at least as heavily influenced by music from the '60s as they are by music from the '90s or '00s. But there's something to the theory.
I agree that there's something to the theory but that it's not quite right. Here's mine:

H1: There is a time window during which music one hears anew is more likely to make an impression on one. Whether that music is popular at the time is relevant only insofar as one is more likely to hear it.

H2: This time window opens with the onset of adolescence and closes at around age 27 (but see H3).

H3: The earlier a person starts a proper adult life, the earlier his or her time window will close. "Proper adult life" in the sense of this hypothesis means having children or joining the workforce. In other words, being a childless student does not count as a proper adult life in the sense of this theory, even if the student works part-time.

I'm not actually so sure about H3, but, hey, if we want to look into the matter, we need a proper hypothesis, no?

Note this is a social science theory, so we're talking about averages here. Bringing up the example of one bloke who's still impressionable at age 50 won't do. We need a proper representative sample!

III Art Imitates Life

In Philipe Djian's brilliant novel which is called Pas de deux in German and Lent dehors in the French original (that's right, they substituted one French title for another), there is a scene in which the adolescent narrator hears Dylan's "Like a Rolling Stone" for the first time while travelling in a car in 1965. He is completely taken aback, baffled, has his mouth standing open, can't believe it. I read that when the book came out in Germany in 1993 and found it a bit eerie because that described exactly my experience of hearing "Smells Like Teen Spirit" for the first time. Except for the 1965 bit, of course.

IV Forward This One to the OED Editors

There is a well-known phenomenon that if one listens to a song too often and/or at too high a frequency, one grows tired of it and does not want to listen to it anymore despite one's recognizing it's a great song. As far as I am aware, there is currently no expression which describes this phenomenon in common usage. It may thus interest you that yours truly once coined a phrase to describe it: The Teen Spirit Effect.

V And Here's What I Said When I Was Told Kurt Cobain's Dead

"Yeah right! Again?"

I'm sorry.


John Althouse Cohen said...

Thanks for the link and discussion!

I actually disagree with your theory about the "window" closing at 27. I'm 27, and around when I turned 25 I got much more interested in paying attention to music that's around now, and I'm not sensing that the interest is flagging at all. In fact, I have a big backlog of new music to catch up on -- that music alone could easily take a couple years, not even counting the new music that might be released in the meantime. In contrast, from about 18-25 I was mostly interested in classical and jazz, and wasn't really tuned in to current music. I guess none of this would technically contradict your theory ... assuming I suddenly stop listening to new music before my next birthday. But I doubt it. Plus, the fact that I've just recently gotten more interested in the music that's around now seems to go against the grain of your theory. (And without going into personal details, the "proper adult life" concept wouldn't really explain it.)

BTW, Matthew Yglesias, who's my age, would be direct evidence of the phenomenon you're describing, as he says in this post. I know you said you wouldn't count one counterexample to your theory as significant. But then, does Yglesias count as support for your theory? Wouldn't that be kind of slanted?

Thanks for coining the "Teen Spirit Effect" -- this certainly describes how I feel about that song. Also, Beethoven's 5th and a bunch of Beatles songs. This is very unfortunate, but I find that you can undo this effect if you (1) give yourself enough of a break from the music, then (2) return to it and make a point of paying attention and playing it at full volume instead of as background music.

John Althouse Cohen said...

I have to respond to this:

That certainly seems too wide to me (he already has on his list a song by Dinosaur jr., whose music most people would call emocore), but I couldn't give you a better one.

Most people would call it "emocore"? Really? I've never heard that word till I read this blog post. That's a perfect example of the futility of critiquing a list like this based on narrow definitions -- if you applied narrow genre definitions, the list wouldn't be interesting, which would defeat the purpose.

Several people have taken issue with my use of "grunge" (in this blog post, in my comments, and in comments on AskMetafilter and Althouse). A few points to note about this:

(1) I haven't seen anyone give any evidence to support the idea that there's a narrower definition of grunge that has any more validity than my definition. What's the source for these definitions? Bands that people have said do not count include Dinosaur Jr., Tool, Smashing Pumpkins, Flaming Lips, and Alice in Chains. Remember, no one is claiming that every song by these bands is well-described as "grunge" -- I'm just talking about the songs I'm using from these bands. And if Alice in Chains and Tool don't count, surely Soundgarden doesn't count. If that's what someone wants to call "grunge," then who cares about such a measly group of bands? I mean, who does count? Is it just Nirvana, the Melvins, and Mudhoney, and that's it? How incredibly dry and boring.

You can define it narrowly or broadly based on your own whim. There is no authority, no dictionary definition -- only random people's different uses of the word. (Wikipedia, for instance, says that Bush is not "grunge" but "post-grunge," which seems ridiculously hair-splitting to me.) I prefer to see grunge as a general style that was prevalent throughout a large portion of the rock music of the early to mid '90s, not a strict set of criteria for how to sound like Nirvana.

(2) The whole idea of quibbling about labels is antithetical to everything that makes music fun and exciting, and especially to the idea of "grunge" which is specifically about not caring! Then why am I even limiting it to "grunge"? I'm only using that word as an excuse to make an interesting list of music that I like that happens to have a few common threads. If the list is interesting and has enjoyable music, it's a success. If I don't achieve that, then it's not a success, and people should make their own lists that improve on mine.

(3) I have a standing offer to link to anyone who makes their own top 40 grunge list, with commentary on each song, and blogs it. We can then compare the lists, and see which list is best. (I'm not at all suggesting that you're suggesting that my list will be anything less than superb, LemmusLemmus -- I'm just pointing out that the results matter more than the categories, labels, genres, etc.).

(4) As I said in the intro to the list, my broader goal (aside from just making a list of good music) is to make the case for grunge as an interesting style in which people experimented with a wide range of different sounds, melodies, textures, etc., and that it's worth returning to this era and appreciating some of the best songs that were made within it. I'm driven to make a list of people who pushed the envelope. I wouldn't even have the motivation in the first place to make a list of people who dutifully stayed within the narrowest possible definition of "grunge" (or any other style).

If I were making a list of "the greatest of the classical era," I would be really into putting all sorts of compositions by Beethoven and Schubert and, at the other end of the timeline, CPE Bach and early Haydn that do not sound like what we expect the "classical era" to sound like. That's why Beethoven and Schubert were geniuses: because they pushed the boundaries of the genre. To say that "well, you should have only included the most typical examples of the classical style by Haydn and Mozart" would be defeating the purpose of making an interesting, diverse list.

(5) Remember that I still have 35 songs left to go -- and I promise you they will be even more flagrantly violative of any narrow concept of "grunge." Warning to those who disagree with my list entries so far: you'll be even more alarmed by future list items! As Nirvana sang, "Stay away!!!!!!!!!"

LemmusLemmus said...

Dear John,

a few short replies:

1. Don't get too excited over my mild criticizm of your definition - after all, it's just a definition. I already said that I couldn't give a better one and that music genres are extremely hard to define. As philosophers of science tell us, definitions can't be right or wrong.

2. As for "emocore", it yields two million google hits; however, the first twenty are all in German, which suggests the term is more popular in the German- than the English-speaking world. (As you have probably gathered from this or a different post, I am a German living in Germany.) It does have an English-language Wikipedia entry, however (with no mention of Dinosaur jr.).

3. "Wouldn't that be kind of slanted?" Sure it would. You are weak evidence against the theory, while the post you linked to actually seems a bit ambivalent (if that's the right word) in this respect (given that he utters a desire to "get back into the groove").

4. As for The Teen Spirit Effect, the method you describe certainly does work often, but I'm afraid that specific song is just "burned" for me.

pj said...

Emocore? Never heard of it, certainly wasn't around at the time in the UK from my recollection. As for bands like Dinosaur Jr, JP describes them as being 'not quite grunge, but around at the same time, and being a bit similar, and the same people who liked grunge liked them' which I think sums it up.

What do you call the genre of alternative rock bands like Hüsker Dü, Sugar, the Pixies, Sonic Youth etc?

LemmusLemmus said...

"What do you call the genre of alternative rock bands like Hüsker Dü, Sugar, the Pixies, Sonic Youth etc?"

"Alternative rock" (which encompasses, but is not limited to, grunge). Based on his definition, I would guess at least two of the bands you named will come up in John's list. My bets, in this order:

1. Sonic Youth

2. Pixies

3. Sugar*

4. Hüsker Dü

*I distinctly remember Bob Mould saying that "whoever compares us to Nirvana can eat shit", but then, musicians are notourious for not liking to be put into pigeonholes. Tricky used to insist he didn't do triphop.

pj said...

But then maybe that's the problem, those bands all belong to a broader category, so deciding exactly who fits into a subcategory is difficult and largely arbitrary, based on similarities in sound and time.

But actually I was after an amusing German category that I'd never heard of to complement 'emocore'.

Would you really rank Sonic Youth as more grunge than the Pixies or Sugar?

pj said...

Hmm, following the links, I have to say I fall on the 'Smashing Pumpkins count as grunge' side of this debate, although I'm not so sure about Tool, weren't they metal?

LemmusLemmus said...

"But then maybe that's the problem, those bands all belong to a broader category, so deciding exactly who fits into a subcategory is difficult and largely arbitrary"

Yeah, it would be handy to have a clear taxonomy ("alternative rock consists of the following subgenres, defined as follows..."), but things just don't work that way.

"But actually I was after an amusing German category that I'd never heard of to complement 'emocore'."

What were you thinking of? "Rationalcore"?

"Would you really rank Sonic Youth as more grunge than the Pixies or Sugar?"

No, of those bands on the list, Sugar is definitely the most "grungy". I was making a prediction about John's list. Given that Sugar were never anywhere near as popular as Sonic Youth, I thought the latter were more likely to feature.

The first two Smashing Pumpkins albums were definitely grunge in my book; I would call Tool Hardcore rather than metal, although they're a borderline case.

Boy, what a pleasantly pointless debate. It's nice to sometimes discuss something less important than rape. It's a nice excuse to get melancholic, and it has made me want to listen to Sugar's first album again.

LemmusLemmus said...

Rationalcore: The most popular band in that genre were The Kants.

Sorry, I couldn't resist.

pj said...

I'm a big fan of Beaster, didn't like Copper Blue quite so much.

LemmusLemmus said...

For me, it's exactly the other way around.

pj said...

"I would call Tool Hardcore rather than metal, although they're a borderline case."

I'm not sure my musical vocabulary has a place for 'hardcore' either - probably my musical illiteracy - 'post-punk', yeah, just about, as a descriptor for a disparate group of bands that were, you know, post-punk (although I think the terms 'punk' 'new wave' and 'post-punk' all merge in to each other) but I've never needed to identify bands as 'hardcore' - which probably reflects the lack of popularity of that kind of music in the UK of my youth (quick look at the wikipedia article for 'hardcore' suggests Black Flag are the only one I've heard of - I refuse to call the Dead Kennedys and Hüsker Dü 'hardcore'), I think we just called it 'punk'.

And in that case, I'm calling Tool metal, not punk.

LemmusLemmus said...

I found the phrasing "hardcore punk" a bit odd in the Wikipedia article - to me, those are two different, albeit related, genres.

Black Flag: Almost the definition of hardcore.

Dead Kennedys: Clearly punk.

Hüsker Dü: Their first record is hardcore; after that they changed. Some people call their later style "melodic hardcore", but that always seemed like an oxymoron to me.

pj said...

I've heard the expression 'hardcore punk' as in the wikipedia article, but never thought o it as a musical genre distinct rom 'punk', but never 'hardcore' without the 'punk' bit.

LemmusLemmus said...

Hm. Maybe it's just that the German usage is different from the UK usage (cf. "emocore").

pj said...

Maybe, maybe its just that I wasn't around at the time. I didn't properly get into music until about 1990, so a lot of the music that was around in the '80s I only knew retrospectively (although, saying that, a lot of bands stick around, and even if the bands don't, there is normally quite a time lag before the music disappears from the scene).

It is always interesting to see how things are codified and explained retrospectively when you were there at the time - particularly things like music where you have the tendencies of music magazines to make up meaningless musical genres to link disparate bands (yes, NME, I'm looking at you) and of men to make endless lists and subclassifications, and to police these with bizarre zeal.

Looking at the musical genres I've lived through I'm always amused that they've always pretty much been known as 'indie' to me and my friends whereas if you look at wikipedia you can see obsessive subclassifications into C86, baggy, grebo, shoegaze, britpop, post-britpop(!) etc. I don't think I ever heard a normal person (as opposed to the press) refer to music as being 'britpop'. Interestingly, we called almost all US imported stuff (that wasn't obviously punk) 'alternative rock', even grunge a lot of the time, probably an indication of how distance from a scene blurs the distinctions.

LemmusLemmus said...

"Britpop" is used quite a bit in Germany; I find it fairly useful. I had never heard any of the other terms on the list. C86? At least come up with a proper word! Post-britpop? Is that the pop that's made after Britain has been conquered? (Thinking about it, I confess to once calling a band "neo-grunge" on the basis of their having started their career in 1996 or so.)

As I didn't mention in the post, when I first came across Nirvana, it didn't occur to me that that's a new genre - to me it was just indie rock, like Dinosaur jr., Sonic Youth, etc.

The problem with NME is that they have looots of pages to fill every week, and there's only so much intelligent to say about music. As I'm not the first person to point out, that's probably the reason they declare THE NEXT BIG THING about every fortnight.

pj said...

I think almost all of those words can be traced back to the NME. Which is probably why they are so useless. C86 is indie from the late eighties before it was so influenced by dance that was a bit more upbeat than bands like House of Love or Echo and the Bunnymen (Soup Dragons, Primal Scream, Mighty Lemon Drops etc) named after an NME compilation apparently. Grebo is a bit more rocky indie from the late eighties (PWEI, Wonder Stuff, Ned's Atomic Dustbin), and baggy is when indie became infused with dance and other influences around the 80s/90s change (Happy Mondays, Stone Roses). Shoegaze just means indie bands with distortion and/or electronica influences but according to wikipedia encompasses bands as diverse as the Cocteau Twins, MBV, Ride, Jesus and Mary Chain, Yo La Tengo, the Cure, and Dinosaur Jr!

But what's interesting is how these labels mostly just identify a point in time in indie music where some influences were greater than others - i.e. bands around at the same time tend to influence each others and share the same external influences, which is why, I think, these labels don't really pick out specific musical genres - so the Soup Dragons, and others around in the C86 era became baggy bands, PWEI became increasingly dance oriented but the Wonder Stuff pretty much stayed the same during the baggy and Britpop eras, Blur and the Charlatans were baggy but became Britpop, Blur themselves became 'post-Britpop' apparently, as did others bands like Travis. And nothing obvious links shoegazing bands at all. And all this time you have bands like the Wedding Present (on the C86 compilation), Carter USM, New Order, The Smiths, Electronic, Paul Weller, The La's...

LemmusLemmus said...

Heh! Someone's feeling a bit hot under the collar, eh?

I bet there's a sociology dissertation in there somewhere. Not that I'd want to read it.