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Grunge vs. Hair Metal: Who Lives Today?

This Only-Rock Exclusive Monthly Special was originally published in July 2006. It includes the results of over 2 months of extensive research and conclusion-making. Overall, this article got a relatively positve response.  We hope you enjoy it and can come to your own conclusions.

For the July/August Monthly Special, Only-Rock has decided to take you in a time machine over the last 10 years to answer a very controversial question, Which Rock sub-genre is still ‘alive’: 80’s Metal or the 90’s Grunge movement. To answer this, we will take an un-biased view at the two genres, looking specifically at the two differing views on music, the industry, and the lifestyles themselves.

Growing up in the Seattle area, I forget that there are different musical views all around the US and western world. Unlike on the East Coast, the NW life is still based on the ideals of the 90’s grunge music. Nirvana, Pearl Jam, and Alice In Chains rule the radios, and good ol’ fashioned rock is still buried in the ruins of Grunge. Sparked mainly by Kurt Cobain and Nirvana, Grunge followers hated the ideals of mainstream 80’s metal, therefore hating the music industry. Because of this, Grunge was doomed to fail in self-destruction. Many grunge fans worship Kurt Cobain because he “killed” pop-rock, but if you use a little common sense, you might find otherwise.

Music has always shown the ideals of the time it was recorded in, and the eighties was a time of excess. Hair Metal is a fuse between the three different “rock” sub-genres of the 70’s: the New-Wave of British Metal (Judas Priest, Def Leppard, Black Sabbath), the US anthem rock of the 70’s (KISS), and the British glam rock masters of the 70’s (Slade, Queen, T. Rex). Hair metal was the height of “talent” in rock music: guitars solos were excellent, drum solos lasted minutes, and nothing was simple. This caused what is known to be the excess of the 80’s: Girls, girls, and more girls, nice cars, and over-the-top looks based on their glam metal roots. Power ballads hit the mainstream in the mid-80’s, and many people began to believe that mainstream metal was becoming to pop-like for its own good. This caused many bandwagon jumpers to put their heart in a more less polished and less professional genre that became known as Grunge.

In the late eighties in the Pacific Northwest, there were a few labels and even fewer bands being signed. Because of this, music fans came to dislike and eventually hate the music industry. They tried to do the exact opposite of the mainstream rock by creating music that featured less polished and more simple riffs, lyrics, and music. The artists believed that if you had fame, fortune, and a fan base like the artists of the metal scene, you were to blame for the problems with society. As the 90’s came, the fall of the Soviet Union and political problems created the spirit of the time. This showed in the new independent music in the NW, and as people began realizing that pollution and economy problems were unavoidable, the Grunge scene took off. Fans from the genre of metal jumped the bandwagon, and Grunge artists began receiving contracts. Within one year, 1991, the music-direction change had been put into full swing. Grunge was becoming popular at the cost of eighties metal.

Grunge took America by storm, eventually causing its own self-destruction. Grunge artists just couldn’t handle the fact that they had become the people they had once hated (famous, wealthy, and popular), and the simplicity of the music had caused the music to remain at a stand-still. By 1998, Grunge had almost disappeared, most bands had disbanded and had given the way to the new stages of grunge: EMO, Hardcore punk, and alternative. These styles kept the same simplicity that Grunge had, but turned the music in another direction- away from the self-depression that Grunge had. However, the intense hatred that Grunge had its roots also was the foundation for these new breeds of post-Grunge rock

During the early nineties, the most popular metal bands had completely disappeared from the scene. Dave Mustaine, guitarist/vocalist of the heavy metal band Megadeth, nicknamed L.A. Glam metal “GLAM- Gay L. A. Metal.” Grunge followers believed that this was a suitable description of 80‘s metal- they worshiped Kurt for “killing hair metal.” However, I believe that hair metal is the farthest thing from killed, and in fact it is Grunge that within a few years will completely plunge off the map.

In a radio station special, Def Leppard did a small performance in which they played a few unplugged songs singing in harmony. When the DJ commented, “That was incredible,” Joe replied, “you must be a product of the nineties. There is nothing incredible about three guys singing in tune.” Hair metal is definitely the most talented of the two genres, just ask any guitarist, keyboardist, drummer, or any other musically inclined person. When my friend (who is a guitarist) complained about my musical taste, I posed the question: Which time period over the past 100 years had the most talented musicians? He answered the eighties metal scene, and I knew I had won the battle. Why would you support so-called musicians that can’t play music? The next day I found him listening to Dokken on the CD player.

Any type of music that has its values in depression, suicide, and anger is destined for a major burn-out. Look past current post-Grunge bands like Nickelback anywhere except the Pacific NW and you will find that Grunge has died. When I traveled to Arizona over the past summer, I was amazed that there were not one, two, but three stations dedicated to 80’s metal. In the Seattle area, there are no stations dedicated to heavy metal, but the newest weekend special on KISW, Dude It’s The Eighties, shows that there is chance that hair metal might return to the birthplace of Grunge rock. Look past Washington, however, and you will find it already has. 80’s metal masters are reforming their old bands and heading back out on the tour bus, playing for screaming and huge audiences. They’re writing new material and are beginning to influence new artists. Use common sense and tell me which genre, in the next ten years, will still be selling records and selling-out concerts - Grunge or Hair Metal?

What might give metal the extra get-ahead over Grunge? The first popular answer will be the upbeat, positive, and no-worries values of hair metal. The ideas of enjoying your life and living for what you believe in are major concepts of metal. Another answer can be found in the music itself. Well-written music, performed by talented artists who know almost all there is to know about their instruments, always seem to last the longest. This is the music that sticks around, the music that you don’t get tired and bored of hearing after a few listens. Unlike modern music, heavy metal albums still sell after a few months. In fact, many 80’s metal albums are still selling today, 25 years later. Most modern albums, after the first year or so, stop selling and are completely forgotten. The last reason, though small, shows the contrast between the two different styles stage shows, and, in the big view of things, better shows the contrast between the two lifestyles. Throughout rock ‘n roll’s history, stage shows were always over the top entertainment and a major part of the lifestyle and the music. This is no different with hair metal. However, as Grunge rolled around, the stage show changed and became no more then the band standing on stage and singing the songs. There was no performance, no excitement, and no reason to check out their shows.

Grunge music reflected the times and environment that it was born in. Now that those times have passed, the music itself has become old and dated. A few years ago, the guitar solo returned to rock, being applauded for by screaming fans who want real music back. In the next few years, metal will return, in fact, it has already started to. As Joe Perry said, hair metal is “just American rock & roll taken to the extreme. It has no problem with capitalism, profiteering, decadence, excess, or money.” With new acts like The Darkness and Velvet Revolver hitting the mainstream and old bands returning to the studios and stadiums, hair metal has and will continue to stand the test of time.


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Kurt Cobain, leader of the Seattle Grunge movement
Committed suicide in 1994

Ratt was the leader of the
"over-the-top" hair metal of the eighties.

Van Halen were the kings of excess.
David Lee Roth later had a successful solo career.

Nickelback are the kings of modern Alt. Grunge
See the resemblance between them and Kurt Cobain?

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