Never mind the aesthetes: grunge corrupted?


When it comes to the intersection of music and fashion, you can never be too open-minded. I’ve met devoted fans of Bauhaus and Dead Can Dance whose dress sense runs more to the mainstream than the macabre, their opposite numbers in the form of eyeliner-splattered scene queens with a highly un-secret appreciation for One Direction.
The defence of grunge’s musical origins from ‘inspired’ co-option of the ‘Seattle sound’ by late-Noughties fashion journalists marks out one such divergence of interests. Articles like Colin Horgan’s ‘Grunge revival shows rock’n’roll is not dead – just tired’ (The Guardian 13/09/11) rightly acknowledges that corporate re-packaging of Nirvana, Pearl Jam et al. is both inimical to the professed credo of those artists and stifling to the production of original music twenty years on. And anyone with a passing interest in early ‘90s US music culture will be willing to bend your ear about how grunge was a conscious rejection of any aesthetic at all. The denim and flannel necessitated by the Northwest climate is now ironic.

The adoption of the word ‘grunge’ as shorthand for any vaguely ‘90s or ‘edgy’ look is by now stretched to semantic breaking point. Some interest in Buddhism from the progenitors of grunge hardly justifies its application to yin/yang patterned footless tights. Creepers get lumped in with plaid despite having their subcultural origins with the Teddy Boys; studs are labelled grunge when a few years ago we’d have called them punk.

However, a puritan attitude towards the diffusion of a musical genre into style isn’t always appropriate. Particularly if you think of the primary figures of grunge as more than a serious-minded and homogenous fraternity shunning the trappings of fashion. Stand-out grunge musicians range from Layne Stayley, whose style-nous extended pretty much to jeans and perpetual shirtlessness, to Courtney Love, whose Kinderwhore post-feminism mixed the shock tactics of Ari Up and Siouxie Sioux with beauty-pageant Americana. Having since embraced high fashion, her fashion offspring live on – most notably in hot mess journalist Cat Marnell. Smashing Pumpkins, equally, weren’t adverse to a bit of aesthetic showboating – see their sparkle-apocalypse vampyric stylings in the Bullet with Butterfly Wings promo, and Kurt Cobain’s cross-dressing demonstrates that his idea of getting dressed went beyond practicalities into social critique.

Bastardization of movements with high ideals has form; the Beat Generation’s aesthetic austerity ended up in the haute couture fixated Hepburn flick Funny Face. Even Le Corbusier espoused function over form while still overlooking more practical design options to maintain sleekly minimalist visual cohesion.

With that in mind, I’d suggest that you should take as much pleasure in playing around with the music industry’s cultural detritus as Stephen Fry does in pronouncing the word ‘grunge’ on the Pacific episode of Stephen Fry in America. Youtube it to hear the man in action.

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