The young people of the 90’s, who saw the Cold War through very young eyes, were disenchanted with their country, their culture, and even their parents. This second generation of “latchkey kids” felt like they weren’t being listened to, and there were few in power who cared enough to try and understand them. Many parents felt that their children were becoming too soft, and it irked them that the youth refused to be indoctrinated with the same traditional values they themselves grew up with. The 90’s generation hated the hypocrisy of the ruling authority, feeling as though adults had entirely forgotten their own history with youthful rebellion. These 90’s adolescents were forced to adapt quickly to the constant changes brought on by runaway technological innovation, and they refused to be a part of the rank-and-file system that saw them as numbers rather than people. Out of this complex social climate came many different forms of rock and heavy metal, but they all attempted to do the same thing; help young people make sense of the world and cope with the impending push over the edge into Y2K adulthood. Their response became grunge, a wave of anger, indifference, and sincerity dressed in a flannel shirt and Dr.Martens. In the 13-month period between August 1991 and September 1992, the five bands that would basically spearhead the grunge movement would release the seminal albums that formed its nucleus. Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, Alice in Chains, and Stone Temple Pilots shaped the look and sound of the early part of the decade, and helped create the music culture of their generation. Unfortunately, this lead to many more traditional rock acts to be mislabeled as “grunge”, a frustrating pigeonhole to many of these very talented bands. Even calling a band like Alice in Chains or STP “grunge” is a bit misleading; their music catalogue is way more diverse than the sludgy guitar work that defined grunge. The revisionist history of the grunge era often paints a one-sided portrait of the decade’s music, forgetting that there was more going on at the time. A rediscovery of the 60’s hippie culture by the 90’s youth led to many of them adopting social causes, like environmentalism and world peace. Woodstock ’94 was a cultural high for the young people of the 90’s, and alternative music, along with clothing styles and political ideologies, reflected the more liberal views that many were taking. Young people rediscovered the blues and jam bands of the 60’s, and bands that emulated that sound became popular. The Black Crowes, Blues Traveler, Phish, and Beck were able to make an emotional connection to the socially conscious (and occasionally stoned) young people in the counterculture of their era. The punk bands of the 70’s and 80’s inspired a wave of pop-punk bands like Green Day, The Offspring, and Blink-182 to rewrite the rules of punk rock, and made playing three-chord songs on the guitar fun again.
Heavy metal did not enter the 90’s in the best of health. While thrash metal titans Metallica and Megadeth released two of the best-selling metal albums of all time at the beginning of the decade, metal as a whole was really starting to wander off course. It didn’t help that grunge had swept up many of the would-be metal fans in the early part of the 90’s. They appealed to the same demographic…outsiders, outcasts, and the outspoken. What heavy metal really needed was a call-to-arms to combat the effects of grunge, and its saviors arrived in the form a little ol’ band from Texas called Pantera. With the help of other “New Wave of American Heavy Metal” bands like Machine Head, Biohazard, and Korn (who would also become one of the founders of nu-metal), Pantera put the creative fire back into a lot of bellies, and metal fans around the world found a new champion of their cause. Metal mega-festivals like Ozzfest began popping up, uniting hundreds of thousands of metal fans and reviving the culture back to its former glory. Young fans who had never listened to the pioneers of hard rock and heavy metal before were now seeing the bands on the biggest stages across the country, and it changed the lives of many modern metal musicians during their formative years. As the decade came to a close, and sub-genres like nu-metal, alt-metal, and metalcore divided fans into smaller cliques, the unity of the metal community began to weaken. While heavy metal fans are undoubtedly still passionate about their music, it’s obvious that younger generations do not, and may never, understand the sense of community that came with being a heavy metal fan in the 80’s and 90’s.
So, what does all this translate to? Why does any of it matter? The importance of music to our culture, especially throughout adolescence, helps shape us into who we become later in life. Our ability to relate to others, to process change, and to find our place in the world has been tied to the music of our generation for decades. With the introduction of new technology that has changed the way we access and listen to music, the changing tastes of younger generations, and the overall attitude change towards the importance of music, we as a society have basically waged a war against generational rock music. What drew the unrepentant young flapper girl to jazz in the 20’s was the same thing that glued thousands of young men and women to the television in 1964 to watch The Rolling Stones on the Ed Sullivan show… a sense of danger, and the kinship they felt with everyone else who felt and understood it. That risk embodied the rebellious youthful spirit within and that made them feel alive. They could have a good time to their music, they could make memories to their music, and because their parents and society didn’t approve of the morality (or lack thereof) behind the creation of it, they could even defy authority just by listening to it. When you were tied to your music, your culture, and the reputation it held in the eyes of society, it gave you an identity. You were seen and you were heard, some for the first time in their lives. Generational rock gave young people the chance to belong, even if they didn’t realize it at the time. You could stand for something, like the hippies of the 60’s, or you could stand against everything, like the defiant, angry metalheads of Southern California in the 80’s. It didn’t mean that one was limited to listening to only one type of music, but that you were passionate enough about the music you loved to help shape a culture around it, that you embraced that culture, and to hell with what people thought about it. That dedication towards the art form was the backbone of generational rock, and when it faltered in the early 00’s, so did the social ties to music, specifically rock.
As a society, we’ve lost our sense of adventure. The internet has made us boring, plain and simple. Nothing shocks us anymore, nothing entertains us the way it used to. We have become desensitized to the point where we can no longer be passionate about something without getting some sort of social reward or recognition for it. We crave instant gratification, instant results, and instant success, or we lose interest instantly. We can’t care about music, or anything, for that matter, enough to make it a meaningful part of us, and that’s unfortunate. This inability to feel the danger, to throw away inhibitions and break some rules, helped usher in the end of generational rock. How can we use music to describe our feelings if we wear our hearts on our sleeves everywhere we go? We put everything on social media, we let everyone know how we feel about politics, sex, and religion. We don’t have any secrets anymore; we are open books. There’s nothing left to discover… we lay it all out there, warts and all, under the guise that this is being “real”. But by doing so, are we really being our genuine selves, or have we, just by our participation in this bizarre social spectacle of emotional show-and-tell, painted a false portrait of ourselves for the approval of society? Does this grotesque caricature really convey our personalities and beliefs? Is the sum of our existence just what we share on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram?
No! There’s no way this can possibly be true. Music doesn’t mean the same thing to everyone, but it’s been the lifeline of millions of people over many, many generations. I’m sure some would argue that the rise in popularity of hip hop and rap has something to do with the decline of rock music, but that phenomena is a whole different story of its own. No, the death of generational rock wasn’t at the hand of hip hop, but by our insistence on changing the way we expressed ourselves to the rest of the world. By attempting to broaden our horizons and be more worldly, we’ve tragically diluted the human experience to the point where it’s difficult to tell the difference between a real, intimate moment that might only last an instant, and a pre-contrived snapshot of your life that’ll be documented on the internet. Consider the fact that if a new acquaintance asked you 40 years ago what kind of music you listened to, you would never respond “Oh, I listen to everything!”. That is a generic, thoughtless response. Everyone listens to “everything”, but that’s not what they’re really asking you, is it? They’re asking you to tell them who you are, and by giving them such a boring response, you’re doing just that, even if you don’t realize it. That’s the great conundrum that comes with losing touch with music… it can help us discover who we are, or, at the very least, provide us with some idea of who we can be. Rock music, throughout it’s short and colorful history, has continuously been a means to express oneself unapologetically, without fear of judgement or reprisal. Writing songs about love, hate, fear, and confusion give us power over those things, and history has shown us that we can work our way through some truly terrible things by writing about them. That is undoubtedly one of the greatest lessons music can teach us. By finding their identity through the songs of their generation, millions of people were able to learn about themselves and grow with the music (including the musicians). If the next generation of young people cannot find a way to speak and live through the music they create by building an authentic identity and culture around it, they will always struggle to understand themselves and each other… and they won’t even be able to write a song about it.