“It’s like a ‘f*ck you’ to everything”: Why the spirit of grunge is alive and well

Grab your flannel shirt and ripped jeans: grunge is back. A new generation is railing against inequality and political instability, combining ’90s power chords with a bevy of eclectic sounds. And this time, everyone’s invited!

“It’s like a ‘f*ck you’ to everything”: Why the spirit of grunge is alive and well
Jordan Bassett
Softcult photos:
Pearl Cook
Wu-Lu photo:
Machine Operated

Last year, Canadian duo Softcult flirted with disaster. Siblings Mercedes and Phoenix Arn-Horn took on the precarious task of covering one of the greatest – and most distinctive – bands of all time. Yet their versions of Nirvana classics Frances Farmer Will Have Her Revenge On Seattle and Been A Son oozed with confidence, as they reimagined the former as a dreamy lament while staying faithful to the sonic onslaught of the latter.

Mercedes explains that she “felt really drawn to the lyrics of both of those songs”, and there’s perhaps no wonder that this modern grunge-inspired band, who are so vocally dedicated to social justice, would gravitate towards two of Kurt Cobain’s most feminist tunes. “I can relate to them, and I just felt like it would hit in a really cool way [with] a woman saying them.”

The former Kerrang! cover stars aren’t alone in their devotion to Nirvana and ’90s grunge in general. Softcult are part of a wave of current artists who are reviving the angst-ridden Seattle sound in 2023: LA-based Blondshell, for example, espouses similarly feminist values through the time-honoured medium of crushing power chords, while Bristol’s AlienBlaze amps up the brooding, metallic production of the original scene. London’s Wu-Lu, on the other hand, splices hip-hop with sludgy alt.rock to rail against gentrification.

The rapper, whose previous work traded in ambient electronica, discovered his current style while filling in on bass for his brother’s band, the London post-punkers Warmduscher. Upon learning their songs, he recalls, “I was like, ‘It’s just simple innit! It’s straight to the point.’” This, in turn, led him to craft the ominous, bassy guitar line that opens standout track South. Wu-Lu asked himself, 'But what do I want to say?' The answer, inspired by that grungy sound, was to speak plainly about the changes blighting his hometown: “It’s like sugar – the rawest form is the best for you.”

No-one likes to feel pigeonholed, but this coterie of ’90s revivalists seems to actively embrace the ‘grunge 2.0’ tag. Blondshell, for example, finds it “flattering” to be compared to greats like Hole and Smashing Pumpkins. “I don’t feel so much put in a box,” she says, “because so much of grunge, to me, is like a ‘fuck you’ to everything – to feeling like you’re being put in a box or feeling like you have to say things in a really pretty way.”

These artists were children or not even born when Nirvana changed everything with Nevermind, the Diamond-certified album that ushered alternative rock into the mainstream, arguably paving the way for the fragmented musical landscape we now take for granted. Asked how they got into grunge in the first place, they’ll tell you it’s simply part of the cultural fabric.

“That music was so big that it's just kind of inescapable,” points out Blondshell, who dug deeper into Nirvana’s back-catalogue after seeing the 2015 documentary Montage Of Heck during high school. She was born in 1997, by which time ’90s grunge had been stripped of its countercultural edge and given way to arena-friendly rock. “People were always talking about Kurt Cobain in movies and whatever, so I knew who a lot of these artists were.”

When he was "10 or 12", Wu-Lu and his brother formed an alt.rock band called Infamy. “Our first gig was in Angell Town [Estate] in Brixton – we were playing Nirvana covers,” he laughs. They heard grunge and alternative bands through Kerrang! TV, which they “had on all the time”. (When their musician father warned them against a career in the business, the brothers vowed: “We’re gonna be on the cover of Kerrang! innit!”)

But this isn't the first time we’ve seen acts at the forefront of new music hark back to the Seattle sound. In the mid-2000s, SoundCloud rappers like Juice WRLD and Lil Peep regularly cited that scene as an inspiration – the former even dubbed himself the ‘Codeine Cobain’. Those artists, though, evoked the nihilistic spirit of ’90s grunge; like Kurt, Juice and Peep tragically died in their 20s. Thankfully, this socially-conscious revival seems more optimistic.

Blondshell was particularly affected by the emotionally raw Hole track Doll Parts, which left her better able to “sing in a way that showed my anger… The trendy thing is to talk about your sadness; it’s not cool to talk about your anger – especially for women.” Grunge, then, presented her with a cathartic framework through which to explore her emotions.

Mercedes, too, explains how Nirvana helped Softcult to find the language to write about topics such as sexual assault. “[Kurt Cobain] has almost-activism in his lyrics, but it’s through more of a darker poetry. That kind of music is the perfect platform because it is so raw. The vocals don’t have to be perfect – you can scream and let your righteous anger go.”

If you were to put a timestamp on the birth of grunge 2.0, you might pick 39:39 on the YouTube video of Post Malone’s internet-breaking 2020 charity livestream of Nirvana covers. Dressed in a silver choker and Kurt-style floral dress, the rapper launches into the chorus of Stay Away while Travis Barker punishes a drum kit in the corner.

That was the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, and pop culture has only become grungier since then: indie supergroup boygenius donned suits to recreate Nirvana’s famous Rolling Stone cover earlier this year, while high-end fashion brand Saint Laurent hit headlines after flogging the ’90s band’s vintage shirts for as much as £3,295. Wu-Lu, wise to culture’s cyclical nature, saw this coming: “I was like, it’s only a matter of time until people are back into the Big Muff [effects pedal] sound. I never really left it!”

In keeping with its socially consciousness origins, though, the new grunge is perhaps even more inclusive than its predecessor (not one of the bands mentioned here is fronted by a white dude). Wu-Lu, Softcult and Blondshell previously made easier-going music – respectively, pop-punk and alt.pop – but none have faced accusations of inauthenticity, as may have been the case in the more tribal ’90s.

When Softcult do “experience any kind of gate-keeping,” says Mercedes, “it is a gendered thing, unfortunately… We’ve been accused so many times of ripping off other bands and I don’t see that same kind of vitriol directed at bands with male members.” She does feel, though, that this kind of sexism is “dying out”.

Tellingly, most of the new grungers found their sound during lockdown. Blondshell explains that ’90s alt.rock “really hit me in a different way” during that isolated time, while Softcult’s Mercedes recalls the period’s vital resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement. “It was such a crazy time to just be at home, unable to really do anything but watch. That was a big influence on our lives, when we realised, ‘Wow, yeah – this world is really fucked up.’"

And from the cost of living and housing crises to the political and social polarisation on both sides of the Atlantic, it’s not as if post-pandemic life has been a walk in the park, either. But what’s inspired the grunge revival? The resurgence seems to come down to a combination of COVID-era introspection, pop culture’s natural nostalgia cycle and the fact that power chords so happen to be an exceptional tool in protesting societal ills. And in 2023, of course, artists influence can influence each other online from the opposite side of the globe, rather than incubating a sound in a city like Seattle.

“There’s just so much shit going on in the world that people need an outlet,” concludes Blondshell. “And [grunge] is such an outlet.”

The ’90s revival rages on. Come as you were.

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