Chuck Klosterman on Grunge, GNR and the Meaning of Classic Rock
Chuck Klosterman is at once a product of his time and a man outside of it. The pop culture journalist and author was born in 1972, putting him smack in the middle of the Gen X goalposts. He was a sophomore in college when Nirvana released their seminal Nevermind and witnessed the zeitgeist shift in real time; he recalls bonding with a classmate over his Motley Crue shirt, only to watch that classmate ceremoniously disavow the band and sport a Dinosaur Jr. shirt on campus the next year.
"I am comfortable with my service as a demographic cliche," Klosterman writes in a footnote for his wildly entertaining new book, The Nineties, which takes a scholarly, incisive look at several generational touchstones, including but not limited to: grunge, Tupac Shakur, Ross Perot, The Matrix, Michael Jordan, Seinfeld and the Clinton-Lewinski scandal.
But Klosterman is also a die-hard Kiss and Guns N' Roses fan, an apologist and advocate for the type of garish, hedonistic hard rock that was woefully uncool amid the grunge and alt-rock revolution of the '90s. (He laid his allegiances bare in his first book, 2001's hair metal-centric Fargo Rock City: A Heavy Metal Odyssey in Rural North Dakota.) Shortly before the release of The Nineties, Klosterman discussed with UCR the explosion of grunge, its implications for bands that are now understood as "classic rock" — and what, exactly, that nebulous term means.
I figured we could focus this conversation on the musical elements of the book, of which there are plenty.
Oh, sure. I'm really glad that you guys wanted to do this, because even though it's not so much in the book — it's kind of just here and there — the '90s were actually surprisingly critical for the history of classic rock as a genre. I almost included a larger section on this, but I never did. There's an issue of Spin from 1997 with Dave Grohl on the cover, and it's a Foo Fighters story. And there's a story in that publication, in that issue, about the classic-rock radio format, and how it was becoming increasingly popular and on the cusp of dominance. And then in the story on Grohl, in the Foo Fighters story, it opens with him talking about the song "Mob Rules" by Black Sabbath, and how it's one of his five favorite songs of all time. And there was this period, kind of post-grunge, when there was this realization that a large sector of the music-consuming audience was suddenly losing this relationship to the music they had liked. Like they were almost being forced to accept a new kind of music. And then someone kind of introduced classic rock. And it became ... certainly now ... I mean, it's weird. Twenty years since then, classic rock is actually more present in the culture than any of the music from the '90s. Like, Led Zeppelin still has more of a presence in the culture than Nirvana, as weird as that sounds, but it's true, in terms of how often you hear those songs in public spaces.
The stuff that was shaping the culture in the '90s was, from a raw numbers standpoint, typically a lot less popular than the things that people nowadays remember as being uncool or irrelevant at the time — which includes a lot of these monolithic classic-rock bands.
That's absolutely true, but the motive of how things got covered changed a bit, in that in the past, there had been this idea that some things needed to be covered solely because of their commercial dominance. So it didn't really matter in 1988 or whatever that you didn't like Motley Crue, maybe as a writer or a critic. Those records were huge, and they were all over MTV. And there was a sense that, well, you could write about the bands that you think are important, but you've got to write about some of these bands just because the magnitude of their success makes them important. And then that kind of shifted in the '90s, because there was a sense that, well, with Nirvana and Pearl Jam and Soundgarden and some of these groups being as big as the unpopular hair-metal bands of the '80s, we could cover these groups, and then also the groups that we think are — and when I say "we," I'm saying from the media’s perspective — that we think are relevant or important or reflect something essential about what's going on. And you can kind of ignore things despite their popularity. It was interesting to see how, say, Metallica was covered during the period when Load and Reload came out. And I was part of this, too, because I was working at newspapers. You would write about how they cut their hair, and how the songs seemed to be moving away from the prog-thrash elements that they had used. But it kind of overlooked the fact that these disappointing Metallica records were still much more popular than the albums that were coming out alongside of [them] and treated as more significant. It was an interesting deal. Or, you know, Bon Jovi still sold a ton of records in the '90s, and yet all the coverage of them during that period was how they were over. It's a strange thing, but that just happens.
Watch Metallica's 'King Nothing' Video
It's funny, going back and reading, like, Rolling Stone cover stories from the '80s, and seeing how much open contempt the writers had for some of the artists they profiled.
That was actually a really common sort of magazine [trend] for a long time. In the early 2000s, it was still like that. You could do a story about an actor or something, and the whole piece seemed to reflect how embarrassed you were to hang out with this actor. That's not really how it is now. That's kind of done. They decided that they just don't do that. But the bigger thing with the '90s was, for the bands that we're kind of talking about, it wasn't that they were getting so much negative coverage. They were just getting no coverage. You just didn't write about them at all, and the popularity that they had as these live touring enterprises, and this ability to still have platinum records, was done completely in spite of the media coverage and the media cycle. It's very strange to think of Foghat as an underground band. But in 1998, that's sort of what listening to Foghat was. They were this band you would hear on classic-rock radio. Maybe you would go to Best Buy or Tower Records and find one of their old records, a CD for $9.99 or maybe even $7.99. And these groups were still succeeding. There was still a huge chunk of the populace who liked that music, but it was invisible.
I think when we look back over time, people will say, "Well, the '90s, that was the lowest point for classic rock in some ways." But I think the reality is that it was the second peak. The first peak had been in the '70s. It was really the '80s where those groups struggled because they were seemingly being temporarily replaced by bands doing roughly the same thing. Like, Faster Pussycat, in a way, was doing what Aerosmith was doing in the '70s. The kind of person who would have liked Aerosmith when they were 16 in 1976, a 16-year-old in 1986 could get that same thing from that. But then, that 16-year-old in 1996, there wasn't an obvious thing for them to gravitate to if that's what they wanted. So they started kind of quietly going back to this music that now, it almost seems shocking how ubiquitous it still is.
One of the biggest ideological dilemmas at a site called Ultimate Classic Rock is: What is classic rock? What are the parameters of it, and where does it end? It still seems like nobody has come to a conclusion, but everybody generally seems to agree that it goes up to some point in the '90s. But they're not sure if it ends with Nevermind or if it goes further into the '90s.
It's a tricky thing. I think it's as tricky to figure out where it begins. It seems like it would make sense for you to, say, maybe do a retrospective story on the Kinks' "You Really Got Me." That seems sensible, although that's not really part of classic-rock radio. The Kinks aren't on there that much. Their music from the '70s, like Low Budget or something, would be on classic-rock radio, maybe, but not their early stuff. The Beatles, I think, created an interesting problem for classic rock, because songs off Abbey Road and the White Album will be on there. But you wouldn't play the early Beatles material. So it does in some ways seem like, well, an album has to come out after Sgt. Pepper to be classic rock. But even that is kind of confusing. Obviously, I think everyone agrees that the bedrock of classic rock is Zeppelin. They are the most classic-rock band — more than the Stones, more than anything else. The way they sound, what they present, that's what classic rock is. But then, like you say, you have a weird decision. Are you guys going to somehow make a call that this is the last classic-rock record, and everything is different beyond there? Or you're gonna be open to the idea that, well, classic rock now is actually like disco, and that if you make a disco song now, it's still in the disco genre.
Listen to Led Zeppelin's 'Black Dog'
Whatever happened post-Nirvana could be ground zero for what we now understand as classic rock. Because as it was happening in real time in the '70s, it was just rock.
I don't view it as classic rock suggesting that the material you are hearing is inherently classic. I think of it as the classic period of rock. And by that, I mean the time when rock sort of becomes ... There was this move in the '60s where, first, there was rock 'n' roll. And then there was just rock. Zeppelin represents the beginning of just rock. Even though they have a song called "Rock and Roll," every song, really, in the Zeppelin catalog, with a few exceptions, is what I would classify as rock, which is a different thing. Rock 'n' roll tends to mean it's only for young people, you can dance to it, it usually has a piano, the songs are always simple and short. And then rock becomes more of an ideological thing. If someone said, "Well, what is the classic-rock period?" I would say basically anything that comes after Sgt. Pepper up until the release of Nevermind. That's the classic period of rock, because once we get into grunge and the '90s as a modern sort of source for music, the bands had a self-awareness about what they were doing that, in some ways, mitigates from the experience of hearing the music. The guys in Nirvana were embarrassed to be famous. That's something that had existed only among artists who weren't actually famous. A punk artist or something might have been embarrassed about the success they were achieving in the late '70s, but they weren't really big. But then Nirvana is the biggest band, and also embarrassed by it. So in some ways, you can say, "Well, that's the framework." In which case, you can then technically pull in the first Pearl Jam record, because that came out before Nevermind. But that also seems odd. It is a hard thing to perfectly frame.
It’s almost poetic that Guns N' Roses released the Use Your Illusion albums one week before Nirvana released Nevermind. In my mind, the Use Your Illusion albums represent all of the bombast and excess and maybe distasteful aesthetic choices of classic rock brought to its logical conclusion.
Oh, it's true. It would have really been perfect if they would have come out the same week. ... When the Use Your Illusions come out, I'm a sophomore in college, and all the stores are opening at midnight to sell this record. So I buy the Use Your Illusion records at 12:05 or whatever. There were these ridiculously long lines outside of every store in the college town I was in, in Grand Forks, N.D. ... When that was going on, the idea of Guns N’ Roses being the biggest band of the '90s seemed inevitable. It seemed very unlikely that they would not be the center of music culture. Nevermind comes out a week later. It doesn't, obviously, immediately chart [high]. It charts somewhere in the 100s, I have it in the book exactly where the chart space is. [Note: It debuts at No. 144.] It wasn't until around Thanksgiving that you started to really hear the music a lot. The ["Smells Like Teen Spirit"] video played a role in that. So you go home for Thanksgiving break, and you come back, and suddenly a lot of people have Nirvana. And then you went home at Christmas break, and you came back in January, and literally, everybody I knew had it. It was just this odd thing, and it was a sea change you could really experience in real time.
Watch Nirvana's 'Smells Like Teen Spirit' Video
In your book, you write: "The cultural implications for the '90s aren't the same if the centerpiece is 'Jeremy' or 'Black Hole Sun' or 'Touch Me I'm Sick.' The legacy of 'Smells Like Teen Spirit' is not transposable. It had to be this song, delivered by this person." So I'm curious: What happens if, say, "Man in the Box" by Alice in Chains explodes and becomes the biggest song in the country? And let's just say it happens in the middle of their tour where they're opening for Van Halen?
OK, so, Alice in Chains starts out as an '80s band, and they're like Guns N' Roses. They're "Alice N' Chainz" with a "Z" at the end, and instead of the word "and," just the letter "N." [Note: Klosterman is close. Layne Staley fronted a band called Sleze, which changed its name to Alice N' Chains before breaking up. Staley kept the name and used it — with minor spelling adjustments — after teaming up with Jerry Cantrell, Sean Kinney and Mike Starr.] So they are basically a good band with talented musicians who are playing what is the music of the time. ... So they’re touring with Van Halen, you know, like Soundgarden toured with Guns N' Roses. So if "Man in the Box" is the big song, that may have been still slotted into an extension of '80s metal. And here's the other part: I think that Alice in Chains would have been like, "How are you perceiving us? Well, the way you're perceiving us is what we are." Because that's what most bands do. Most bands will kind of — even if they seemingly fight it when asked directly — for the most part, they kind of accept how they are positioned.
The thing about Nirvana that makes it so specific was that ... the chord progression of "Smells Like Teen Spirit" is like Boston's "More Than a Feeling." So in that way, it's a little familiar. And the production of Nevermind, as a record, as Kurt Cobain himself said, it's more like a Motley Crue record. The way the drums sound, the cleanness of the sound, just kind of the way it is produced, actually is very much in line with the music of the '80s. So the song is reminiscent of a huge single from the '70s. It has the sonic aspects of music that was very popular in the '80s. But the look of the band, the attitude of the band, the lyrics that are both kind of incoherent and yet somehow almost seem to be addressing a modern way of thinking — it was all these things that kind of came together. So when I say it was not transposable — it couldn't be "Black Hole Sun'' or "Touch Me I'm Sick" — I didn’t want to give the sense that this was just gonna happen anyway. I don’t think it was just going to happen anyway. I think it had to be this person because Kurt Cobain ended up adopting this adversarial punk ideology that he spoke about incessantly. Their unhappiness with fame was more important than the fame itself. And I am not certain if another group in that position would have behaved in that same way.
Pearl Jam is similar. Their discomfort with success, the fact that they would sue Ticketmaster and undercut their own ability to tour, the fact that they just stopped making videos entirely, and there are songs on [Vitalogy] that seem to exist only to make it inaccessible. That's the only reason they're doing it. Those ideas were really ushered in by the fact that what Kurt Cobain was expressing became normative like it was the way you're supposed to think about this. So I do think that the shift that happened in musical culture was not going to happen regardless. It had to be this person singing this song.