Music has been rife with death. Many songs are about death, many great players have died, and many scenes and movements have also passed on. Hell, there’s a whole metal subgenre about the subject, started by a band with the very name.
But this isn’t about death metal. No, this is about the death of a scene in rock and metal. 1991 marked the effective end of a distinct sound from the 1980’s, that oft-maligned but still beloved entity known as hair metal.
My purpose in this series is to examine the factors that led to the demise of hair metal. There are multiple issues at hand and different angles to look at. While a lot of ink has already been spilled on the matter, I wanted to go back 30 years after the fact and cover a few points that don’t always get brought up.
This will be a 4-part series, each one with its own “suspect” in the brutal death of hair metal. Our first look will be at the prime suspect, and the next 2 parts will cover suspects that maybe slide under the radar a bit.
And yes – any of us who were around then know exactly who killed hair metal. That’s part 4 of my series coming on Friday, so please air a bit of patience while I build up to the extremely obvious answer to the question that everyone already knows damn good and well.
We have a crime, a victim and a murder scene. Now it’s time to get into it – who killed hair metal?
Suspect One – Grunge
If this were a game of Clue, the answer is simple – Kurt Cobain with the guitar in the MTV lobby is what killed hair metal. The video premeir of Smells Like Teen Spirit on September 10, 1991 is as good of a time of death as any for hair metal – Nirvana was the figurehead that shifted music forever and rendered a lot that came before them obsolete. Nothing was the same after Nirvana hit the airwaves.
Of course, grunge doesn’t actually begin with Nirvana. There were a “big 4” to grunge, just as thrash metal has its big 4. And two bands were already making early waves before 1991 – both Soundgarden and Alice In Chains were quietly gaining momentum on MTV and radio before the actual “death” of hair metal, with AIC having a long-running hit single with Man In The Box and its album Facelift going gold before grunge really even “took off.” Seattle mates Pearl Jam would join in the popular explosion of grunge, releasing their debut in August 1991 and it taking off to untold heights in the next year.
Grunge rewrote the rules for how bands should look and how music should sound. Hair metal would suffer greatly under the weight of the new regime. Grunge fashion was flannel shirts and whatever else might be laying on the bedroom floor, a far cry from the leather and diamonds glitz of hair metal. And the sound was rough, unpolished and about heavy and vulnerable topics – a world removed from hair metal’s celebration of party life, sex and ballads about love (and sex). The worlds could not be more different, even if the instruments were the same.
I do think it’s fair to use Nirvana’s ascent as the symbolic end of hair metal, even if doing so obscures several truths. It’s a quick and easy place to point to without having to raise too much fuss. I will be going far beyond Smells Like Teen Spirit in this series, but that moment was a very stark turning point in the course of music in 1991.
I don’t think it’s entirely fair to only “blame” Nirvana, or even the others of grunge’s big 4. There always was a different strain of rock music playing out long before grunge hit. Some of the acts influenced the grunge movement and others became huge stars on their own terms, free of ties to any particular movement.
The fact is this – grunge ushered in the age of alternative rock, and alt-rock subsequently took over and became rock music. But it must be noted that alternative rock was going for a long time before grunge captured the scene. College radio was filled with alternatives to the hair bands, and MTV ran the 120 Minutes progam that showcased a large variety of alternative artists before the term alternative really became a thing.
The idea of having something else besides hair metal was already there. Honestly, I’m not sure Nirvana was even necessary in the equation. That doesn’t matter, of course, as history is what it is. But the apparatus to overthrow the excesses and poor record label decisions in regards to hair metal was already in place.
Grunge itself would die a death not totally unlike hair metal. Bands that came after the Seattle legends would be derided for riding coattails by critics, although fans flocked to the likes of Stone Temple Pilots and Bush without issue. And the acutal death of Kurt Cobain in 1994 threw the grunge scene into chaos. Pearl Jam would transcend the grunge label and go on their own way, while Soundgarden and Alice In Chains would go on long hiatus (the latter also fueled by death).
The death of grunge did not lead to new life for hair metal. The bands who defined the 1980’s Sunset Strip scene were not the same as they were before. Many members had quit or died, bands went on their own hiatus and even the return of Motley Crue did not serve to reawaken the hair metal beast. Rock music had moved on and hair metal would become a movement relegated to state fairs and legions of rights disputes and multiple lineups of the same band performing at clubs all over the land.
The cultural shift of 1991 was not just a change in sound – it marked the end of ’80’s excess and ushered in a new age of self-awareness and discussion of tough issues not normally given air in conversation before. It was the true defining mark of Generation X, a group sometimes lost in today’s “civil” discourse but still very much responsible for the need for change still felt today.
I’m not a lawyer or a judge, but this is my courtroom, and I do indeed find grunge guilty of the murder of hair metal. But I don’t stop at Nirvana, or Soundgarden or the others. I find the whole of alternative rock just as guilty. Alt-rock would supplant the norms of rock music before it, both hair metal and AOR and reshape what radio and TV played. The late ’90’s saw a whole new host of bands redefine rock, and then the early 2000’s saw the advent of who has become rock’s biggest band in the modern era. As maligned as they are, there is no doubt that Nickelback took a sound and sent rock music into a direction far away from the hair and makeup glitz of the 1980’s.
Yes, grunge and alt-rock are responsible for the death of hair metal. Sometimes the obvious answer is obvious because it’s simply true. Hair metal died on September 10, 1991, having lived barely a decade. It really was Kurt Cobain in the MTV lobby with the guitar that did hair metal in, even if he had tons of assistance.
Sure, grunge had its role to play in this “murder,” but grunge was not alone. Tomorrow I’ll cast light on a different suspect – was the death of hair metal an inside job?