Most Gen X alt-rock purists, if we were still as young and anti-establishment as some of us were in 1991, would now call 1991 the year that alt-rock sold out, our personal favorite bands became too mainstream, and our peers across the country and world were simply jumping on the cool bandwagon that we established with our Sub Pop Singles Club memberships, flannel shirts, goatees, piercings, and penchant for dark sounding yet often times lyrically uplifting music. Most Gen X alt-rock purists, all grown up and approaching or already into middle age, now call 1991 the year that we forever left our musical mark on the landscape and ushered in the last “new rock/cultural revolution” that we will, as a species, most likely ever see. It is just too improbable that one musical movement, or one cultural mindset (one set on change and individuality) will ever spread and change the collective unconscious as the music and events of 1991 did. Now, with the incredibly splintering power of the internet, a mass cultural movement like the one inspired by the music and Cultural Revolution of 1991 is highly unlikely. It really doesn’t seem possible that a meme based on a specific musical style and the look inspired by its most culturally recognized region will ever have as much mass appeal and affect as the grunge/alt rock movement did.
The possibility still exists for there to be mass cultural pop trends, or a mass pop song appeal, but now anything that anyone might take a particular interest in exists in its own little corner of the world wide web, ready made to accept new members of its cult or tribe, often times stumbled upon by an individual who thinks that he or she is the only living progenitor of. A mass cultural shift in a way of thinking, stoked by a musical and cultural movement is quite unlikely to take root and spread from one (or several few) locations and dominate the airwaves, personal listening devices, and overall cultural consciousness as the music and spirit of 1991 did. In fact, everything that we now call “culture,” be it pop culture, music culture, intellectual culture, geek culture, etc. owes a huge debt to 1991, including the splintering of “the tribes,” as I call them, is a result of 1991 and the Generation X mindset. In short, the world would be a much different place now if we didn’t have Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, The Red Hot Chili Peppers, and in a greater cultural context The First Gulf War, the dissolution of the Soviet Union, and Bill Clinton’s declaration of his intentions to seek the White House. While the latter events listed above do not necessarily have a direct correlation to the eruption of the “new rock revolution” of 1991, they are events that were influenced by Generation X and the mindset that we were taking hold of, which was often reflected in our music. They are also the events that would forever forbid there being another mass cultural movement like that experienced in 1991.
Very soon mass culture would be fragmenting much like the former Soviet Union did in 1991-92. The rise of the internet and its myriad of chat rooms, band sites, social networks, and the like would allow anyone with any interest or talent to find an individual outlet for it. The First Gulf War, which lead directly to the War in Iraq (I think it’s safe to say that 9/11 just gave Bush II the excuse needed to get to it), would lead to a fragmenting of politics as well. Today, twenty years removed from 1991, the best way to describe pop, political, and social culture, along with the collective unconscious is as significantly fragmented. There is nothing wrong with diversity. In fact, the fragmenting of society into pop culture tribes is a fascinating, and potentially enlightening, phenomena. There has never been an easier way to celebrate diversity. One only has to peruse the multitude of Meet Up Groups and Facebook pages to learn an incredibly amount of real time knowledge on what someone who is quite different from you feels, thinks, and believes. Unfortunately though, the current inability of one movement to culturally affect a wide audience is a double edged sword. Only great tragedies, such as the events of 9/11 serve as unifiers of the like that lead to events such as the America: Tribute to Heroes televised concert/telethon, where a pretty diverse range of talent assembled. Lollapalooza still limps on as a one stop show, but doesn’t travel anymore. Gone are the pop cultural movements, with overall and underlying positive messages, that catch on and spread throughout youth culture that aren’t birthed or granted inception without a marketing team behind it. The “grunge” movement was truly the last organic movement. It was a movement that had some seriously positive messages (acceptance and camaraderie) mixed with its unintended lessons (drugs are bad for you). It was the last movement will ever see born out of a shared sense of community that allowed for all inclusiveness, instead of one birthed by a record company or market firm.
Twenty years on though, we see all around us the lasting effects of 1991. It might have been the last organically developed movement, but it was the most powerful ever experienced. The openness of Gen X, and their music, lead to some serious cultural change. Being an outsider became less of a stigma since most of the heroes of the musical movement were outsiders themselves. They were punks who liked metal. They were skaters who were intelligent. They didn’t care what they wore on stage. They had no image to live up to, except to what was their own truth. Yes, the likes of Kurt Cobain, Eddie Vedder, Stone Gossard, Mark Arm, and the rest of the Seattle crew sound like they might have all been demigods of understanding and progression. They weren’t. What they were was a group of individuals who reflected the progressive mindset of their generation in revolt against the yuppie culture of the Baby Boomer generation. Excess and success were often hollow pursuits. Honesty, reality, and acceptance were more important to the rising generation. Gay, straight, metal, punk, poser, and all other categorizing stigmas were now null and void. One can still see the progressiveness that gained a widespread attention in 1991 still progressing, even though it has hit a bit of a wall in the form of the Neo-Con movement. Once progress happens though, there is no stopping. For the past twenty years we’ve been subjects of, and benefited from, the movement that erupted in 1991. The music was but one aspect of it. It was an incredibly important aspect though.