Monday, February 09, 2009

Into the Desert (Part 11)

The term "sell-out" is pejorative for "art opportunist," a hipster insult loosely translated as "successful human." It's often used inaccurately and without qualification by sad and untalented people, to such an extent that it's rendered meaningless. To boot, selling out in today's music industry is a pipedream and an impossibility: there's no money. While "Sell-Out" was once a misnomer, it's now an endangered species.


Of all the seminal grunge bands of the 90's, Soundgarden was the most durable. They pre-dated Nirvana, Pearl Jam, and Alice in Chains and made their most popular records after the others had dissolved or languished. While my memory insists that everything existed only in 1995, Nirvana's last single was released in 1993. Pearl Jam had voluntarily slowed their efforts by 1995. But Soundgarden was still releasing hits as late as the summer of 1997.  I, of course, loved them.

So when "Burden in My Hand" came out, I was 1) craving a new grungy hit and 2) completely dependent on Soundgarden to deliver. They did, and the piano-laden follow-up to "Pretty Noose" became my favorite Soundgarden song of all-time. It was an instantly likable, dynamic, inspired and smartly-composed new hit. Only one problem: it wasn't grungy.

Conventional wisdom states that "sell-outs" neglect artistry and follow successful trends.  For example, if a jazz pianist in 1999 decided to sell the keyboard, frost his tips and join a boy band, he's a sell-out. Typically sell-outs justify their decision by saying they'll use their platform as a successful artist to now pursue their true passion. "Now that I've made it," they say, "I get to do what I want. No more boy-banding/hair-metaling/doo-wopping/etc." They sell out to a mainstream aesthetic so they can explore an indie one.

But Soundgarden may have single-handedly inverted the model for selling-out. In the late 80's and very early 90's--before grunge became lucrative--they became Seattle's most quintessentially grunge band. They took what was a new and interesting local movement and did it harder, and heavier, and smarter than everyone else. They became local heroes and earned a record deal because they were the favorite band in an unseen and unproven genre.

Their first records (with heavy staples like "Outshined," "Rusty Cage," and "Nothing to Say") were seminal and prototypical grunge, helping define the genre while laying a foundation for broader success. When Nirvana's
Nevermind blew the doors wide open, Soundgarden's success grew exponentially. Grunge was now mainstream, and their artistic experiment had made them rich. They'd earned success making the music they wanted to make, like "true artists" do. Well done. Chalk one up for integrity.

Only, by every indication, grunge wasn't the music they wanted to make.  Immediately following mainstream success, Soundgarden's records became anthemic rockers rather than heavy, sullen bashers.  Almost overnight, they sounded much more like Aerosmith than Mudhoney.  By the time 1996's
Down on the Upside came out, they were simply a great pop-rock band that reminded you of grungier days.  

Of course, maybe that was just their evolution.  Maybe they started with a narrow focus and a specific sound and naturally developed over the years, taking on a pop sensibility and a bigger scope.  And even if that was true, I'd fully support it, because I like great pop music, period.  I wouldn't care how Soundgarden arrived at it.  But if Soundgarden started as a grunge band and (by the mid-90's) evolved into an arena rock band, how do you explain 1991's Temple of the Dog?  Why the hell was grunge demigod Chris Cornell writing "Say Hello to Heaven" (a classic rock power-ballad) and "All Night Thing" (an R&B-influenced sex song!) before Soundgarden has even broken nationally?  

In truth, Soundgarden just wanted to be a great, big, bad, rich, obnoxious, super-famous, classic rock band.  But in 1990 Seattle, it was uncool to say that.  "Burden in My Hand," in a perfect would, would've been their starting point, not the finish line.  Instead, they saw in the Seattle scene (long before most people did) a greater opportunity, a powerful new sound, a budding pop revolution, and used grunge to become mainstream.  Instead of "selling out" to pop and then experimenting artistically, they "sold out" to the grunge experiment, so they could be pop artists.  

And that's why, long after Nirvana had gone and Alice in Chains had gone and Pearl Jam had become disillusioned and a thousand grunge imitators took their 15-minutes and walked, 96X was still spinning new Soundgarden singles in 1996.  To the rest of the world, grunge was dying; to Soundgarden, grunge was long-dead.  

So, like many good pop artists, Soundgarden sold out to be poor.  Then they got rich.

1 comment:

Lady M said...

I'm sorry, but I look at that picture and all I see is Harrison Hudson...

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