In Seattle, the evolution of grunge – a term that was almost definitely coined by someone from outside the scene – began more than a decade before anyone heard “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” It was a slow build of post-punk and hardcore-influenced bands who incorporated elements like psychedelia, indie and ’70s arena rock into what was really a wildly disparate range of sounds. It began with ’80s outfits like the U-Men, the Fastbacks and the Melvins and became more conventionally structured by bands like Green River and Malfunkshun.
But the difference between then and now is that you needed to physically be near those places to experience whatever aesthetic was pervasive in the music. A scene would typically begin the same way: A small group of likeminded musicians from the same town (probably all friends) would begin listening to the same music, shopping at the same record stores, reading the same zines and performing the same music for the same people at the same clubs. It was all incredibly incestuous. But what it usually took was for one really good band to do something that had a lot of resonance and for all the other bands to begin emulating whatever that was.
Still, you needed to be there.
Of course, there’s also the decreased timeframe that anything can remain “the next big thing” in the internet age. It was always an intrinsic problem within music scenes: When a group of self-proclaimed outsiders assemble and form a burgeoning movement, it’s only a matter of time before the outsiders become insiders and soon want to distance themselves from all the poseurs and late adopters who appropriated their scene. Pop will, in fact, eat itself. Once something original is replicated and homogenized, it loses what made it special in the first place. And now that everything moves at the speed of “likes,” your favorite underground band at 10AM could be emblazoned on your mom’s Facebook page by mid-afternoon. It’s a far cry from 1989, when a kid in the suburbs of Seattle could hear the name “Mudhoney” and then not actually find a way to hear their music for months.