I grew up loving “Grunge” music. I remember where I was when I first heard “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” How many other 18 year olds rejoiced with me, as we could move from cuffed khaki’s and pastel button-up shirts to jeans and untucked flannel? It was an oasis in a desert. Freedom!
I also like oral histories, and so it was a given that I read Everybody Loves Our Town: An Oral History of Grunge
The book has many interesting aspects, but a theme throughout was the dilemma Grunge artists faced. The whole musical movement had its roots in being an outsider and on the fringe. They bucked the system — the system was the enemy. But what happens when you get wildly popular? What happens to your identity when you get on the cover of Time magazine? Can the two co-exist? This theme runs throughout Mark Yarm’s excellent work.
As you might imagine, the dilemma produced a profound psychological crisis for many. Take Nirvana’s second album, for example, which is vastly inferior to Nevermind. It’s almost as if Cobain wanted to make it bad on purpose. I don’t think they were a “one and done” kind of band, either, as their stellar performance on MTV Unplugged showed. In tragic retrospect, this video from In Utero shows Cobain’s self-loathing. Soundgarden bassist Ben Shepperd astutely remarked that you can hear Cobain’s self-hatred in how he uses his voice.
This concept of “identity crisis” I think applies to civilizations as well. Take Rome — for centuries they are the “Little Engine that Could” and then, within a few years of their victory over Hannibal, they have unquestioned Mediterranean dominance. Their subsequent history shows that they did not handle their new role well at all, and this identity crisis runs right down through to The Aenid.
How about the United States? What is our self-image? Have we gotten used to the idea that we are globally dominant? Even in the Cold War we could assume the “underdog” mantle. I think it’s safe to say that we do not like to think of ourselves this way and do not like it when others see us as the “top dog.” How will we handle our own shift in identity?
Is this perhaps why so many instantly related to the Clint Eastwood Super Bowl commercial? Being the underdog — that’s what we identify with. This poses a tricky dilemma for politicians. On the hand they usually need to say something like, “America is strong!” and on the other have to inculcate a “We’re down, but not out!” mentality.