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This is What Insanity Sounds Like

On the curiously self-tortured legacy of post-grunge music

One of the dumbest, most lantern-jawed songs of all time was a major rock radio hit back in 2010. Through astoundingly dim-witted lyrics, Godsmack’s “Cryin Like a Bitch” rehashes the tired conceit that showing emotional vulnerability isn’t manly: “I’m tougher than nails. / I can promise you that. / Step out of line / And you get bitch-slapped back.” Too distracted by his own machismo, singer Sully Erna never specifies why he has such harsh words for whomever “you” is supposed to be, and he doesn’t have to. Erna isn’t posturing for just any listener but a select audience he knows will cheer on his every roided tantrum.

Godsmack is part of an aggressive, no-cowards-allowed milieu of hard rock known as “post-grunge” (or pejoratively “butt rock”), which was at its most lucrative during the late 1990s and throughout the aughts, when it dominated both the rock and pop charts. Obscuring the stylistic boundaries between neighboring genres—country, grunge, and the genre which grunge supposedly killed, hair metal—post-grunge is characterized by its dragging tempos, down-tuned chord progressions, sporadic twanginess, and overly passionate vocals. If you took an eighties power ballad’s major key and turned it minor, you’d have a post-grunge song more or less. Even today, as its pop appeal has vanished, it remains viable in the realm of mainstream rock, selling out amphitheaters and filling up the playlists on “Alt Nation”-type stations. It soundtracks WWE pay-per-views; it’s what plays over the loudspeakers in Six Flags food courts.

The band Shinedown signaled the genre’s break from pop when they released their most successful album in 2008, titled The Sound of Madness. Not only would it go double platinum, but one of its singles was probably the last ever post-grunge/pop crossover: “Second Chance,” a top ten hit on Billboard’s Hot 100 in 2009. As momentous a period as this was for Shinedown, frontman Brent Smith seemed to portray himself as an Olympian figure worlds beyond whatever success his band managed to attain. On the album Smith sings about how, in addition to inventing the sound of madness, he likewise wrote the book on pain. The extreme, un-nuanced sensations that groups like Shinedown and Godsmack vocalize are never far from each other in that they glorify the anguish they feel as men while distracting listeners from its root causes.

These men keep reassuring themselves that they deserve to be mad and sad as all hell, but they don’t seem to be sure about what exactly.

Defending post-grunge in a 2013 Consequence of Sound essay, Sasha Geffen admits that the genre has always been homogenous. This explanation, however, as to why it’s so reviled by “angry dudes,” assumes that post-grunge has more emotional intelligence than it really does: “These bands took songs that wore signs of femininity and closed them tight inside hypermasculine shells,” Geffen writes, referring to how the genre’s use of confessional lyricism recalls singers like Alannis Morrissette and Sarah McLachlan. “If there’s one thing angry dudes can’t stand, it’s gender scraping against gender.” No way does “Cryin Like A Bitch” wear “signs of femininity.” Geffen notes how, as a middle schooler, they related to the expressions of loneliness on Puddle of Mudd’s “Blurry,” but they don’t mention the same band’s tendency to hide behind smugness. Take “She Hates Me,” the chorus of which oddly chants the title with some additions of the word “fucking.” Why would this unnamed “she” hate Puddle of Mudd singer Wes Scantlin so much? He deflects all possible blame in the lyrics, aside from calling himself foolish for getting involved with her, but her reason could be related to the fact that Scantlin has a history of domestic abuse.

If anything, what makes post-grunge contemptible is that its hypermasculinity is so hysterically intense and over-the-top. Instead of depth or nuance, post-grunge singers rely on cliches: sweeping imagery and violent sentiments that communicate the frustration they feel towards vague, looming enemies. Groups like Nickelback, Creed, and 3 Doors Down aren’t despised because their singers attempt to confess their feelings, supposedly a feminine gesture, but because their attempts are ultimately evasive in spite of the music’s overbearing fervor. These men keep reassuring themselves that they deserve to be mad and sad as all hell, but they don’t seem to be sure about what exactly.

Which is perhaps to state the obvious: while white male rage and despair went on to define American domestic terrorism in the 2010s, post-grunge—a predominantly white genre—was celebrating these same emotions on the foremost rock and pop stations throughout the country. The problem was not that bands were vocalizing these emotions in the first place, but that rather than looking deeper into rage and despair, they romanticized their surface-level irrationality in one radio hit after another. As a result of its prolonged presence on the airwaves and in other media, such bands helped normalize the extent to which listeners might be willing to articulate their own similar feelings. It’s why the ambiguous, deflective fury of post-grunge has always harbored a largely conservative audience.

Grunge famously broke in 1991 with Seattle-area bands like Nirvana, Pearl Jam, and Soundgarden, all of whom released monumental albums that year. In its instrumentation, the genre took cues from the dissonance and feedback barrages of post-punk and the grimy, low-tuned riffs of sludge metal, combining these elements with catchy hooks all in the context of hi-fi production. One of the most recognizable aspects of the genre was directly lifted from the Pixies, who’d play verses to a hush but break into a chorus at a piercing volume (this was known as the “quiet-loud-quiet” dynamic). While grunge wasn’t wholly invulnerable to cliche, the genre’s lyricism tended more towards imagery that was shocking and bizarre and served to illustrate feelings of smallness or powerlessness. Chris Cornell sings from the perspective of someone being held captive and tortured on Soundgarden’s 1991 track “Rusty Cage” (covered a few years later by Johnny Cash), and on Nirvana’s 1993 track “Rape Me,” Kurt Cobain gives expression to the trauma felt by victims of sexual assault.

Though grunge wasn’t overtly political, its themes seemed to gesture, in part, towards widespread depression caused by social atomization. And grunge’s politics weren’t always under wraps. Articulating his solidarity with marginalized groups of people while ostracizing the bigoted, violent men Nirvana attracted following Nevermind’s popularity, Cobain wrote in the liner notes to Incesticide: “If any of you in any way hate homosexuals, people of different color, or women, please do this one favor for us—leave us the fuck alone! Don’t come to our shows and don’t buy our records.” And in the liner notes to In Utero: “If you’re a sexist, racist, homophobe or basically an asshole, don’t buy this CD. I don’t care if you like me, I hate you.”

Pearl Jam’s mega-hit “Jeremy” imagines a hateful young man similar to the one Cobain was condemning. For the most part, it’s based on the true story of a boy who committed suicide in a Texas classroom, but the song is also informed by Eddie Vedder’s personal experience with a shooting at his middle school. The gunman “didn’t take his [own] life but ended up shooting up an oceanography room,” Vedder recounted in a radio interview. “I remember being in the halls and hearing it and I had actually had altercations with this kid in the past. I was kind of a rebellious fifth-grader and I think we got in fights and stuff. So [the song is] a bit about this kid named Jeremy and it’s also a bit about a kid named Brian that I knew . . . .” “Jeremy” foreshadowed a shift in grunge, as the type of character which Vedder sings about in the third-person would soon take on a first-person role.

As major label reps grasped the market potential of sadness, they responded by fostering a whole slew of pastiches to perform this emotion as literally as possible. Nevermind endowed Cobain with patron status, as he helped more experimental-leaning bands like Melvins and Meat Puppets get signed to Atlantic, but their success paled in comparison to Candlebox, Bush, and other groups that took grunge in the direction of innocuous, obvious songwriting. Electronic producer/composer Daniel Lopatin, lesser known for his biting music criticism, eviscerated Candlebox’s only hit “Far Behind” over its “non-threatening hard-rock” in a 2013 essay for the AV Club, published twenty years after the song came out. He writes (with an air of sci-fi reminiscent of his own music):

It is less that I hate this song and more that I dislike what it represents: a powerful, self-replicating spurt of pop pabulum that, instead of just dying, somehow survives as a rotting chrysalis in the form of an unwanted memory. Why is it that occasionally I will hear the main guitar riff from “Far Behind” in my head, and why does it happen when I’m doing something repetitive and trivial like washing dishes?

Because this song was, per Lopatin’s description, inoffensive background music—with its airy production, easygoing tempo, redundant lyricism, and every chord staying within the confines of its G major key—it got away with buffing up grunge’s gloom with a slight dose of arrogance, helping to set the tone for the imminent rise of post-grunge. While “Far Behind” is about a friend who died of a heroin addiction, the opening line conveys an attitude that would later be amplified by Godsmack, Shinedown, Puddle of Mudd, and the like: “Now maybe I didn’t mean to treat you bad, / But I did it anyway.” Frontman Kevin Martin goes on to hint at feeling some distant remorse for behaving, as described in that couplet, how he did toward his friend, but in any case those opening lines reveal a stark callousness—his persisting to act in a certain shitty way in spite of how it makes others feel shitty. Here was grunge’s archetypal sad, mad man—embodied by Martin—beginning to enlarge and insulate himself.

Following Cobain’s suicide in 1994, grunge shattered into a number of stylistic fragments, all of which have been categorized as post-grunge by Wikipedia, AllMusic, and other online encyclopedias. Mainly writing songs about love and heartbreak, adult contemporary groups like the Goo Goo Dolls and Matchbox 20 softened grunge to the degree that—to make it seem as if they were still attached to formative grunge in some capacity—their songs focused on just the “quiet” portions of the Pixies’ quiet-loud-quiet dynamic. In the mystifying world of Christian rock, Creed (as much as they’ve repeatedly denied it, they are indeed Christian rock), Switchfoot, and others aimed to mirror the majesty of the Lord in whopping imagery and proclamations, while incorporating the sadness of grunge into their lyrics as a means to frame them like before-and-after infomercials for salvation.

But what of the grungy fellows who still got very mad and sad in their music and didn’t try to resolve these feelings with the aid of a romantic interest or a Jesus interest? Turns out that, for these men, cocooning themselves inside their bitterness made them continue to grow larger, a process that was accelerated by America’s preeminent franchise for staging virility as big-top entertainment.

The choppy, gauche lyricism shows how awkward these bands were at performing their sexism, as if they just wanted to meet the bare minimum of commercial hard rock’s required objectification of women.

In varying forms, hard rock has been at the heart of World Wrestling Entertainment since it began releasing soundtrack albums in the mid-1980s, but at that time the organization was having trouble deciding on a specific direction of hard rock to pursue—evidenced by the track list of an early release, the 1987 Piledriver soundtrack, which includes contributions from various washed-up rockers. Glam guitarist Rick Derringer composed Hulk Hogan’s theme, and he re-recorded with “Mean Gene” Okerlund his only hit, “Rock and Roll, Hoochie Koo,” from 1973. Singing “Girls in Cars,” the theme for wrestling duo Strike Force, was the very minor yacht-rocker Robbie Dupree, known for his one 1980 hit “Steal Away.” By 1996’s WWF Full Metal soundtrack, the organization had replaced these puzzling classic rock selections with the Slam Jam band, comprised of members of thrash metal groups like Anthrax and Overkill. Still, the WWE couldn’t afford to stick with thrash metal since the music wasn’t consistently comprehensible; the speedy tempo and screamed vocals on a Slam Jam track like “Thorn in Your Eye” are enlivening, though they obfuscate lyrics which explain how wrestling in a cage is a liberating activity. For the sake of pay-per-view viability, the organization needed a hard rock that could express themes of anguish and toughening up at as steady a tempo as possible.

It was with 2002’s Forceable Entry soundtrack that the WWE established its signature sound, hellbent on nu-metal and rap metal, but most of all, post-grunge. The material on this album encapsulates how the latter genre definitively morphed grunge’s mopey navel-gazing into macho self-aggrandizement that guaranteed violence on all fronts: Disturbed has a track about lining people up to murder all of them (they don’t specify how); Creed has one about how being a boy is not the same thing as being a man (in the context of the WWE, should we wonder if what makes this distinction is a tendency for violent behavior?). These bands, however, didn’t reflect the wrestlers’ personal tastes; in fact, it was the complete opposite for someone like Mick Foley, who has written extensively on his Tori Amos fandom.

Staged and comical as it is, the WWE was instrumental in post-grunge’s metamorphosis into aggressive gloominess, thus enabling other domination-oriented sentiments—objectifying women is a big one—to fester throughout discographies. Brace yourself. From Puddle of Mudd’s “Famous,” which has been used in numerous WWE events: “‘Cause I just wanna be famous / Be so fuckin jaded / ‘Cause all the Playboy bunnies take my money from me / Show up at the Oscars / Smoke out Dennis Hopper / The money is for nothing and the chicks are for free.” From Saving Abel’s “Addicted,” not a WWE song unfortunately: “I’m so addicted to / All the things you do / When you’re going down on me / In between the sheets / Oh, the sounds you make / With every breath you take / It’s unlike anything / When you’re loving me.” In these two examples at least, the choppy, gauche lyricism shows how awkward these bands were at performing their sexism, as if they just wanted to meet the bare minimum of commercial hard rock’s required objectification of women. They would have opted to sing about the absence of a lover—giving them the chance to glorify, say, brooding alone in their bedroom—rather than any active romance. “Addicted” comes close to this; besides getting a blow job, it’s about lying face-up in bed and doing nothing.

The WWE’s embrace of post-grunge even inspired real sports to recycle some of the very same songs, like “Devour” by Shinedown. It was the theme song for the WWE’s “Night of Champions” pay-per-view in 2008, and that same year, it played during MLB live broadcasts on ESPN throughout the season. “Devour” was also one of the few and, not coincidentally, one of the last times post-grunge would dare to lean left of center. You wouldn’t be able to tell from the lyrics alone, since their rage is so generalized, but the song was intended as a jab at Bush (the president, not the aforementioned band). Although one press release boasts the song “makes no bones about its derision” towards Bush, it could’ve passed for yet another of Shinedown’s apolitical power anthems had their promotional materials omitted any mention of the former president (after all, they insist to the press that they’re not a political band).

That seems to be the approach that Shinedown’s PR team took with the band’s latest album, 2018’s Attention Attention. With themes of dystopia and urgency running throughout—the artwork is an exclamation point, the song titles, like “GET UP” and “DARKSIDE,” are in all-caps—it’d make sense to take it as a political critique, perhaps of Trump. Instead, it’s a concept album about a person trapped in a chair who can only escape by somehow improving their mental health; there’s also a subplot about how everyone is glued to their smartphones nowadays. The fact that Shinedown changed their sound to copy Imagine Dragons and X Ambassadors, bands which represent the most current phase of alt-rock, calls into question whether they’re centralizing mental health because self-care is trendy, or they’re focusing so much on the personal as an excuse to avoid acknowledging political issues at large, despite what the album’s superficial themes otherwise hint at.

“You slam Hillary because your audience is southern and you won’t slam trump [sic] because he’s a bigoted white supremacist not unlike some big parts of the south.. [sic] Sad.” That’s a text Richard Patrick of the band Filter sent to Shinedown guitarist Zach Myers back in the summer of 2016. Myers then posted a screenshot of the text to his personal Facebook with a hyperbolic caption you might imagine his band turning into a lyrical hook: “This is what insanity looks like.” (Since he’s outspoken about his leftist views, Patrick tends to get framed by alt-rock blogs as the genre’s pariah; he draws ire on Instagram for supporting Ilhan Omar and comparing the Republicans to Nazis.) Considering how the majority of the genre’s listenership is conservative, Shinedown realized that saying not-nice things about Republicans, however obliquely, wouldn’t be wise to repeat unless they wanted to risk #triggering their fanbase.

At the same time, they’re trying to cater to alt-rock’s millennial/Gen Z demographic, which doesn’t care about men vocalizing how heavy their anger and misery are. So as a concession to their conservative-apolitical faction, they do make room for aggression on Attention Attention—“Guess you might say I’m a little intense / I’m on the bright side of being hellbent” goes one line—but tacked on is a happy ending that quells the aggression: the anonymous, ungendered character at the center of the album eventually learns that, hey, sometimes life gets tough, which somehow helps them become less angry and miserable. And they escape that chair.

As with Shinedown, Godsmack and Theory of a Deadman’s political sheepishness stems from a fear of angering their listeners and jeopardizing their record deals.

Other groups have gone through a similar rebranding toward mental health awareness. Godsmack’s Sully Erna recently launched the Scars Foundation, which his band has promoted through their monster ballad “Under Your Scars.” Aside from providing photo-ops for Erna, the foundation’s mission is ambiguously “dedicated to raising monies to help like-minded organizations fulfill their missions to educate and save lives,” though the website doesn’t specify any organizations. Theory of a Deadman phased out their hard rock to rip off Twenty One Pilots on 2017’s “Rx (Medicate),” a song intended to raise awareness for the addiction treatment nonprofit Shatterproof. Frontman Tyler Connolly sounds like a Lifetime screenwriter when he blames internet culture for the opioid crisis, singing about “Netflix chills” and “All the stars in the Hollywood Hills” who “Snapchat live while they pop them pills”—with no mention of Purdue or the Sackler family. While their efforts are well-intentioned, these multi-million selling bands’ collective refusal to frame depression and addiction as systemically rooted, and their refusal to name any of the forces behind these widespread issues, is not only irresponsible—it restrains their endeavors, since they act as if such issues come out of nowhere. As with Shinedown, Godsmack and Theory of a Deadman’s political sheepishness stems from a fear of angering their listeners and jeopardizing their record deals.

And yet the last time post-grunge made headlines was for a political reason—when, after so many other bands rejected the offer, 3 Doors Down headlined Trump’s inauguration. Those who came of age when 3 Doors Down were still popular were confused as to why this relic of the early aughts had regained relevance. But what better headliner? “The interesting thing is that they have songs, like ‘Loser’ and ‘Kryptonite,’ and those songs are played at every Walmart and in every elevator in America,” their manager told Vice the day before their performance. “But are they huge? Well, the very first album they put out sold thirteen million copies and 3 Doors are a Bible-belt sort of band, and they can do very well in all those places. They can play until they’re eighty years old, and people will come and see them. They’re not the latest, hottest thing, but they will always attract a lot of people.” Although post-grunge hasn’t had a Hot 100 hit in over a decade (or much longer in the case of 3 Doors Down, whose biggest hits came out between 2000 and 2003), the genre’s emotional insularity will always appeal to a largely conservative audience. The perspective endemic to post-grunge—a white male vocalist whose troubles are too overwhelming for him to consider his interconnection to others experiencing the same—speaks to the political cynicism of a good deal of its listenership, one which could care less about systemic injustices since they’re going through too much personal shit themselves.

Post-grunge has sensationalized grunge’s punkish aggression while draining it of its political values, so that the urgent tones and words signify nothing anymore. In doing so, post-grunge turned itself into a soundtrack of projections; its subject matter is generalized enough to mean whatever you want it to. Since bands like Shinedown have gathered that violence doesn’t drive commercial rock like it used to, they’ve stuck to the format of total generality but replaced pronouncements of madness and pain with self-care. The central character on Attention Attention is anonymized so that anyone can feel like the record is speaking directly to them. “It’s definitely a necessary album,” singer Brent Smith said in an interview. In typical post-grunge fashion, he didn’t elaborate on that.