Stop Calling Garbage A Grunge Band

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Lately there’s been a lot of talk about Garbage, and with good reason. Last year they celebrated the 20th anniversary of their 1995 debut album, Garbage, with a re-release of the record and a 20 Years Queer tour. Next week, the band will release their sixth studio album, Strange Little Birds. Their new songs “Empty” and “Even Though Our Love Is Doomed” show that Garbage is just as dark and deep as they were when they got started.

But with all the excitement and news surrounding Garbage, one thing keeps coming up, and it irks me. So many articles, interviews, and reviews have described Garbage as a grunge band. But were they ever grunge? They may be from the 1990s, but I would never label them grunge. Quite the contrary, their own frontwoman Shirley Manson has conceded that Garbage is known as the band that “killed grunge.”

Don’t get me wrong; I love grunge. Alice In Chains is one of my favorite bands of all time. Nirvana, Pearl Jam, and the Melvins are all important parts of my music library (even if none of them actually considered themselves grunge). I first got into music listening to the numerous post-grunge acts of the early 2000s. I love Garbage dearly, largely because of their eclecticism and outside-of-the-box style. But they are not grunge.

Garbage got their band name thanks to their distinct musical style: They incorporate elements of everything from indie rock and punk to electronica and trip hop. And yes, there are some distorted guitars, but that doesn’t make them grunge.

So to strip them of all their eclecticism and just label them grunge is a disservice to their music and talent. Moreover, telling younger readers that Garbage is an example of ’90s grunge is also a disservice to the genre, not to mention misleading. Garbage doesn’t capture the full essence of grunge, the sludgey, raw, distorted, vulnerable, punk-meets-metal style of music born out of Seattle. Garbage does embody some of these qualities, but they do not exemplify it, because they are not grunge.

If anything, Garbage was born out of the death of grunge, perhaps even as a reaction to grunge. The band’s drummer, Butch Vig, was an important figure in grunge; after all, he did produce Nirvana’s famous Nevermind. But Garbage as we now know them formed the same week Kurt Cobain died in April 1994. By 1995, grunge had faded a bit from the public eye, with Alice In Chains releasing their last album with original lead singer Layne Staley and Soundgarden moving on to new musical styles before their breakup in 1997.

In a 2012 interview, Garbage’s guitarist Steve Marker talked about when the band formed, saying, “We were all sick of the grunge thing, where it was just guys screaming all the time. I guess other people were too.” Garbage offered a fresh new sound for people to enjoy; they ushered in a new style of alternative rock.

In 2015, Shirley Manson talked to PopMatters more specifically about Garbage being associated with grunge:

PopMatters: That layering is one of the reasons it’s very difficult to categorize Garbage as a grunge band, and also a reason why so few grunge bands survived the ‘90s, whereas you totally survived the ‘90s, because there is less of a flat quality to your music. Layers aside, why do you think so few grunge bands survived the ‘90s?

Shirley Manson: When Kurt Cobain died, the purest, brilliant form of that music went with him. And I think nobody else was able to match his brilliance, so that could be one of the reasons. I also think Garbage was never known as a grunge band; we were sort of known as the band that killed grunge. But Butch’s name was still sort of synonymous with the grunge movement, and when Garbage came out, everyone was really surprised because they expected to hear a grunge record, when in fact what they got was a very eclectic pop record, in a way.

PopMatters: Is it your Scottish sense of humor that prevents your lyrics from becoming the more depressing side of grunge? Or is it your feminism at work, that you’d rather get mad and you just don’t like giving up? Because you do have a more fierce attitude than most grunge bands were able to muster.

Shirley Manson: Again, we weren’t a grunge band and that’s why we don’t sound like any of these bands that maybe you’re referring to. [laughs] I grew up listening to post-punk and David Bowie and the Banshees. I grew up listening to a lot of post-punk and new wave records, you know, that was always what I was attracted to. But also, the band, we just loved pop music. You know, we’ve never shied away or pretended that we don’t love pop music and we don’t love pop melodies. We used a lot of backing vocals and we used a lot of electronica, and there are a lot of elements in our music.

Shirley does not consider Garbage a grunge band, and states that they were never known as such. If anything, they confirmed the end of grunge around 1995 and 1996.

Garbage is an excellent band that started in the mid ’90s. Grunge is an amazing musical genre that defined the early ’90s. But it is important to keep in mind that the two are not synonymous. Grunge should be celebrated with the bands that actually created and embodied it: Alice In Chains, Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, Mudhoney, and so many more. Likewise, Garbage should be celebrated for the unique way they have blended different styles together into their own, un-replicable sound.

Garbage may be a ’90s band, but they are not – and never were – grunge.

Amanda

I earned my master's degree in Music Business from Berklee College of Music in Valencia, and have since worked in a variety of areas within the music industry. Music is my life, and I'm excited to be part of the future of Hidden Jams.
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Amanda

I earned my master's degree in Music Business from Berklee College of Music in Valencia, and have since worked in a variety of areas within the music industry. Music is my life, and I'm excited to be part of the future of Hidden Jams.

6 thoughts on “Stop Calling Garbage A Grunge Band

  • June 4, 2016 at 7:38 pm
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    THANK YOU FOR WRITING THIS!!! omg. I just shared this article on facebook to friends/family/fellow fans, with the following commentary (lol):

    “If you know me whatsoever, you know that I passionately love grunge, and that I also passionately love Garbage. The ‘genre’ and scene of grunge (late ’80s and early ’90s Seattle: Alice in Chains, Nirvana, etc…), along with (especially) Garbage, are BOTH the reason I am who I am today, and why I am on this earth – and I do not say that lightly. But grunge and Garbage are SO FUCKING DIFFERENT, and not even in the same sphere as each other whatsoever, except for the Butch Vig connection. So, I really appreciate this post. Recommended reading, especially for people who think “grunge” means ’90s rock in general and that Garbage, Smashing Pumpkins, etc. fall under that category. ‘Grunge’ was something incredible and innovative entirely of its own, and so was (and is) Garbage.”

    Garbage and Alice in Chains are my two favorite bands, and everything about them is different, so to see them lumped into the same category is not only irritating, but quite funny to be honest.

    Reply
    • June 5, 2016 at 1:45 pm
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      Wow, thank you so much! I’m glad you liked the article 🙂

      Garbage and Alice In Chains are both among my top 3 favorite bands (the other is Green Day), and even though they all got popular in the ’90s, it’s amazing how different they are. It’s so frustrating how people think all ’90s rock bands must have been grunge – there was a lot more going on!

      Reply
  • July 28, 2016 at 1:04 pm
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    Thank you indeed for helping settle an argument with a child who was arguing that Garbage was grunge because Google apparently told her so. Ugh. I’m passing this link on to the rest of the Tumblr kids.

    Reply
  • August 5, 2016 at 12:21 am
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    Your article is a very refreshing, enjoyable treatise on Garbage and their pivotal role in moving the music scene beyond grunge. I was fortunate to be stationed in Seattle from 1987 to 1992 and enjoyed witnessing the groundswell and big bang revolution that became grunge; great times indeed. However, I still remember exactly where I was in summer ’95- at the Bulldog Pub in New Orleans- when the video for “I Think I’m Paranoid” splashed onto the screens. The bartender looked up and asked “Who is THAT?” I said “Garbage”. Then he said “No way, boss, they sound great!” to which I replied “Um, yeah, they most certainly do.”

    Reply
    • August 5, 2016 at 4:55 am
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      Perhaps another song? Otherwise you had a time machine, or got the year wrong. ITIP came off the second album well after ’95. Bet they sounded great either way and the sentiment isn’t lost.

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      • August 5, 2016 at 7:12 am
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        Thanks, Christian- and you’re absolutely right. I was stationed in Alameda when V2.0 hit the streets. I guess a couple of decades of listening combined with my fair share of Bombay & tonics could’ve caused that disconnect…

        Reply

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