Kristine Marie Cummins

Relationship Between The Rebellious And Freedom-Loving Grunge Aesthetic And Queer Identity Of Music & Film Of The 90s


Book: Queer Popular CultureOutlets for creative self expression grew in the 90s as artists reached for independence, distancing themselves from the corporate mainstream. This distancing from the predominant influences of society is also representative of the cultural trend of the 90s on many levels. Individuals shifted from major religions to spiritualities, multiculturalism was embraced, third-wave feminist thought arose, and alternative medias such as the Internet came into fruition. New cultures for expression for the marginalized including queer identity and people of color gained significant ground through film movements such as New Queer Cinema, and music such as grunge, rave and hip hop. Queer Popular Culture: Literature, Media, Film, and Television edited by Thomas Peele contains 15 expository essays on how queer representation may confirm or challenge hegemonic narratives in literature, media and film. One essay, “New Queer White Trash Cinema” by Daniel Mudie Cunningham, highlights three independent road films from the 90s: My Own Private Idaho, Postcards from America and Boys Don’t Cry. Cunningham not only breaks down the new representational confluence of queer and white trash identity, but also highlights the use of the road, claiming that it served as a symbol of unsteadiness, movement and change. The protagonists live on the fringes of society, drifting as hustlers and outlaws searching for love, home and family. While queer white trash films of the 90s challenged Hollywood with queer love, marking a notable turning-point in film history, the white trash depiction may have been perceived as degrading, when in fact it was more a reflection of the larger, more visible grunge culture of the time.

With the introduction of films such as My Own Private Idaho (1991), and Boys Don’t Cry (1999), and TV sitcoms such as Ellen (1994-98), queer identity became much more visible in the 90s. The push to make queer representation more noticeable was undoubtedly exciting for many in the LGBTQ community. However, in these films, queers were stereotyped as white trash, drifting hustlers and outlaws. In 1992, Amy Taubin of Sight and Sound argues, “Van Sant’s My Own Private Idaho was attacked . . . for its lack of positive images of gay life. But it is Van Sant’s depiction of marginality––the teenage male hustler hopelessly in love with a slumming preppie prince in Idaho . . . coupled with his non-linear, associative filmmaking strategies, that make him one of the leaders of American queer cinema.” In addition to utilizing queer identity in his film, Van Sant was original with his filmmaking style, utilizing symbolic imagery, narrative influenced by Shakespeare, and a story that closed where it started. Cunningham in his essay on “New Queer White Trash Cinema” contends, “Queer lends itself to white trash, and vice versa, because both categories decenter and destabilize, prompting constant flux” (Cunningham 169). While the author’s description of queers and white trash sounds unsettling, he points out how these films of New Queer Cinema juxtapose destabilization with freedom to travel the romanticized American landscape. This new representation in film showed a different side of queer identity that traveled the great open road symbolizing freedom, vision and change while removing oneself from the dominant culture. The characters could also be perceived as courageous, forging paths which expose them to new opportunities. Independent films opened the doors to queer identity, albeit in the form of a white trash depiction, but contrasted with a liberating feeling that the road provided. These values reflected the 90s grunge culture, displaying alternative portrayals of life through music and film that rebelled against the mainstream, accepted the marginalized, and traveled to places less polished.

No one knows who coined the term “grunge” (Yarm), but commonly it is used to describe the dirty-guitar sounding music and scene of the late 80s and early 90s. The independent record company, Sub Pop based in Seattle, Washington was one of the first labels to introduce grunge. This garage-sounding music was produced inexpensively, allowing artists with little-to-no-budgets the opportunity to get their music out. Collectively, the artists were said to have been mainly influenced by punk rock, gradually shifting to their own unique sound (called the Seattle Sound)––a mixture of rock and roll, punk and heavy-metal––in the late 80s. Once the 90s rolled around, the sound officially took the name of grunge. Sub Pop brought Mudhoney, The Melvins, Soundgarden, Green River, TAD, Malfunkshun and the very wellknown Nirvana to the forefront. Once grunge music started to gain momentum in the early 90s, a culture naturally followed that embraced all who wanted to participate, including those with queer identity.

The grunge culture that stemmed from the garage-sounding music had its own unique brand of ethics and attitudes. Amanda Hornby of C&RL News observes, “…the grunge rock movement . . . represented authentic rock in opposition to ‘rent-a-culture,’ yuppies, packaged bands promoted by major music record producers, and overblown arena rock excess.” Those who adopted the culture, aptly named “grungers”, distanced themselves from the mainstream to honor individuality, while turning away from social prejudice, over-produced music, expensive possessions, couture fashion and corporate hegemony. These new convictions were reactive to the 80s, materialism and flashiness reigned supreme. The Urban Dictionary defined Grungers as having valued obscure music, films and art, and dressed themselves for affordability and practicality. They generally displayed a humble attitude masked with a cynical and disenchanted view of life.

The lyrical shift of the superficial “let’s party and celebrate” facade of the 80s crumbled in the 90s. The attitudes and concerns of grungers can be derived from the lyrics: “Far from the superficial romantic lyrics that dominated pop music, grunge musicians sang about surviving child abuse and broken homes, drug addiction, dysfunctional love, and occasionally, just having a good time” (Kurt Cobain Journals). Other topics included confinement and a desire for freedom, apathy and social alienation. Although the topics sound sad and depressing, it was more about allowing a time and space for unfiltered emotion, honesty and a voice to those who needed room to express their hardships through the relatable medium of music. It is certainly not that other genres of music did not have sad lyrics; it was just that grunge spoke to youth of that time.

The 90s grunge culture was not considered a movement driven by politics and activism, such as 60s rock was for peace, and 80s punk was for anarchy. It was more of an unpolished aesthetic with less direct motives. Grungers sought freedom of self expression and acceptance of humanity regardless of race, sexual orientation and gender. However, if there was a year that grunge stood its ground on gay and lesbian rights, it was 1992, with one of the most well known grunge bands, Nirvana leading the way. The band performed at a benefit in Oregon in September of ‘92, to oppose Measure 9, “a statewide ordinance that would have amended the state constitution to prohibit protections for gays and lesbians” (Allman 37). Nirvana was said to have donated more than half of their proceeds for Measure 9 (The Register-Guard), and according to Ballotpedia, the discriminatory ordinance was defeated by approximately 190,000 votes. It could have swung the other direction or been a tie, but the numbers indicated that discrimination against those in the LGBTQ community was not OK. Kurt Cobain set out to publicly differentiate his values from another leading band whom he considered sexist, racist and homophobic. In an interview with the gay and lesbian news magazine, the Advocate, he stated:

Well, when we played that No on 9 benefit in Portland, I said something about Guns N’ Roses. Nothing real nasty––I think I said, “And now, for our next song, ‘Sweet Child o’ Mine.’ ’’ But some kid jumped onstage and said, “Hey, man, Guns N’ Roses plays awesome music, and Nirvana plays awesome music. Let’s just get along and work things out, man!” And I just couldn’t help but say, “No, kid, you’re really wrong. Those people are
total sexist jerks, and the reason we’re playing this show is to fight homophobia in a real small way. The guy [Axl Rose] is a fucking sexist and a racist and a homophobe, and you can’t be on his side and be on our side. I’m sorry that I have to divide this up like this, but it’s something you can’t ignore.” (Allman 39)

If ever there was a vocal division to be made, it was that day. Not only was Cobain performing for a gay and lesbian benefit, he drew a line between his band and one of the most popular other bands of the time. It was either stay unconscious or support rights for women, people of color and homosexuals. Two months later in December of ‘92 Nirvana stated brazenly in their liner notes for the album 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.” Cobain’s passionate beliefs regarding social prejudice was more important to him than his band’s earnings, and he had no problem losing fans. However, record sales skyrocketed despite his assertion. The album went Platinum: one-million fans were exposed to those words which suggests that discriminatory walls were continuing to break down in the 90s. The LGBTQ community started to take notice. One month later in January of ‘93, Barry Walters of the Advocate questioned, “Is alternative rock finally catching up with dance pop on the homophilic tip? Does the grunge-rock affiliation with queers go deeper than a mutual love for flannel? The jury’s still out but the evidence suggests that 1993 might not be a very good year for rock’s homophobic assholes.” His questioning came at a time when mindsets were clearly changing and the rise in independent and alternative platforms for expression gave a foundation for acceptance beyond heteronormative relationships.

In parallel, New Queer Cinema and independent films in general gained momentum and gave birth to new ideas and narratives challenging the corporate film industry in the 90s. Academic B. Ruby Rich states, “Anyone who has been following the news at film festivals over the past few months knows by now, that 1992 has become a watershed year for independent gay and lesbian film and video.” The San Francisco Gay and Lesbian Film Festival doubled its attendance in 1991. While Spielberg’s Jurassic Park was the highest grossing movie of all time in 1993, four independent films were nominated for Best Picture for the first time in film history at the 1996 Academy Awards. Simultaneously a rebellion happened within both the film and music industries. Crystal Bell of The Huffington Post comments, “The 90s were . . . a game-changing era for movies, thanks to the birth of the modern American indie film movement.” The 90s symbolized teenagers rebelling against their parents seeking separation and individuality. If the rebellion achieved popularity, the teenager was noticed. In a videotaped interview by European media, River Phoenix discussed his experience when he was approached by the corporate film industry after his success with My Own Private Idaho: “When critics start speaking up and they believe in something, then you have the power to get blow jobs basically, from the corporate leaders…” (Runner, YouTube). Albeit raunchy and defiant, Phoenix acknowledged that once he was recognized by the media, the corporations started paying attention. Cobain “…reserved some of the most passionate criticism . . . for corporate America and the values of capitalism” (Kurt Cobain Journals). It was becoming more evident that animosity towards corporate monopolies was fever-pitch in the 90s. It was at this time when corporate film companies made smaller divisions for independent filmmaking to stay in the game. The corporations and independents fueled each other, creating a new ecosystem: corporations gained pop culture information from the independents, and the independents gained recognition and financial support from the corporations. With this exchange, the underground predominantly influenced culture, music and fashion. Grunge fashion was a prime example. “The flannel shirt became the ultimate symbol of grunge couture . . . upscale stores were selling designer grunge…” (Bill Freind, St. James Encyclopedia). American culture shifted and was influenced by independent films such as those made by New Queer Cinema and music such as grunge. Furthermore, the growth of independent film visibility in the 90s allowed for untold narratives to be shared. History has shown that individuals who dare to be different, ignite controversy and gain recognition, are the ones who help push culture forward.

The launching of the indie film rebellion was packaged and presented in part by Director Gus Van Sant in 1991 with the release of My Own Private Idaho (MOPI). Michael D. Klemm of CinemaQueer writes, “Queer films weren’t exactly a dime a dozen in those days and there was a lot of buzz surrounding the film prior to its release. Much of the buzz was . . . centered around the casting of two hot young rising stars who were (gasp!) ‘risking their careers’ by playing gay…” Poster children of 90s counterculture, River Phoenix and Keanu Reeves were more interested in being challenged by their acting careers, than fearful of taking on queer white trash roles. When River Phoenix (who self-deprecatingly liked to refer to himself as Rubber Penis) was handed his ostentatious golden trophy for his role in MOPI, he commented, “…I don’t want to be married with this sort of thing. I’m very proud of it, but I think it’s too showy…” (Runner, YouTube). Phoenix’s distancing from the trophy fell in line with the humble “ethics of grunge.” Not only was the director of MOPI very much a part of the provocative consciousness of the time, the actors he chose for MOPI were too.

Much like the switch in lyrical topics from “80s happy”––to grunge’s general harsh emotional realities, film did much the same in the 90s. Cunningham states, “My Own Private Idaho lays bare how queer white trashness refuses the resolved narrative closure favored by much mainstream cinema,” (Cunningham 171). In MOPI, Mike circles back to where he started at the beginning of the film in the middle of nowhere on a long, desolate stretch of road––never finding his mother, nor acquiring the home that he wishes for. In a narcoleptic seizure, Mike falls on the ground in the middle of the road. A truck pulls over, two men get out of the truck, robbing him of what little he had. Seconds later, another car pulls over, an individual drags Mike’s limp body into their car and drives away. The film’s final challenge against a trite happy ending was a title card that flashed a dubious, “Have a Nice Day.” Not only were Mike’s few belongings stolen, but his body that he used to earn a living as a hustler was too. In an even more bleak ending than MOPI, Brandon in BDC is brutally murdered by two of his friends when they find out that he is transgender. The last scene revisits the beginning (similar to MOPI) with Brandon speeding away from a cop with flashing lights in the rear view mirror. Instead of closing BDC with violence, Director Kimberly Peirce revisits a police chase, leaving the moviegoer seeing Brandon alive instead of involved in a bloody scene. It is a slightly better imprint on the psyche than stabs and gunshot wounds, but nonetheless, a very unhappy ending. It was not just New Queer Cinema that experimented with unresolved and/or harsh endings; many other independents did as well. Fight Club ends with death by gunfire and Thelma & Louise concludes with a suicidal pedal-to-the-metal dive off a cliff in their convertible. Unlike the common happy cinematic conclusions in the 80s, the exploration of non-definitive closure lends itself to ambiguity, creating a space for the viewer to imagine their own version of the story’s ending.

Similar to the grunge lyrical themes about broken families, relationships, social alienation, and freedom from confinement, so too were the queer white trash films. The protagonists in the films sought the open road, removing themselves from the mainstream, while longing to heal their emotional wounds. However, the need to find love, create a family or stay connected to their subcultural community was significant. If the individual’s families were broken, they created new ones. “The ‘new extended family,’ the stepfamily, the ‘recombinant family,’ the ‘blended family’, by whatever name, such familial configurations became the standard in American society during the 1990s” (Family Life, American Decades). The 90s was a turning point for familial structures; the emotional aftermath surfaced in film and in music. Kurt Cobain of Nirvana, son of divorced parents, sung about it in his

A page from Kurt Cobain's journal with the first draft of the lyrics for, "Smells like teen spirit."

A page from Kurt Cobain’s journal with the first draft of the lyrics for, “Smells like teen spirit.”

Platinum single, “Smells Like Teen Spirit” (same year as MOPI’s release in 1991). It was an honest description of how he felt about himself and his subcultural family. “I’m worse at what I do best; And for this gift I feel blessed; Our little group has always been; And always will until the end” ( The emotional sentimentality and value placed on camaraderie in Cobain’s music was also reflected in romantic dramas MOPI and BDC. Mike in MOPI was embraced by his counterculture family throughout the film. In one of the most overt displays of gay male affection of its time, Mike expresses his love for his best friend in a famous cinematic campfire scene. While the emotional genuineness of the scene reflected the general honesty and sentiment of the subculture, queer affection was being displayed for the masses for the first time. Remarkably, River Phoenix, in his character portrayal of Mike, changed the original script to reveal his homosexual affection, in addition to improvising the entire scene. In BDC, Director Pierce emphasized Brandon’s search for love as the central plot, and he found it when he met Lana Tisdel. By the time Brandon communicated his transgender status to Lana, she had already fallen deeply in love with him and it did not matter to her. Detracting from their white trash portrayal, the main characters were deep relatable, loveable, intriguing and complex. Instead of the protagonists being queer outsiders, they fit within their subcultural families as opposed to being commonly portrayed as unapproachable queer loners. Grunge music and film narratives were successful in delivering sincere emotional depth and personal connection in a unique way; the numerous awards by both the independent and corporate industries validating their success.

While grunge culture was influential worldwide, its dark underbelly still took its toll. Undeniably sad, ironically timed, and strangely self-fulfilling, the lives of both River Phoenix and Kurt Cobain were cut short within five months of each other. River Phoenix died of a drug overdose October 1993 at age 23, and Kurt Cobain committed suicide in April of 1994 at age 27. Biographer Charles R. Cross revealed portions of Cobain’s suicide note and expressed, “Despite his best efforts, he couldn’t get ‘over the frustration, the guilt and empathy I have for everyone.’ He was ‘too sensitive,’ he wrote, and that sensitivity made him ‘too fucking sad.’” While those emotions got the best of Cobain, his genuine compassion and empathy for people made a profound impact. He helped catalyze an entire creative and socially inclusive “grunge” aesthetic. Part of Phoenix and Cobain’s legacy was the indelible mark these two heterosexual men made for queer visibility and gay and lesbian rights. They took a stand, and the world acknowledged them supportively.

With the road as a distinctive and consistent theme, Cunningham highlighted the union of queer identity and white trash within three films of the 90s, as if they were an island unto their own. However, the films portrayed attitudes, values and ethics that worked in tandem with the grunge subculture of the time. Queer white trash and grungers forged their own new realm without excess to distract from their priorities in their respective art forms. Instead of the focus on sexual orientation being some sort of oddity in the films and the grunge culture as a whole, the focus was on community, personal sincerity and human connection. The shift in consciousness moved away from materialism and corporate influence to an emotional inner world, while exploring the great, but imperfect American landscape in an individualistic grunge way.

Works Cited

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Special Thanks
Professor M. Harrison
J. Cummins
A. Postmon

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