1991 was the “Year Punk Broke.” The late September release of Nirvana’s Nevermind was the long-awaited signal which unleashed a horde of be-flanneled malcontents to topple the reigning hair metal hegemony and expand the Alternative Nation’s boundaries into the realm of the mainstream.
Here are Billboard’s top ten “Album Rock Tracks” for October 12, sales 1991, roughly two weeks after Nevermind hit the shelves:
The abscence of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” isn’t surprising (as the rankings were based on radio airplay and the song had yet to build popular momentum), but note the utter lack of anything remotely resembling hair metal. A Cinderella cut did made it into the bottom end of the top twenty, but almost all the other artists — with the exceptions of G’n’R and Metallica — could have been pulled straight out of a similar list from 1986.
The alternative revolution did represent a paradigm shift in rock music, but one that was more dynastic than oppositional. The bitterness of has-beens aside, the grunge didn’t kill hair metal though it did hammer the final nails in its coffin. The subcultural conflict between silly excess and outsider authenticity was a marketing ploy, a compelling myth for the new guard and a handy excuse for the old.
Glam metal — and the pre-ironic notion of RAWK in general — had been on the wane a good while before grunge lumbered onto the scene. It was a generational shift, and one I watched in microcosm during my stint as a pan washer at the hospital kitchen. The “older” (as in “two or three years my senior”) dudes tended to conform to the classic blue-collar hesher archetype — blue jeans and t-shirts, classic rock and metal — while the younger kids were into Public Enemy, the Beasties, and Adidas gear. They were from the same socioeconomic class, same hometown, and — in a couple of instances — the same family, but the the groups were on opposite sides of a cultural fault line.
While you can still find atavistic throwbacks to the leather vest and custom van conversion crowd here and there, the demographic pool that produced such individuals en masse during the 1970s and 1980s is far more likely to produce a “food court gangsta” or juggalo…and even the dubious torchbearer for old school hesher rock channels Snoop Dogg as much as he does Skynyrd.
Getting back to my main point: Glam/hair metal was done in by the diminishing returns and oversaturation which has accompanied every moderately successful musical trend from doo-wop to disco, sitar jams to swing revival. Grunge merely filled the vacated space reserved for the Next Big Thing.