To Grunge or Not to Grunge on the Periphery? The Polish Grunge Scene of the 1990s and the Assimilation of Cultural Patterns

Marek Jeziński, Łukasz Wojtkowski

Abstract


Introduction – Polish Grunge

The main objective of this article is to examine the grunge scene of the 1990s in Poland in the context of acculturation and assimilation processes. Polish grunge was, on the one hand, the expression of trends that were observable in music industry since the late 1980s. On the other hand, it was symptomatic of a rapid systemic transformation. Youth culture was open for the diffusion of cultural patterns and was ready to adopt certain patterns from the West.

Thus, we suggest that the local grunge scene was completely modelled on the American one: the flow of cultural practices and subcultural fashion were the manifestations of the assimilation processes in Poland, observable not only in art (i.e. rock music), but also in the domains of politics and economy, as well as in the broader social sphere. We explore how young people were ready to adopt only the surface level of the phenomenon as they were familiar with it through the media coverage it received. Young people in Poland circa the early ‘90s primarily wanted to gain access to an imaginary Western lifestyle rather than learn about real living conditions in capitalist societies, and they could do this through their involvement in grunge culture.

Grunge as a Cultural Phenomenon

Grunge as a popular music trend arose in the USA during the late 1980s and early 1990s, in the work of bands such as Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Stone Temple Pilots, Soundgarden, and Alice in Chains. Grunge was initially opposed to consumerism and capitalist values. Nevertheless, A&R scouts recognised the commercial potential of this music: for example, Nirvana’s Nevermind was released by Geffen Company, and Pearl Jam’s Ten by Epic. As Grzegorz Brzozowicz and Filip Łobodziński put it (313),

the success of Nirvana was a post-mort triumph of punk rock and, more importantly, it indicated the potential of alternative music, which suddenly stepped outside an aesthetic ghetto and became a hot stuff. This influence was also visible as regards fashion and customs – Dr. Martens’ shoes, flannel shirts, frayed jeans, and wool caps became an outfit common for the young (…). Grunge influenced visual art, film and photography.

In Poland, grunge as a subculture and sub-genre of rock music emerged in the early 1990s following the international commercial success of bands such as those listed above, and it entailed the assimilation of the Western cultural patterns. Although assimilation processes were typical primarily for youth culture, they were observed in the wider context of the changes and adaptations that Polish system underwent after the fall of the centrally planned economy and subjugation to the communist party power after the Yalta agreements (1945-1989/1990).

In this context, the concept Centre/Periphery (Gopinathan, Saravanan and Altbach; Hannerz; Langholm; Pisciotta) appears as the field for the dissemination of popular culture. Popular culture is a battlefield for creating and negotiating the meanings that are inherent within cultural practices (Barker). Cultural practices play a double role in the dissemination of ideas or objects. Firstly, they come as a result of adaptation in a defined culture, and secondly, they make new cultural patterns stabile, visible, and easy to practice by people as flexible patterns of behaviour. This point is clearly visible in the context of the East European states that underwent rapid acculturation processes in which new patterns of economic and social solutions were established in centre-planned economies: the tensions of the “old” and the “new” patterns dominating in the political and social systems of those countries (e.g. Poland, the Czech Republic, Latvia, Lithuania, etc.) were visible and affected societies to a considerable degree (Pisciotta). Thus, the practices generated in cultural Centres tend to disseminate easily and to “conquer” other cultural systems, especially in the Periphery.

In the case of popular culture, the flow of influences usually takes a one-dimensional form and is disseminated from the Centre to the Periphery. As Marek Jeziński (162-163) argues, both Centre and Periphery are functional systems. These systems have generated their own mythology, which separates one from another. However, as in the case of mythological systems in general, Centre and Periphery tales overlap frequently, and there are evidence that the bands that originated in the Periphery were assimilated by the Centre. For example, Nirvana and Pearl Jam were both successful in market terms and both built their own status based on the Peripheral components that were skilfully overtaken by the Centre narrative. While the Peripheral narratives are concentrated mainly on the undermining of the definition of situation and present dysfunctional character towards cultural system as such, the Centre narratives aim to maintain the definition of situation supporting mainstream values and their prevailing position in a system (Jeziński 164). Grunge is the epitome of such an implementation of cultural patterns. That is, grunge started as a fringe peripheral cultural phenomenon. The major records companies, however, recognised its potential and provided the space in the music market to support the new bands. Most of the groups in the US started as independent local acts related to independent record companies that built their status.

In relation to the assimilation of grunge culture in Poland, we can distinguish two key phenomena. The first is concerned with the adaptation of general subcultural components, e.g. fashion and group identification. Here, the acculturation processes run as a primary form of mimicry, as the Polish grunge scene adopted elements typical of the grunge subculture, such as oversize sweaters, flannel shirts, Dr. Martens shoes or Converse trainers, long hair, and beanies. A newly formed subculture was different from the others popular in the 1990s. For example, punk and metal subcultures implied strong group identity, style homogeneity, rigid group limitations, and firm membership rules. Conversely, it seems that the grunge subculture was based more on a level of liquid and fragmented patchwork identity than on very inflexible group values and internal ideology or political attitudes (cf. Muggleton). Such patchwork identity formation was a result of a rapid clash between the adaptation of grunge cultural patterns from the West and the Polish economic transformation of the early 1990s.

Poland underwent rapid changes that were also visible in the politics, culture and social domain, joining liberal democracies and liberal free market economies of the West. These changes resulted from a transformation of the system as a whole: from a central planned system to decentralisation of the power at both local and state levels (Sarnecki). Equally important were the changes in the political culture of Poles and their value system: they accepted the democratic changes but simultaneously, the mentality of Poles remained traditionalist (which is visible in surveys— the most important values for them were “family” and “work”), and their attitude towards the processes of cultural and institutional changes was impermanent (Garlicki; Jasińska-Kania).

During the transformation, the changes were visible in the everyday lives of Polish citizens: examples include the shortages in the market that were evident after the socialist regime ended, and the easy availability of Western clothes such as jeans, shirts, denim jackets in ordinary stores. Consequently, the economic rates in the 1990s were higher in comparison to the previous decade (Bałtowski and Miszewski). Those changes resulted in a phase shift in the modernisation process, where patterns of economic and cultural development and were faster than the enculturation and socialisation processes.

On the one hand, the free market allowed for almost unlimited commodification with unprecedented access to goods and services. On the other hand, the low cultural capital and economic possibilities of the citizens evolved rapidly. The communist-shaped social division fell apart, and the new class designations based of consumption/commodification patterns were established (Jeziński; Wojtkowski). Those factors resulted in high cross-generational mobility, lower entrance barriers, and higher openness indicators (cf. Polska klasa średnia; O ruchliwości społecznej w polsce).

Hence, in cultural conditions based on capitalist consumption practices, the grunge subculture evolved with a commodified sense of style rather than with a firm identity. Yet, in the case of grunge style, relatively high costs of subculture commodities (e.g. Dr. Martens shoes, Converse trainers, or band t-shirts) led to DIY practices such as buying cheaper no-name shoes, and sewing badges with the names of bands and albums on jackets or backpacks.

The second phenomenon encompasses the adaptation of music patterns. The Polish grunge scene was not as diversified in terms of genre variations as its US counterpart. In the beginning, the Polish grunge scene was more distressed geographically, with no specific Centre-Periphery relations. However, one of the most important bands, Hey, was established in the Northwest. When one looks at Polish grunge evolution as a ‘clash’ of American genre and the specific character of a time and place where Polish bands were recording, she or he will notice multiple similarities with the US scene.

Firstly, we could name two approaches to grunge music among Polish performers: ‘intellectual’ and ‘rebel’. The ‘intellectual’ approach encompasses the group Hey. This band was established in Szczecin (the Northwest Poland), but after the success of their first album – Fire (1993), they moved to Warsaw. Hey released 11 studio records, but only the first three could be classified as “grunge” (cf. Sankowski). On the level of musical references, Fire sounds like a mixture of early Pearl Jam combined with Alice in Chains. With English lyrics and song topics that were typical for grunge— e.g., The Choice (“You’ve got a gun/You can use it now”)—similarities with Pearl Jam, in particular, are striking. The band evolved, and on their second album, Ho! (1994), Hey mixed equally Polish and English lyrics with the dynamic and specific Seattle sound (cf. Prato). Hey’s most distinctive feature comparing with other Polish grunge bands is its highly developed melodic approach to music and the poetic, sensual style of its lyrics. The third record, ? (1995), closes the band’s early stage. The next album, Karma (1997), opens the period when the amalgamation of electronics, hard rock and grunge dominated Hey’s music, with the album [sic!] (2001) representing the turning point in the group’s music style. The band suspended their work in 2017 and will probably never reunite.

Over time, Hey gained one of the most dedicated audiences in Polish rock music. The music industry and critics have acknowledged Hey as one of the best Polish groups in the post-communist period. Hey has received the most nominations in the history of Fryderyki, the key Polish music awards. The group and Nosowska have won twenty-three times in multiple categories. As the longest-operating grunge-origin band in the country, Hey could be considered as a most important trend setting and scene-forming group.

The more “rebellious” approach to grunge encompasses bands such as Illusion (1992-1999, 2014-present) and Houk. The former was based on the grunge and hardcore mixture of influences from Alice in Chains, Soundgarden, and Rage Against the Machine (especially in terms of rap-oriented lyrics). With the preservation of certain consistency, the band named first three albums: Illusion (1993), Illusion II (1994), and Illusion III (1995). Illusion marks the band’s aggressive style and lyrics simplicity but the studio production flattens the whole and gives an impression of a post-punk DIY venture rather than a coherent composition. The second record, however, is entirely conceptualised and thought out in terms of music and lyrics. Sharp riffs, hard rock tuning of instruments and aggressive lyrics that were focused on Polish life gave the album a needed consistency. The band’s third record is the most varied stylistically and politically engaged in their history. The harder-edged tunes from previous releases are accompanied by more psychedelic compositions (Wrona) that recall Alice in Chains’ slow songs and Layne Staley’s voice.

Houk’s music similarly to other Polish grunge bands was the amalgamation of various genres and their style evolved in time. Initially, the band was regarded as an example of alternative rock music. The first album Soul Ammunition (1992) was named by music monthly Tylko Rock as a debut of the year (polskirock.art.pl). The combination of grunge, hardcore, hard rock, reggae and socio-politically engaged lyrics helped the group to establish a strong fan base. The band’s unique style was recognised internationally and Houk supported New Model Army and Bad Brains during the performances in the mid-1990’s (polskirock.art.pl). The band’s second studio release Generation X (1995) was recorded prior the multiple membership reorganizations that finally ended the grunge-orientation period of Houk’s history. One of the songs, Sleep, was dedicated to Kurt Cobain and reflected Nirvana’s approach to songwriting, which can be heard in songs such as “Lithium” (1991). Such a commemoration of Cobain’s figure is characteristic of Polish grunge culture’s establishment of strong ties with the American equivalent. Here and in many similar cases, Cobain serves not only as a grunge hero (or even a martyr) but also as a commodified pop culture figure (cf. Strong).  

Concerning both spheres - that is, the adaptation of grunge subculture and a development of the music scene -Polish grunge follows a different pattern to the US genre. Grunge was introduced to Poland after it was popularised and commodified by the major labels and media industry in the USA, so the adopted version was the mainstream one rather than the underground movement. Hence, the simplistic dichotomy between “underground” and “mainstream” culture does not function in terms of the Polish grunge culture, and probably is misstated even when it comes to the American phenomenon. Grunge could be perceived in Poland as both the first and the last “true” subcultural trend. At the same time, though, it was an affirmation not of ‘the rebel’ and ‘the underground’ but of capitalism and the cultural values of the West. Indeed, the Polish grunge culture couldn’t be fully aware of what grunge was warning us against while Polish society faced the rapid market and cultural transformation that allowed for its opening to Western trends.

Conclusion – Is Grunge Really Dead?

Although the popularity of grunge phenomenon in Poland was relatively short, the most important groups of this sub-genre - Illusion, Hey, Ahimsa, Houk, and Kr’shna Brothers - widely contributed to the emergence of the new wave of fashion for rock and hard-rock music in Poland in the mid-1990s. The most successful group of the era, Hey epitomises the transformation of grunge in Poland. Starting as a typical grunge band (modelled heavily on the US groups), they underwent a serious transition, substantially changing their music into more mainstream-oriented rock (that is, as music that was considered acceptable by rock music and AOR-focused radio stations). At the same time, grunge as a rock sub-genre underwent the contrary changes: it broke into the mainstream relatively quickly in the first half of the 1990s, establishing new rock stars of the scene (Illusion, Houk, Ahimsa, Hey), but in the late 1990s it went back to being a rock niche again. It seems that today grunge serves as a point of reference (in fact, it was an important period of rock history) for the new bands that intentionally use this sub-genre as a form of commodified, media-friendly nostalgia.

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Keywords


popular music, grunge, Westernization/acculturation, assimilation, cultural patterns



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