The Rise of the Grunge Bots
Just before the start of the era of Grunge bots, a startup called AL*VE sponsored a music show for journalists. AL*VE promised something groundbreaking and spectacular. The team in charge of the project faxed over a few press releases and third-generation copies of schematic designs, but most of the journalists paid little attention and dragged their feet to the event. What now, they thought wearily, a new way to 'share' music?
The few music writers in the auditorium found themselves staring at the press release for the very first time. It boldly stated:
A REVOLUTION IN MUSICAL ENTERTAINMENT
REVIVING THE GOLDEN AGE OF MUSIC
ONE NOTE AT A TIME
CHANGING THE WORLD FOREVER
It was as they suspected: another breathless start-up company out to 'change the world' then be forgotten months later. This cynical audience, full of music journos, sat back as an 'informational video' came on, subjected them to a long lecture about the history of popular music over the last forty years. It was a long video, full of obvious truths.
This is what it said:
We want to talk to you about the best music in the world, and where it came from.
In the seventies, funk and soul from Earth Wind and Fire, Marvin Gaye, and Parliament swayed alongside mood pop from Carly Simon, Carol King, Hall and Oates and Christopher Cross. Reigning over it all in a burst of flames was complex prog rock machinery from Soft Machine, Lynard Skynnard, The Who, Pink Floyd, Led Zepplin, and Genesis. The music of the seventies typified its mood - morose and reflective, or as epic as an ancient viking tale. The philosophical leanings in this music influenced the best music in the world.
In the eighties, seventies punk fell upwards into new romantic synth, and MTV transformed entertainment with Madonna, Duran Duran, and Michael Jackson. The eighties also yanked subtext in music so far up to the foreground that it became as banal as the worst music from the fifties and sixties. The sole beacon of hope as the eighties drew to a close was a burgeoning alternative music scene, a scene evolving steadily under the radar, from the leftover remnants of what remained of punk artist who'd dared to stay true to their roots. Sonic Youth's alternative tunings charted a sideways path along all through the eighties but broke free after 1989, as did cult favorite Pavement, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, and others who met with varying degrees of success. This planted the seeds for the best music in the world.
Some of the most inspired of this music gained a foothold with major labels, giving way to the an 'alternative music culture,' as it was called. This gave rise to Nine Inch Nails, the Smashing Pumpkins, Jane's Addiction, the Beastie Boys' Check Your Head' era (their finest hour), R.E.M.'s post-folk rock explosion with Warner Bros. Records, Lenny Kravitz, Ministry and acts whose roots started in the eighties, but whose promise unfolded as the nineties began. In the northwestern corner of the United States, a movement began as well, one that you'll hear about at the end of this presentation.
In the mainstream 90's arena, however, far from the best music in the world, major artists like Aerosmith and David Bowie (even Pat Boone!) got in on the action, hijacking the mainstreaming of alternative music culture to reinvigorate their careers. So-called alternative bands morphed into monster arena acts commanding high ticket prices. Rising in tandem with the mammoth major label Ticketmaster behemoths were corporate created boy bands. The Backstreet Boys, N Sync, All4One, and Hanson ran through the consumer landscape with choreographed dance moves and lip syncing. Boy bands took over, and what was once known as alternative 'lost its way,' became what it loathed or faded into obscurity.
When the new century began, new paradigms in popular music had not yet taken hold. Record labels were desperate to reclaim the foothold that Napster and its ilk had loosened just years earlier. Artists - many of them put off by how their favorite bands in the 90s either sold out or were buried under mountains of tripe, found it harder than ever to reach their own fans. Internet 2.0 culture and beyond offered a way for artists to reach their fans directly.
Springing from the still-beating heart of Appalachian Folk and Psychadelectro came a strain of low-fi indie folk that got more precious and more cloying with each passing year. Music almost came to an end with a series of cruel acts of musical terrorism perpetrated by Nickelback and The Moldy Peaches. With that atrocity behind us, we're picking up the pieces, but differentiating indie from alternative, mainstream rock from indie, hipster from fan-boy, and the demise of the record store clerk is proving to be too much. We need a solution to this problem. We need to mine music's greatest hour once and for all, making it timeless, unforgettable, immutable, immortal. We need the best music in the world.
A few of the music critics nodded in agreement as the presentation, full of song snippets and footage of videos and live performances from each decade came to a close. The lights came back on and a handsome, long haired man in a flannel shirt jumped up on stage and waved his arms. He was fifty or so, and clean shaven except for a greying soul patch beneath his lower lip.
"Music has gotten too messy, god dammit! It's time for a revolution. Ok? Who knows about the best music in the world? Who misses it like I do?"
You could hear an audible, collective sigh of disgust from all those attending. Not this again. Who is this, Sean Parker's crazy uncle?
"What was the single most defining moment for rock and roll in the twentieth century?" he asked. "You know what it is. Don't be shy. Come on, guess it."
"The Beatles, of course!" one journo yelled out.
"Pavement!" yelled another.
"The Beach Boys!" said another.
"No, dudes. Try again. I am talking about the single greatest genre of music known to human kind."
"Well, obviously, that's prog rock!" exclaimed a bespectacled journo wearing a Rush t-shirt.
"No!" screamed the man onstage. "No, guys! No! Guess again!" It wasn't going as he'd planned. He deflated.
"Ugh, you guys... I'm talkin' about GRUNGE! You know... Pearl Jam, STP, Baby Animals, Seven Mary Three? The good stuff! Come on, guys! You're music journalists, man." A curious silence emanated from the hall. "Seattle!" he continued. "Seattle!" he said again. No answer.
The guy whirled his finger around to signal the lights. They went out and a super enthusiastic video started, detailing the rise and fall of the grunge movement. The journalists in the audience were more morbidly fixated on this strange turn of events. The video detailed Seattle's slanted, crunchy take on rock n roll, and how it was supposed to have lived forever. It's philosophical yowling, it's extended solos, its distortion and fuzz drenched take on rock, a style that was gone all too soon. The bandannas, the flannels - oh god, the flannels - the open sneakers, the ratty sweaters, the combat boots, the lip piercings, the goatees. There was so much goddamned hair, and it was glorious.
"That's ridiculous!" one journo yelled from the audience. "Grunge was nothing more than a footnote to better music in 60s and 70s rock and roll! It was a corporate Frankenstein's monster, taking advantage of disaffection to sell albums and tickets. Why do you think there were so many suicides and overdoses during that time?"
"You don't know what you're fucking talking about!" the man on stage bellowed. "The bright lights of grunge died for your sins, little man! Start the video, god dammit!" He looked pissed as the lights went out.
The education of the music journos continued as a grim memorial about Grunge's sad legacy of fallen stars began. Some of these tortured souls didn't belong to this world. Alice in Chain's Layne Stanley, Nirvana's Kurt Cobain, and Mother Love Bone's Andrew Wood all died young. Stone Temple Pilots hit a high watermark in the mid nineties, then lost their edge after MTV Unplugged forced them to dial it down. Chris Cornell most recently gave us Audioslave and an forgettable solo career, but nothing ever matched the raw power of his performances with Soundgarden and Temple of the Dog. Pearl Jam persists up through today, but Eddie's jittery, bug-eyed intensity is long gone. Now, he has a solid but bland career headlining a band more concerned with tackling the fame monster and Ticketmaster than rocking out.
"We miss the old Eddie." the flanneled man mused. "We miss Layne and Kurt. We miss the grunge sound, and we want it back."
The lights went back on and the man look pumped up again, not so defeated as he did just minutes earlier. The music had given him life. His eyed blazed. He nodded and spread out his hands and looked over the journos as if to ask: See? Wasn't I right? Isn't this the best thing music has ever seen?
"Grunge??!!" one journo cried. "Are you serious? Is this a put on?"
A sound like a distant jet engine roared from somewhere backstage.
"It's not a put on." flannel said. "It's the only future of music, from now on. Grunge will get the immortality it deserves. Vedderbot, come!" he ordered.
A massive, seven foot tall robot, all metal thumping against wood and whirring cyclos, appeared from the left of the stage. The robot had solid, molded metal for skin, almost translucent, and was outfitted with clothing that hung off its rotors and jagged edges. The robot wore flannel and cut off jeans, and a long, brown, curly wig had been attached to its head. It's face was fixed in a permanent grimace, artificial eyes bulging out of the sockets. It was the unmistakable young Eddie Vedder facial expression, best popularized in the video for "Jeremy."
"Heeeeeh, yeahhhh!" the robot sang. It sounded exactly like young Eddie, unrestrained and passionate. "Ooh, woooh! Yeah, heeyyyy!" it sang. Its vocal processor was loud enough for everyone in the room to hear.
"What the fuck?" one journo blurted out.
"Yay-yeahh, I, hi, ohh ho, oh, I'm still aliiive, yyyeah, ha, I, eye, ohh, ho, I'm still aliive!" the Vedderbot sang, pitch perfect, note perfect, exactly like the original, except for a slight metallic ring toward the end of his notes.
"We're still working out that vocal bug." noted the flanneled man. "Keep singing, Vedderbot!"
"Is that Eddie behind there?" the bespectacled journo asked. "Is Mr. Vedder doing this?"
The man in the flannel was really pleased with himself. He'd finally gotten the reaction he wanted. They were all amazed. He grinned.
"Well, as you know, Mr. Vedder is now a folk artist, and an activist, and he writes soundtracks for indie movies. His lawyers signed off on this. But it gets better. Bring out the guitar!"
An assistant wearing a white lab coat came out holding an electric guitar. The aide held the guitar up as a supplication, and the robot reached out and pulled it close, clutching the neck and cradling the body immediately. Motorized fingers whipped over the tuning keys, testing each string. The whole while, more whirring noises like engines and mechanized movement were heard from behind the stage. More robots backstage.
"Come on out, RossBot!"
A mechanical Jason Ross stepped out onto the stage. It lacked legs and carried itself along with Wall-E style treads. RossBot had a similar translucence as the VedderBot, and had been outfitted with a giant flannel sheet and a blonde curly wig and a massive fu-manchu mustache, the style Ross was well known for in the early nineties. Its arms looked like giant silver hammers. It swiveled from side to side, looking about the stage.
"I have be-cuuuuhuuuum, CUMBERSOME, cumber-suuu-huummm!" the shorter, more squat robot drawled. "I have become, hum, cuh-m-buh-SOME!" Journos familiar with the legendary Seven Mary Three song were astounded by the accuracy of the robot's voice. As it sung, it spun in place and slammed its massive arms into the stage floor, creating cracks in the wood.
"Oh, I think RossBot needs a guitar!" the flanneled man grinned, looking back over the audience. "What do you think, folks?"
Now VedderBot strummed the delicate opening section of 'Black' and started to sing, "Sheets of empt-eey can-vaahaasss, untouched sheets of clay-hay, ohhh-hohhh!!"
The CornellBot stepped out next, sporting a lustrous, long curly black wig. Its transculent metal face looked like a young, baby faced Chris Cornell, but the CornellBot's body was hunched over like a preying mantis, and it practically crawled across the stage. The moment CornellBot came within range of VedderBot, a bright spread of laser tracking lights erupted out from Vedderbot, detecting the presence of the new machine.
The VedderBot paused. There was a clicking noise, then it spoke.
"Temple of the Dog mode.... INITIATED."
Now all the grunge bots on stage had guitars. The bots were mobile amplifiers for their own instruments. They were walking tour kits.
"I'm goin' hungraaaaaaaaah!!!!" VedderBot sang.
"I'm goin' hungray-aaaaaaaaah!!!" CornellBot's voice joined in. The sound was devastatingly loud. The robots were all massive and there simply wasn't enough room on the stage to hold them all. By this time, the journos had mostly gotten up from their seats and were furiously taking pictures of the event on stage. More robots joined in, including a sparking, frantic WeilandBot representing Stone Temple Pilots' Scott Weiland, singing 'Plush,' along with LayneBot, a skinny bot made entirely of pipes and pumping servos and covered in strips of leather and flannel.
While the bots all shared the stage, they reminded the journos of a group of sniffing canines at a dog park. They all scanned each other, and sometimes sang in unison. But mostly, it was just a lot of noise, a kind of grotesque display of weird, pinched vocal drawls and jingly chord progressions.
The flanneled man stood on the sidelines, watching the madness unfold, and clapped his hands together approvingly. He held out a remote control and aimed it at the stage. The noise stopped suddenly and the machines whirred to a standstill. The assistant walked about the stage and removed the guitars from the bots' grasps.
Flannel man cleared his throat and read from a teleprompter with genuine enthusiasm.
"Ladies and Gentleman, this robot troupe of Grunge Bots is taking over the airwaves. They can be a Supergroup. Or, if you prefer, the individual bots play on their own. They will play grunge hits. They can take modern music, or music from any of the eras you learned about today, and give them that magical grunge sound. The first gig for VedderBot is already been booked with Jimmy Fallon tomorrow night. On Friday, RossBot appears on Leno. Stay tuned for a full tour schedule. There are more bots coming. They are available for concerts, festivals, and birthday parties.
"They're constructed from full body alloy that does not rust and does not degrade. Their sound processors are the most advanced in the world, and they have been programmed to play a full library of songs, and positioned to effect the same mannerisms as their real life inspirations. For this, and for a host of other reasons, this brings attention back to grunge, and ensures that grunge will truly never die."
The next night, Vedderbot partially destroyed Jimmy Fallon's stage, then performed a stirring rendition of "Elderly Woman Behind the Counter in a Small Town" that left everyone in tears. It seemed the engineers performed a miracle and fixed the metallic vocal glitch just in time.
RossBot did a jaded, faded interpretation of his hit 'Cumbersome' on Leno. Inside Lands recruited the Temple of the Dog-bots to perform 'Hunger Strike' on the main stage in Golden Gate Park. The following month, the bots made the cover of SPIN. The #grungebot tag took over Twitter, and the subreddit r/grungebots couldn't catch up with it's own threads.
The bots went meta, and the music period defining the early to mid-nineties lifted itself over, miraculously and implanted into the modern day, and did not let go.
Over a few months, the population in the United States and in certain European countries began feeling jaded and faded as they listened to more and more cynical, world weary grunge music. Style critics contended that flannel and ripped jeans never truly went out of style as soon as they began re-emerging in New York, and then, in Milan (Paris couldn't comply at first, but when Jean Paul Gaultier admitted he'd begun a a grunge inspired line for the Fall, other fashion icons admitted defeat).
Spoonman, Interstate Love Song, and Cumbersome - all by the Grunge Bots - debuted in the Billboard Top Ten - nestled among other hits re-purposed by the Grunge bots. LayneBot did a haunted, racous cover of Adele's 'Swimming in the Deep.' Hits from LMFAO, Justin Bieber and Rihanna were all re-arranged by AL*VE to incorporate guitar licks with the effects specific to early 90's grunge. The mix of grunge and modern pop and hip hop was jarring to some who never understood grunge's appeal, but AL*VE, in its campaign to win hearts and minds, sent the bots all over the world, signing autographs and stunning fans with their bizarre and intricate renditions of grunge hits.
It was around the time that Courtney Love sued AL*VE for it's (in her words) "gross mis-characterization of [Kurt's] memory with a disgusting robot" that everything went to hell. Justin Bieber's army of lawyers and the executives who managed his image also sued AL*VE. They also sued for the rights to disable each of the bots, constituting them all a 'clear and present danger to our client [Justin Bieber].'
In response to this outrage, the GrungeBots - every single one of them - went rogue. In the year they'd spent touring the country, playing Stone Temple Pilots songs, old Pearl Jam songs, Soundgarden songs, and reintroducing all the old grunge hit singles to the world, they developed an odd bond. It's not like they developed sentience. They just broke completely from AL*VE's mainframe. The company could no longer control them.
The exact same algorithms used to help the bots play guitar with so much passion and faded, jaded-ness helped the bots circumvent AL*VE's control overrides. Not long after the Bieber lawyer army sued, VedderBot and the CornellBot rampaged across the Canadian border and found Bieber at an in-store appearance. Cornellbot shrieked the lyrics to 'Rusty Cage' while he picked the wunderkind by the scruff of the neck and hauled him of kicking and screaming. Nobody knows where the bots took Bieber. Some say the Canadian Wilderness.
Chris Brown was the next victim. LayneBot and RossBot encountered him after a Today show appearance, and in front of a large gathering of upper Manhattanites, sang and performed an impromptu version of 'Down in a Hole.' The LayneBot used its servos as a wedge to flip up a manhole cover, and RossBot, after finishing a blistering solo, shoved Brown into the manhole. Brown's entourage, never known to disrespect their guy, jumped in the hole after him in hopes of saving him, but RossBot just pounded the manhole cover back into place with his huge piledriver arms.
"He had become, become, cumbersome!" RossBot sang. The growing crowd responded by breaking out into spontaneous applause.
It got to where listening to music other than grunge became an illicit activity. If you wanted to start a band and make it big, and your vocals weren't Vedderesque, or you didn't distort your vowels or put enough fuzz on the guitar, you didn't stand a chance. The public's appetite for grunge hadn't faded, it hadn't been sated, and they were jaded. In a good way. They were all jaded, in the early 90s way. Flannel and cargo pants were everywhere. Bushy sideburns and bandannas were flouted on every street in every major city. It was also whispered that the Grunge Bots were vetting budding artists everywhere to make sure they met the stringent standards set by their AL*VE's programming.
The public had forgiven the bots for the Bieber and Brown incidents (and several others like them), but the Mumford & Sons massacre turned the tide. A group of bots spearheaded by the KurtBot and by WeilandBot thundered into the midst of a Mumford love-in on a cool autumn night at The End in Tennessee. The English folk rockers stopped playing, and Weiland Bot strode up on stage and began performing STP's 'Sex Type Thing' very loudly. WeilandBot forced the scared-out-of-their-minds Mumford players to play along with him.
"I am, I am, I am I said I wanna get next to you, I said I gonna get close to you!!!" WeilandBot sang. Mumford and Sons played along like stricken hostages, stealing frightened glances at the giant robots as they played rudimentary chords of the song, their faces overcome with fear and disgust. The audience of sensitive hipster scolds had largely escaped the mainstream resurgence of Grunge, but this incident left them rattled. Groups of concerned citizens petitioned Ed Vedder to make a statement.
"These bots were clearly inspired by you." an open, public letter to Mr. Vedder read. "They will therefore listen to you. Tell them to stop. This has become madness."
Eddie didn't respond right away, but eventually penned a statement on behalf of his peers at the Silverlake Conservatory of Music. The school had so far escaped the watchful eye of the bots, since it was founded by Flea and the Red Hot Chili Peppers during grunge's first wave.
"I am very saddened by the prospect of a world where music lovers of all stripes are forced to play one type of music." Vedder's statement read. "I and other musicians whose likenesses have been whored out to the interests of the AL*VE Corporation and to these robots feel nothing but disgust at the recent turn of events. We support all music, regardless of sound or mood."
The statement did nothing to dissuade the Grunge Bots from cranking up the pressure on music. AL*VE had long since given up on controlling them. The VedderBot, in particular, had undergone something of a transformation. He frightened people wherever he turned up. He constantly aped 'young Eddie's' movements but his internal wiring had gone wrong, so his movements were exaggerated. He showed up at coffee shops, at live venues, and at recording studios to ensure the music sounded like grunge.
There were seventeen other robots. They were all hellbent on enforcing the law. Music and style everywhere was to adopt a jaded, bohemian air. Gypsies and vagabonds, rockers and druggies were largely okay. The sensors of the robots said they were grunge. As for synth jockeys, neo-folk artists, post-Electro new wave acts - none of them were allowed anywhere near a microphone. Some of them still did, of course, but a frightened public knew the bots were watching. So, the vocal mannerisms of most musicians ran the grunge path, with its 'oooh-whoahhh's and 'heyy-yyeahhh' drawling. Only certain guitars with certain effects could exist. Which ones? Only the bots knew, and the seventeen metal behemoths were seemingly everywhere at once.
At last, the Grunge Bots, mindful that the Silverlake Conservatory had become a 'rebel base' for illegal, non-grunge music, invaded. Vedder stood his ground. He had his friends videotape the confrontation. The sober minded, fifty year old Vedder possessed the air of a man who had realized, too late, that things had spiraled way out of control.
There was a burst of smoke as the plaster wall exploded. Small tracking lights shone through the smoke, along with the heavy sound of metal feet.
"Here they come." one of Ed's friends is heard saying over the video. "Fuck, they're fucking huge, Ed."
"It's alright." Ed can be heard saying. His voice shakes but he stands his ground. "VedderBot!" he says gruffly. He can then be heard saying, "How fuckin' weird is that, man? The names of these machines. Named after us. What the fuck?"
At that point on the tape, it's clear that Vedder is joined by Chris Cornell, Alain Jourgensen and Flea. Each of them speaks in turn to their respective bots. The MinistryBot is a towering, black behemoth, and Flea's robot is more of a small metal dog clinging to walls and ceilings.
The men make impassioned pleas. They know the conservatory is their last line of defense before the whole world is awash in grunge.
"This is your master!" orders Vedder. The other men laugh maniacally at Vedder's attempt to control the Grunge Bots this way. The camera shifts slightly and pushes back to reveal a stand-off there in the hallway between the bots and what remains of their human inspirations. All the men are much older, scared and wise. Their bots are horrible, jittery pretensions, all corporate created, bent on homogenizing the earth.
"This ain't the way." pleads Vedder. "You do a good impression of me, but you've gotta stop. I was young, and that's not me any more. Time has to pass. You are robots with programming, and you have to evolve, yeah?"
"I gotta evooooolve, yyyeah!!" sings the VedderBot. "Evolving with tiiime, yyyeah!!!" The other bots join in but it's just a circus of noise.
"I'm fucking serious!" says Vedder. "This isn't a fucking joke or fucking funny. Music changes. That's fucking period. You bots are supposed to be grunge, yeah? Grunge? We all thought we were anti-corporate then. We were puppets. You bots, you're not grunge. You were all created by a Corporation. That Corporation is called 'Alive.'"
"You're the evil empire!" Jourgensen chimes in.
"Yeah, you're the problem!" says Flea. "You're exactly what we sought to eradicate when we started this school. You should just all go away."
"Leave us alone." says Vedder. "Leave music alone. Let it evolve. It always will. Grunge is dead"
At the sound of Vedder exclaiming 'grunge is dead,' something really loud clicked inside of the Vedderbot, followed by the smell of burnt wire and ozone. The loud whirring that had overtaken the Conservatory hallway ceased, and there was silence. Then, one by one, smashing against tile. The bots fall, one by one, in the dissipating smoke.
On the tape, one hears exhausted sighs of relief from the men, then clapping and cheering. The cheering takes over the tape as it ends. The tape recording was uploaded to YouTube that same day, even before the Grunge Bot carcasses were dragged away and taken apart for scrap.
The Conservatory led the legal charge against AL*VE in the following months. It resulted in the collapse of the company, and liquidation of its assets. The entire music community breathed a sigh of relief. Creativity flourished. The public, still embarrassed about embrace of the second Grunge Revolution, put up a fight for a while, then tacitly gave in. Music was allowed to run its course, as it still does now, and will for all time.