Hail divinest melancholy,
Whose saintly visage is too bright
To hit the sense of human sight.
—John Milton, "Il Penseroso "
Southern novelist Walker Percy was fond of describing the prophetic vocation of the artist as something akin to the role of a canary in a coalmine. If the canary squawks and dies, it's time to get out of there. Something's gone horribly wrong. All is not well. Are we listening?
In those bygone days when Guns N' Roses and Michael Jackson's Dangerous topped the Billboard album charts, pop music was in a rather sorry state. (I'll leave it to the reader to assess whether or not the earliest nineties exceed the age of Britney Spears for overall lameness.) U2 and REM had survived the eighties, certainly, but alternative rock (Black Flag, the Replacements, Sonic Youth, the Pixies) and its articulation of youthful (and mostly suburban) angst had yet to find a lasting home on the radio or MTV. All of this changed when Nirvana's Nevermind dethroned Michael Jackson as top of the pops, and with "Smells Like Teen Spirit" in our heads, few would regard Axl Rose with much seriousness ever again.
Almost simultaneously, Pearl Jam's Ten entered the picture with the power of a Van Halen that mattered. Both hailing from a long active, under-the-radar Seattle music scene, Nirvana and Pearl Jam would eventually be joined by Soundgarden as the primary elements of an odd cultural moment the market would christen "grunge."
To be sure, few self-respecting musicians (or fans) would ever self-apply a label like grunge. And according to the affections of many partisans, I'm already in hot water for having mentioned Pearl Jam and Nirvana in the same sentence. But both tribes persist among thirtysomethings as well as post-Columbine youth ...