A crucial part of the grunge mythos is the assertion that the genre killed off hair metal when 1991 arrived with its mass of instant classics that poured out of Seattle. Ostensibly, it is claimed that Nirvana, and specifically Kurt Cobain, drove the stake into the heart of the outdated and self-serving genre. In addition to his genius songwriting ability, this myth augmented Cobain’s status as the de facto spokesperson for Generation X.
However, as three decades have passed, the story of grunge killing hair metal has hit a roadblock. Although Nirvana, Soundgarden, Alice in Chains and Pearl Jam confirmed the grunge sound and aesthetic as the new cultural mode, by that point in 1991, hair metal was already in decline. Hair metal was of the ’80s, and like everything in life, it had its sell-by date.
Although it has long been claimed that members of hair metal bands such as Twisted Sister, Mötley Crüe and Van Halen were scared by the tsunami of grunge, interviews in the years since have revealed that many of hair metal’s biggest names knew that their relevance was in decline prior to the advent of grunge.
In an interview with Ultimate Guitar in 2020, Dee Snider of Twisted Sister, one of the more respected figures in the hair metal scene, dispelled the long-standing myth that grunge killed hair metal. He explained that the myth was something of a media concoction: “This is a fact, dude; I’m old, I know this, a fact: if you mentioned grunge to Soundgarden or Pearl Jam, they got physically violent with you,” Snider commented.
Adding: “They were just a rock band! And if anything, Soundgarden, Alice in Chains, they were metal bands. They were touring with Ozzy! It just became defined by some writers, they pigeonholed it and called it a new sound. When it first came out, I was, again, doing metal radio, and I was playing Alice in Chains, Soundgarden, Nirvana on my show, and I was like, ‘This is great! Heavy, new stuff'”.
Snider concluded: “So then it became defined as grunge, and then it was the hair-metal killer, and that was awful. But I don’t blame it on the music; hair metal did it to itself. It became too commercialised, and then it got unplugged and become nothing but power ballads and acoustic songs, and it wasn’t metal anymore, it had to go, it had to change.”
This sentiment is also echoed by Snider’s bandmate, Jay Jay French, who told Daniel Sarkissian: “The only band that leapfrogged and saved themselves was Guns N’ Roses. And my theory is that Guns N’ Roses was not perceived as a joke. They came out of L.A., but I think that Axl (Rose), first of all, had a great voice. I think that they were perceived as real, not fake. Like, they were real junkies, not pretend junkies. So there’s an authenticity. It’s all about authenticity, and grunge is all about authenticity. People wanted authenticity, so they got it with grunge. It wiped out the perceived frivolousness of hair metal, which is, ‘Hey, man. Let’s party. Let’s get the girls and drink.’ I think people just got sick of that, and they wanted (something more) authentic.”
In the end, it was a question of authenticity and excess. It’s clear that by the advent of the 1990s, hair metal had already confirmed its own exit. It had become a tired shell of itself, and people had become sick of it, even those who were heroes of the genre. It didn’t have a place in the ’90s, and grunge’s arrival only hastened its end. Still, it’s way cooler to think that Kurt Cobain killed it off singlehandedly.