Enter the Grunge Forest

Back in October, Flavorwire’s Tom Hawking did us the immense service of looking back at Live’s “I Alone” video as the brilliant piece of unintentional comedy that it is, just as Beavis and Butthead did before him. In his intro, Hawking touches on a greater thesis, namely that not every piece of ’90s pop culture is necessarily worthy of the rosy nostalgia trip currently being bestowed upon it, but we digress.

Watching a shirtless Ed Kowalzcyk ponder the bondage of life on this earthly plane whilst whipping his braid around, we couldn’t help but notice the dead tree behind him. And frankly we’re a little surprised we managed to notice it, what with the band’s drummer, sans drum kit, awkwardly charging the camera. We had seen that tree before, with its knotty, dead limbs occupying a barren hellscape.

Live – “I Alone” (1994)

It shows up in almost every landmark ’90s music video ever made. Much like videos set in futuristic anti-gravity tubes, that dead tree motif is probably one of the most enduring and defining music video tropes of the ’90s. It was employed by both emerging artists (Smashing Pumpkins, The Cranberries) to bona fide musical legends (Johnny Cash during the that Rick Rubin reemergence and The Beastie Boys). It’s so omnipresent that we dubbed it “The Grunge Forest.”

Rollins Band – “Liar” (1994)

Unlike an Angry Chair, the Grunge Forest is more than a state of mind. We’re taking some poetic license with the name. Realistically, the Grunge Forest isn’t much of a forest. It’s typically a bleak landscape, often a desert, littered with a few sick trees. It is similar to photography cliche of the “lone tree in a field” that is used for the cover of every book about Africa (though the Grunge Forest is obviously far more innocuous and way less racist).

Like any trope, there are subtle variations. Some Grunge Forests take on a fairy tale-like quality; some are true forests, as would be expected from bands coming from a logging-friendly Washington. One could argue about what truly constitutes a Grunge Forest, but ultimately all we’re trying to suggest is that, for whatever reason, during a brief moment in the early-to-mid-’90s, every band, grunge or otherwise, inexplicably took their unplugged electric guitars into the woods to brood.

Nirvana – “Heart Shaped Box” (1993)

Arguably the first appearance of the grunge forest was in David Sylvian’s “Red Guitar” in the pre-grunge 1984 music video, directed by Dutch photographer Anton Corbijn, who in his long music video career has done more than anyone else to popularize the Grunge Forest. In a way, it was one of his obsessions.

David Sylvian – “Red Guitar” (1984)

Even if you don’t know Corbijn’s name, you’ve definitely seen his work. He started out as a photographer for NME in the ’70s, before moving on to directing music videos in the ’80s and beyond. He’s snapped shots of every major rock star, including Bowie and Dylan, mostly in his trademark back and white. He took the iconic shots of Joy Division, and later directed the Ian Curtis biopic “Control.”

That stark black and white cover for U2’s  breakthrough”The Joshua Tree” album? Also from Corbijn. Unsurprisingly, the Grunge Forest is a prominent feature from those 1987 desert photo shoots. Funny how the aesthetic for one of the world’s most earnest stadium rock acts was later commandeered by bands who were hailed as the anti-thesis to bloated corporate rock.

It seems Corbijn carried that image with him, when he moved on to directing music videos in the ’80s and beyond. From the list we were able to compile, Corbijn also directed Grunge Forest videos such as Nirvana’s “Heart -Shaped Box,” Johnny Cash’s “Delia’s Gone” and Rollins Band’s “Liar.” Amazingly, he filmed all of those in 1994.

Johnny Cash – “Delia’s Gone” (1994)

Hole’s “Doll Parts” and The Cranberries’ “Zombie” were both directed by Samuel Bayer, who did his part to define the ’90s video aesthetic by directing the “Smells Like Teen Spirit Video” in addition to videos from Smashing Pumpkins, Garbage and Green Day.

Hole – “Doll Parts” (1994)

Cranberries – “Zombie” (1994)

Tim Pope, the director—who kicked off this whole thing is a bit with his “I, Alone”—is a weird outlier, since his videography is mainly a collaboration with The Cure that began in the band’s salad days in the early ’80s and included contemporaries like Dream Academy, Siouxsie and the Banshees, and Soft Cell.

Alice in Chains “Rooster” was shot by Mark Pellington, another prominent ’90s music video director who shot Pearl Jam’s “Jeremy” among numerous other videos.

Alice In Chains – “Rooster” (1993)

The Beastie Boys video was directed by Nathanial Hornblower, who we all know was the late, great Adam Yauch.

Beastie Boys – “So Watcha Want” (1992)

The “Cherub Rock” video was shot by Kevin Kerslake, who along with Bayer, directed videos for every major rock act in the ’90s, including Green Day, Nirvana and R.E.M.

Smashing Pumpkins – “Cherub Rock” (1993)

If asked to choose the most ubiquitous tropes of ’90s music videos, most people would offhandedly cite the bright colors of Hype Williams, or overwrought depictions of the quiet horror of middle class suburban life (like that shot in “Jeremy” where the bloody grade-schoolers are Sieg Heiling in front of an American flag, or the BBQed Barbie dolls in Soundgarden’s “Black Hole Sun“). Given how over the top these visual cues tended to be, it’s a bit ironic that the visual that may most succinctly sum up the attitude and aesthetic of the era was subtly tucked away in the background, so that we barely even noticed it.

This article features reporting from Maggie Serota and Joe Veix.