Getting Over Grunge: Seattle in Pop Culture Part I

In a 2014 interview, indie rock malcontent Stephen Malkmus reflected on 1990s nostalgia. “It’s a time that seems romantic to people now, whereas at the time, it seemed like a cynical era,” he told the magazine. “There were all these worries about selling out and the Man and corporate rock and irony and sincerity. But in retrospect, being cynical just meant that you cared. There was something at stake.”[1]

For those of us who came of age in the 1990s, few cities embodied this awkward combination of cynicism, earnestness, and disdain for “corporatism” described by Malkmus than rain soaked Seattle. Much of this had to do with the rise of “alternative music” and under that umbrella, “grunge.”

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Unintentionally, Cameron Crowe’s 1992 film Singles emerged as representative of the city and its music. The film revolves around a loosely defined group of white hipsters played by Matt Dillon, Bridget Fonda, Kyra Sedgwick, and Campbell Scott, among others, who are going through the usual malaise and confusion of their late 20s; these stories are largely told through various vignettes threaded throughout the movie. New York Times film critic Janet Maslin described it as an “utterly charming look at a small sample of Seattle’s young, unmarried population,” cautioning that despite an “irresistible theme song” by the decidedly non-Seattle Paul Westerberg, leaned “too heavily” on its grunge heavy soundtrack.[2]

Having watched Singles again recently, I can assure you it’s not that good–though it does serve as a useful time capsule from the period. Chris Cornell, Eddie Vedder, Jeff Ament and Stone Gossard all make appearances. Soundgarden and Alice in Chains also show up as bands playing in the background. Lesser-known Seattle indie rock stars like Tad Doyle and Sub Pop’s Bruce Pavitt also make cameos, raising the question of whether it’s really a cameo if no one knows who you are outside Seattle?

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More representative of Seattle than Grunge?; Painting “Three Sets of Twelve” at interior main lobby of the U.S. Courthouse, Seattle, Washington, Carol M. Highsmith, August 2008, Carol M. Highsmith Collection, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Did Singles capture the look and feel of Seattle environs? Somewhat, though through Crowe’s lens it’s an entirely white, heterosexual city. To be honest, looking back at his filmography, this is unsurprising, as Aloha, Say Anything, Almost Famous, and Elizabethtown are similarly hetero- and white-normative. In 1990, the city might have been 75 percent white, but it had significant black (10 percent) and Asian populations (11 percent). Maki Smith discussed the intersection of the two communities in a recent blog post for The Metropole. Native Americans, though small demographically (1.4 percent), cast an influential cultural shadow. As evidenced by our interview with historian Gary L. Atkins, the LGBT community was quite prominent as well. All that said, aesthetically one could argue that Gus Van Zandt’s Drugstore Cowboy more effectively conveys the scenery and feel of the Pacific Northwest in his film about drug addicts hashing it out in and around Portland, Oregon.

Crowe has acknowledged he wasn’t super concerned about portraying Seattle in any way, arguing Singles was “not a movie about the birth of the now-hot Seattle scene” but really the disconnected nature of life in one’s twenties. I would even suggest that there are scenes from Say Anything, Crowe’s 1989 romantic comedy(?) which is also set in Seattle, that better depict the city–namely when Lloyd Dobbler and Diane Court drive a drunken party-goer home for the night as the highway beckons, the city’s skyline hovering above them.

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Maslin’s dismissal of the film’s soundtrack, which included Alice in Chains, Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, The Screaming Trees, and other perennial bands from the era (minus the biggest one, Nirvana), highlights how the music matters much more now, 25 years later, than the actual film does in defining the city’s image despite it being known as “Crowe’s grunge movie.” A 25th anniversary re-issue of the soundtrack comes out this year.

If one really wanted to know about the city and its scene in this period, they would do better to consult the film Hype!. Despite interference by Crowe, who feared the film would damage Singles at the box office, Doug Pray’s documentary on the Seattle music scene came out four years later and became, at least according to Vice Journalist Cam Lindsey, “the definitive film on Seattle in the late ’80s and early ’90s.”

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Then there is Mark Yarm’s 2012 oral history of the Seattle scene Everybody Loves Our Town, “basically a flannel-shirted soap opera, where sex, drugs, ego and money (or the lack thereof) wreak such colourful havoc that you wonder how anyone found time to make records, let alone a handful of great ones,” as journalist Dorian Lynskey writes. Arranged in the same fashion as the oral history of punk by Legs McNeill and Gillian McCain, Please Kill Me; in Everybody Loves Our Town, Yarm enables the participants to explain the history from their undoubtedly biased viewpoints. In life, there is no history but only histories.

Needless to say, more voices might deepen a history but they do not simplify things. In relation to Seattle being overly earnest, bands in grunge might have been politically sincere, but many let the personal narratives about them range freely. For example, musicians sought to portray themselves as untutored musical wild things, yet more than a few artists had gone to college, played the White House, or were even the progeny of celebrities. Others simply played havoc with the media attention. Locals fed journalists ridiculous stories such when Caroline records representative Megan Jasper famously punked the New York Times by feeding the newspaper fake slang from the scene including “swingin’ on the flippity-flop” (hanging out) and “harsh realm” (bummer) among Arm’s contrived and spurious lingo. Clearly, the media was not discerning. “When you live it and then you see how it’s covered, you’re like, Wow, that’s not accurate, or Oh, the feeling of this was different from how they portrayed it,” a former Sub Pop publicist notes. “It makes you question history.”

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In some ways, grunge captured the city. The scene’s fashion—long unkempt hair, Doc Martens with shorts, flannel shirts, stocking caps—was Seattle through and through. Though many of these bands embraced the general grooves of 1970s classic rock, they also imbued their own music with a certain punk ethos. As New York Times music critic Jon Pareles wrote in the wake of Cornell’s death, Soundgarden and others turned their collective rage and doubt inward, much as the long months of rain force residents to do for much of the year.

Earlier this year, Pearl Jam was inducted into the Rock ‘N Roll Hall of Fame. David Letterman introduced them, the band spoke about the usual things bands talk about when discussing their origin story; Eddie Vedder said a bunch of stuff that at once sounded inspirational and vaguely idiotic. Only a few weeks later, Soundgarden frontman Chris Cornell committed suicide. Music critic Steven Hyden called Cornell “one of the towering rock figures of that era” and even recorded a 30-minute “emergency podcast” to address Cornell’s demise. The loss of Seattle native Cornell left Vedder as the last remaining frontman from the Grunge era’s big four: Vedder, Layne Staley, Kurt Cobain, Chris Cornell.

A quarter of a century later, a city now defined by Microsoft and Amazon remains tethered to arguably one of the most analogue last gasps of traditional rock music. Cities still do serve as incubators for scenes: 1980s Chicago with Ministry and the Wax Trax label,  Washington D.C. with 1980’s predecessors Bad Brains and Minor Threat followed by Fugazi, and Nation of Ulysses on Dischord Records in the 1990s, early aughts Baltimore around Animal Collective and Beachhouse and Brooklyn with Grizzly Bear and TV on the Radio (yes, Animal Collective moved to Williamsburg later, but Charm City was its origin). However, due in part to the fragmentation of popular culture which had reduced the importance of labels, even local ones, the rising costs of gentrification in many urban locals and the increasingly digital, Spotified nature of the music industry, it sometimes feels like Seattle as music mecca might be a vestige of a different era.

Music has changed greatly in 25 years, as has Seattle, yet for better or worse Grunge remains affixed to the city’s identity. Then again, I’m 41, and maybe I’m the one who can’t let go.

 

[1] Rob Sheffield, “Stephen Malkmus on Why Everyone Wants to be a Nineties Kid”, Rolling Stone, January 3, 2014.

[2] Janet Maslin, “Youth, Love and a Place of One’s Own”, New York Times, September 18, 1992.

 

3 thoughts on “Getting Over Grunge: Seattle in Pop Culture Part I”

  1. Dave Nothing (aka Dave Mortenson), of Bone Cellar and Happy Stars, also makes a cameo appearance in “Singles.” Alongside Elliot Smith and Cobain, Mortenson is arguably the best Seattle-based song writer of the grunge era, though he was obscure and relatively unknown in the nineties.

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    1. Bahahahahahaha!!! Dave Nothing!!!! Are u kidding me? Elliott Smith, Kurbt Cobain, Dave Mortenson? He wrote a couple good songs but to compare him to Smith and Cobain is highly laughable. Bone Cellar did have a rock ing drummer.

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