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Cracking Up the Culture Code


Back in 1992, Seattle was engulfed in an inferno of hype after the commercial rise of Pearl Jam, Soundgarden and Kurt Cobain’s little band that could. “Seattle,” SPIN magazine declared, “is currently to the rock ‘n’ roll world what Bethlehem was to Christianity.” The hunt was on for the next big thing, the newest scene.

It was the perfect setup for the Great Grunge Prank of ’92. Back then, Megan Jasper masterminded this prank when she was twenty-five and working at Sub Pop Records (she’s now Vice President of the label). Because the company had released the first records by “grunge” acts Mudhoney, Soundgarden and Nirvana, Sub Pop was a magnet for journalists assigned to the youth culture beat.

Fatigued by clueless queries phoned in by journalists, Jasper provided a New York Times reporter with slang terms supposedly used by Seattle scenesters. You know, familiar phrases like “harsh realm,” “lamestain,” and the perennial favorite “swingin’ on the flippety-flop.”

During the interview, the Times reporter would feed Jasper a phrase like “hanging out,” which she had to translate it into “grunge speak.” A couple, like “score” and “rock on,” were commonly used by hipsters at the time, but she made most of them up off the top of her head–and a few were indigenous only to Jasper and her friends.

“I waited for the reporter to bust me,” she tells me, “but it never happened. I then expected an editor to cut the section, but that didn’t happen either. I was shocked when I saw it in print.”

The article’s credibility was immediately torpedoed by a cringe-inducing, mathematically challenged error in its opening paragraph–that, as I write this now, still remains uncorrected on the NYTimes.com website: “When did grunge become grunge? How did a five-letter word meaning dirt, filth, trash become synonymous with a musical genre, a fashion statement, a pop phenomenon?” It was accompanied by the following condescending sidebar:

Lexicon of Grunge: Breaking the Code

All subcultures speak in code; grunge is no exception. Megan Jasper … provided this lexicon of grunge speak, coming soon to a high school or mall near you:

WACK SLACKS: Old ripped jeans

FUZZ: Heavy wool sweaters

PLATS: Platform shoes

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KICKERS: Heavy boots

SWINGIN’ ON THE FLIPPETY-FLOP: Hanging out

BOUND-AND-HAGGED: Staying home on Friday or Saturday night

SCORE: Great

HARSH REALM: Bummer

COB NOBBLER: Loser

DISH: Desirable guy

BLOATED, BIG BAG OF BLOATATION: Drunk

LAMESTAIN: Uncool person

TOM-TOM CLUB: Uncool outsiders

ROCK ON: A happy goodbye

The New York Times article offered its readers a secret decoder ring that promised to crack the code of the newest, freshest subculture. Of course, it was a faulty device that threatened to envelop anyone who used it in an impenetrable force field of squareness. (“Wassup guys! You swingin’ on the flippety-flop?”)

Jasper’s friends in Mudhoney–the Seattle band voted most likely to succeed, before Nirvana beat them to the big time–helped perpetuate the gag. She says that when the group was playing in England, “they embraced the retardation by including those words and sayings in their interviews.”

Lead singer Mark Arm confirms this, telling me, “Yes, we did pepper our interviews with those terms, mostly to amuse ourselves [while on tour].” Irony-laden t-shirts emblazoned with the word “Lamestain” began popping up around Seattle.

Not long after, the ruse was revealed in the pages of The Baffler, an independently produced publication founded by Thomas Frank, of What’s the Matter With Kansas? fame. When the New York Times demanded a retraction, Frank replied with a snarky faxed letter that observed, “when The Newspaper of Record goes searching for the Next Big Thing and the Next Big Thing piddles on its leg, we think that’s funny.”

During this time Glenn Boothe was an A&R representative working in the music industry, and he admits that he almost fell for the hype surrounding another scene/scheme: Halifax, Nova Scotia. He tells me that in 1993 he almost flew up to the “Seattle of the North” to catch the Halifax Pop Explosion music festival, though in the end he decided not to go. Boothe muses, today, “The idea that you’ll find good music solely based on a geographic location is pretty absurd.”

Although this desire to discover and sometimes invent music scenes happened in the early-1990s with Seattle, the music industry had already descended into self-parody many years earlier. For instance, the “British Invasion” (The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, etc.) gave way to the “San Francisco Sound” (Jefferson Airplane, The Grateful Dead, etc.), which gave way to the next, Next Big Thing in 1968. “The Bosstown Sound” (um, Eden’s Children, The Ultimate Spinach, etc.) was a marketing slogan concocted to promote the nascent Boston psych-rock scene.

“The Sound Heard ‘Round the World: Boston! Where the new thing is making everything else seem like yesterday. Where a new definition of love is helping to write the words and music for 1968.” The ad copy concluded: “The best of the Boston Sound on MGM Records.”

Though it wasn’t quite as ridiculous as CBS Records’ 1969 marketing slogan “The Man Can’t Bust Our Music,” record buyers still didn’t buy into MGM’s hype. Commercially speaking, the Bosstown Sound went over like a lead-filled blimp.


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