From The Archive
Thomas Frank
No. 4  March 1993

Harsh Realm, Mr. Sulzberger!

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An Exclusive Baffler Blunting!

No one can say the New York Times is out of touch with the young. Like so many other organs of official culture, the Times has lately declared a newfound enthusiasm for all manifestations of The Hip, launching a new “Styles of the Times” section in which the looks and sounds of youth culture and of risqué arty scenes around the country are admired and hungrily commodified. On Sunday, November 15, “Styles of the Times” carried a feature on “Grunge,” describing the music and bands that make up that genre, but more importantly focusing on the outward aspects of the new “subculture” and the ingenious ways in which it has been domesticated by high fashion designers for their upscale—but ever-so-cognizant—clientele.

Unfortunately, in its anxious scramble to rip off the Seattle kids’ doings, the Times also printed a glossary of “grunge-speak” that is, as its originator Megan Jasper readily admits, completely fabricated. Convinced that “all subcultures speak in code,” the Times went looking for some colorful argot from the Seattle rock scene and Ms. Jasper was only too happy to oblige them with some of the most inspired fake slang outside of Monty Python. Thus the Newspaper of Record dutifully repeated her comical assertions that youth in the Pacific Northwest regularly refer to their torn jeans as “wack slacks,” platform shoes (?) as “plats,” people they don’t like as “Lamestain” or “Tom-Tom Club” or “Cob Nobbler,” and that they often spend time “Swingin’ on the Flippity-Flop.”

The prank began, Ms. Jasper recounts, when the British Sky magazine contacted her, as a former Sub Pop employee and hence a grunge expert, to help them construct a story about the Seattle youth movement they were certain existed. The British know better than any other people the commodity value of highly visible youth subcultures, especially imported ones, and naturally Sky was anxious to be the first to discover a new style that they could sell to unhappy English kids. Nonetheless, Ms. Jasper was surprised by the various journalists’ “weird idea that Seattle was this incredibly isolated thing,” with a noticeably distinct look, sound, and style. The result of this credulity was that, as Ms. Jasper puts it, “I could tell [the interviewer] anything. I could tell him people walked on their hands to shows.” After seeing the piece in Sky and recognizing the joke, members of the Seattle band Mudhoney were careful to use all the strange words in an interview with youth mind-molder Melody Maker, which is now planning a major feature on the (nonexistent) grunge movement. Later the story migrated to the Times, which so wanted to believe there was a new youth movement underway in our provincial backyard that it was apparently willing to forego the usual fact-checking.

As anyone knows who has actually spent any time in indie rock or ever been to a show in Seattle, no one actually uses these expressions. But you can be certain they will soon. Playing to the culture industry’s dearest fantasies about youth movements, Ms. Jasper’s light-hearted lexicon now has a life of its own: her comic version of the “Seattle subculture” will soon, through media magnification, become standard. And although kids in Seattle may never actually say things like “Harsh Realm” and “Big Bag of Bloatation,” their peers and their parents will, all over Europe and America. Regardless of its origins, this is the vocabulary the masters of Hip have decreed you will use, and they’re not about to back down now. As the Times’ piece reads, “grunge speak” will indeed be “coming soon to a high school or mall near you,” but not because of the witty effervescence of those irrepressible teenagers.

Thomas Frank is a political analyst, historian, journalist and columnist for Salon. He is a former columnist for the Wall Street Journal, authoring “The Tilting Yard” from 2008 to 2010, and a founding editor of The Baffler. He is the author of a number of books, most notably What’s the Matter with Kansas? (2004). His newest book is Listen, Liberal.

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