Thursday, April 7, 2016

Hype! A grunge documentary.

Recent events in the D.C. United fan community resulting in a year long ban for one fan and the shuttering of a long running fan podcast, which I’ll talk about more when I write about the game on Saturday, led me to a re-watch of Doug Pray’s 1996 film Hype!, a documentary on the rise and further rise of the Seattle grunge scene.

Despite being the perfect age for grunge, I missed most of the grunge wave when it hit because I was overseas with my family in Germany and in those pre-Internet days not much American pop culture was available to us. And when I returned to the United States in 1995, I was dropped into a teen world where grunge and the grunge “look” had reached maximum saturation. None of it made any sense to me and the dreary fashion as well as the dreary music (and my own natural contrariness) turned me off of grunge for many years. It wasn’t until I went to Berklee in the early 2000s and fell into the local indie scene in Boston that I finally started going back and giving the grunge bands a second listen. Imagine my surprise that some of this stuff was actually pretty good.

One of my old Anti-Love Project bandmates (and friends!) J. showed me Hype! a few years ago when I was visiting and we had a lot of fun laughing at the dated fashion and at the terrible local Seattle bands who have no concept of their own terribleness and are outraged that the record companies didn’t sign them along with everybody else. We laughed because we identified with them, at least in part. The crazy, insular, myopic, cut-throat world of local bands looking for a big break. And while Hype! is plenty enjoyable on that level, when I returned to it later, without the bottles of wine and nostalgia, what struck me was how much it reveals about both rock culture and mass culture here in America.

Hype! is a documentary not of grunge per se but of what happened to the local Seattle rock scene in the late 1980s and early 1990s. The way the story is presented in the film, Seattle had been something of a pop culture backwater, a 2nd tier market that didn’t have many large acts come through on tour because it wasn’t worth their time to travel up from San Francisco on West Coast tours. A cultural vacuum must be filled and Seattle filled it with local bands. Local bands, bands, bands. Some good, some bad. A noisy local style developed, young people getting out their aggression. As one of the scenesters says in the film, “It was really exciting for the people who were doing it.” And maybe that’s all it would have been.

Enter Sub Pop Records.

Sub Pop took those local bands and turned them into Sub Pop bands, “cool” bands. The guys who started Sub Pop consciously developed a Sub Pop “brand” with the end goal of establishing a Sub Pop cachet. They knew exactly what would hook American cultural tastemakers--limited pressings, “authenticity”, and glowing coverage from the British music press. (We still can’t shake that colonial cultural inferiority complex.) And it worked. Mudhoney, Soundgarden, Nirvana… they became the “Seattle sound”.

Nirvana breaks big and then, as another scenester puts it, the major labels came in like “big dumb Baby Huey” and exploded the rest of the scene. And the rest is shopping mall history. The local Seattle music scene was officially stripped of all meaning and context, digested, and regurgitated into “soft verse-loud chorus mud rock” and plaid shirts over long johns in high schools across the country. Raging against the machine is a-ok with The Man, as long as you purchase the official t-shirt for $29.99 and don’t actually do any raging against the real authority. Raging against women? Cool. Raging against parents, homework, “jocks”? Fine. Raging against “sheeple” who like lame music, unlike you? Sure! Both bands are on the same major label and the executive is getting money to funnel into his Panama bank account either way.

The Hype! story exposes the inherent contradiction at the center of Rock Culture. In reaching a wider audience, a band, an artist, will find themselves turned into a product. Sometimes that band is prepared for it--Oasis, in all their glorious unselfawareness--and sometimes those bands are not. When a band with an anti-establishment message becomes the establishment, the members have to perform amazing feats of mental gymnastics in order to stay sane. We see two ways this plays out in Hype! from interviews with Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder and Soundgarden’s Kim Thayil. Both bands signed with major labels and had a lot of success and both men seem almost embarrassed by this fact. At least in 1996, Vedder appears to have rationalized what happened to him and Pearl Jam as pure luck and marketing. He says over and over that it’s not fair that they were plucked from the scene to have success while other bands were not. Was it luck or does Vedder need to believe its luck? Because to have connected with such a large swath of the country’s teens and their parents’ wallets based solely on their own merits would be soul crushing. Thayil is more introspective. “It’s not encouraging to find out you participate in the (consumer) culture one way or another,” he says of Soundgarden’s mainstream success.

And that very consumer culture is at the heart of Hype! and at the heart of what happened with D.C. United fans this week. What’s the difference between popular culture and consumer culture? Can popular culture, created by the people for the people, survive ham-fisted attempts at commoditization?

In the case of grunge, the answer was a resounding NO. When the Seattle sound went mainstream, the nuance and context was stripped from it and what remained was just Seattle mud. Bands like Mudhoney used simple-sounding instrumentation and song structure on purpose as something of a reaction against the elaborate and technical prog rock and metal. But that “on purpose” got lost in translation. The “deceptively simple” just became “simple” and then “stupid” and then “offensively stupid” and then “Staind”. The progressive politics and anti-fashion fashion turned into five t-shirts available for sale at Hot Topic for $19.99 each.

Hype! is a case study in how not to do things. And Hype! is also ancient history. The major labels no longer have the kind of money or power that they did in the late 1980s and early 1990s and music and “bands” no longer have that kind of cultural cachet. Even mass market pop artists, airbrushed and groomed to within an inch of their lives, no longer have that kind of cultural cachet with a very small handful of exceptions. When music comes up in cultural discussions, more often than not, we’re either talking about how “powerful” some pop diva is (or isn’t) or we’re discussing the money involved in streaming services. Music ain’t nothing no more. Your local band is going nowhere. A Seattle boom will not happen again.

(One final shout out to how comfortable all those grunge fashions were for ladies. MY GOD, I wish teen girls today could know the joys of being able to throw on some soft, worn-in jeans and flannel and a band t-shirt and not have your sexuality or worth as a human being questioned.)

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