beyond the grunge stereotype

by Art Chantry (

when all of american pop culture historians (all the east coasters and the brits who were nowhere near the west coast of america) look back on the “glory years of grunge”, they only see it through their personal (and frankly myopic) experience of it. what WE actually experienced up here in the actual creative community that spawned this crap was so completely different that there has been volume after volume of revisionist tomes and oral histories trying endlessly to ‘correct’ the history of it all into something even slightly more real and akin to what actually happened up here. that’s not to say that history lies (exactly). it’s more of story of the winners getting to write the history and the rest of losers being little intellectual parrots repeating the narrative as we’re told. it’s the process of myth creation that we as a culture just can’t seem to get a handle on (except those folks who are into power and control. those folks totally get it).

AC:look at the image - the whole poster that dark area is a silhouette of a head. that 'message' you mention is actually the teeth o the face. the shape of the nose juts into the word 'chainsaw'. seethe face? it's a figure/ground contrast game.

this is a poster i pulled form the wall of seattle (even though it’s a tacoma poster. there was all sorts of crossover between cities back then) back around ’90-’91. this was just as grunge was peaking in the pop consciousness and Nirvana released ‘nevermind’. the whole sub pop world domination comedy parade had been in full operation for a couple of years by then. the rest of the world was copy-catting just about anything that had the word “seattle” stamped on it. being in the middle of that media shitstorm was both hilarious and terrifying. it was a golden opportunity to be so close the hub of a wheel of a pop culture explosion (think ‘swingin’ london, or haight-ashbury, or cbgb’s or sun studios in memphis in the late 50′s), that i was able to (once in a while) toss a pebble into the pond and watch the waves it generated turn into a tsunami that washed over the world. eventually, that tsunami washed away our entire city and the punk culture it spawned and left behind was this pop version of ‘grunge’ coating the entire surface of the world like sticky slimy mud.

what was really happening up here was pretty much the same thing that was already happening all over the world and had been for over a decade. basically, it was a healthy subculture of like-minded people exploring each other and what they were doing/creating. there was a network created by clubs and fans and their information (aka- ‘zines and cheap private records and tapes) that built a linkage between every college town and industrious group of otherwise isolated people in america (and even internationally). everybody sent everybody else their junk through the mail. people in austin knew everybody in seattle and we knew everybody in minneapolis and they knew everybody in washington dc and new york and london and so did everybody else. when bands were popular enough (strictly through word of mouth. nobody sold many records. a ‘hit’ was selling 5,000 copies!), they would drive around the country in a cheap van and live out of the back. they’d book their tour as they went, dropping in on one town after another based on the ‘zines and record they had in their own collections and the ‘pen pals’ they had made through them.

so, when grunge finally broke open, it was the product of years and years of hundreds and thousands of like-minded little weirdoes all over the world simply appreciating the same stuff – the stuff THEY made and sent each other. the mainstream pop culture totally ignored it since pop is about money. there was ZERO money in the punk world and there never had been any money. so, businessmen didn’t even know this huge market demographic had been building for twenty years. when Nirvana released ‘nevermind’, EVERYBODY in this pop/punk underground bought the record, because it was a fucking great record that everybody wanted to listen to. the initial pressing was something 20-50,000 copies that vanished immediately. it took everybody totally off guard and the surprise of nuclear bomb sales REALLY grabbed the businessmen’s attention. it all suddenly exploded onto the monied mainstream charts and the shitstorm of business vultures and copycats pounced on this underground world to make a profit. thus was born ‘grunge” and ‘the alternative nation.” that’s what it was dubbed. these are MARKETING terminology, not actual styles. just like the super-rich are not really ‘job creators’, it’s just what they are labeled for easy consumption and ad campaigns.

what did this underground culture really sound or look like? well, everything. really. a huge polyglot of creative efforts. any level of talent or expertise was perfectly acceptable and ope to experimentation and appreciation. we all now have a very simplified definition of grunge that is created my big dollar business executives and ad agencies. it involves stringy dirty hair, wallet chains, minor chords and angst, plaid flannel and torn jeans, etc. the truth is that everybody looked and sounded like that because that’s who they were – the losers of american culture, the ignored nobodies. we dressed in flannel because it was warm and cheap. torn jeans were worn because we couldn’t afford to get new ones. the boots were army boots (fort lewis – one of the biggest military base in america is very nearby and the thriftstores always had durable army boots for sale for a couple bucks.) the wallet chains we used so we wouldn’t lose our wallets in one of those crazy moshing crowds.

the music was angst driven because the losers were suffering against the reagan/yuppie tide of greedies. ” when life gives you lemons – make lemonade.” what they never add to that homilie is that lemonade may be sorta sweet, but it’s also very very BITTER and SOUR. just like grunge.

this poster kinda drives home to my point. at the height of grunge this is what the actual art of the streets looked like – ANYTHING but the stereotypical grunge ‘look’. the music and the fashions and lifestyle was equally a mosh of everything mixed up. there really was no “grunge” sound or fad in seattle. that was brought here by all the folks that suddenly poured into our city by the pop culture monster machine. those folks swamped out local culture with their ideas of what and who we were and the result was the silly media version of “US” being fed back to us and puked back up in some sort of inbred cycle of self-loathing humor and then (finally) defeat.

this is such a beautiful, elegant, well crafted hand-drawn low -budget poster!!! it’s simply the effort of some person sitting down with a sharpie and drawing a poster for a show. totally anonymous! no name anywhere – the artist thought so little of it or themselves that they didn’t bother to sign it. compare this to the earlier items i posted the last couple of days. the early punk (like that lewd poster) was meant to be powerfully rejecting of the norms of the time and be extremely off-putting and downright ugly. the ‘big teen beat 85′ poster was transitional piece where the ‘children’ of that earlier punk culture began to use the styles and ideas and ‘rejecting norms’ to begin to build and create a new world for themselves – one to their personal liking and pleasure. this poster reflects the full fruition of that new culture. the hand-lettering is exquisite. the idea brilliant. the execution so cheap and sensible and perfect. everything about this poster is beyond good – into another realm of quiet acceptance of what we can all do if we just let it happen. this is what that OTHER world in seattle looked like &#

; and it looks NOTHING AT ALL like the grunge stereotype in our collective memories!

culture is the most powerful language we have as a species. when we are forced to survive by the simple power of our shared culture, we can take over the world. it’s just that the world created will be nothing remotely like the world we built. catch-22.

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