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Making Sense Of Seattle

1992 was the year of the Seattle music scene. It was also the year in which the "alternative" music promoted by college radio finally achieved widespread mainstream success.
Charlie Bertsch

Issue #5, March/April 1993

In the world of rock music, 1992 was the year of the Seattle music scene. It was also the year in which the "alternative" music promoted by college radio finally achieved widespread mainstream success. These two phenomena are inextricably bound up with one another, since many of the alternative bands that broke big are from Seattle. Let's recap. In January little-known Nirvana's second album and major-label debut Nevermind astonished the music press by topping the Billboard charts. By summertime's showcasing of Pearl Jam and Soundgarden at the second Lollapalooza music festival, the "Seattle scene" and the "grunge" music with which it was associated appeared to have become the most written about phenomenon in rock music since the birth of punk. Everywhere music critics spoke of the search for the "next Nirvana". Major labels scoured Seattle for still- unsigned bands. Towards fall members of Pearl Jam had four albums on which they had worked in the Billboard top twenty. The Cameron Crowe film Singles set amidst the Seattle scene was being heavily hyped. By year's end the Seattle scene and grunge had transcended their origins in music criticism. Most obvious was their appearance in the world of fashion. Spreads in Elle and Vogue touted $1000 flannel shirts designed by the world's most famous designers. A recent San Francisco Sunday Examiner and Chronicle article (3/7/93) gives a good sense of the Seattle influence: Image magazine includes a cover story on grunge- related fashion, while Travel features an article on negotiating "alternative" Seattle.

As absurdly "overblown", to quote Seattle band Mudhoney, as this phenomenon has sometimes become, however, it has never really been severed from its geographic origin. Indeed, it would be impossible to write about it without mentioning Seattle. "Seattle" defines the source of the phenomenon and organizes its often disparate expression. I'll give you two examples of the word's magic resonance. Contextualizing Spin magazine's 1992 "artist of the year", Pleasant Gehman describes journeying to Seattle "which is currently to the rock 'n roll world what Bethlehem was to Christianity," then mixes religious metaphors to state that "from out of nowhere" Nirvana "turned the music world upside down and inside out, transforming "alternative music" into a bona fide big-buck category, and Seattle into a modern-day Mecca" (Spin, 12/92, p.51). Less dramatically, an article on rap culture in Oakland calls it "the Seattle of hip hop" (Danyel Smith in Spin, 12/92, p.106).

When I reviewed the various articles devoted to Nirvana and the Seattle scene, it became clear to me that the word "Seattle" stands for a lot more than its music scene. In writing about the Seattle scene, critics are not just chronicling a random success story. They are grappling with the notion of a geographically specific scene itself. Take Deborah Frost, for example (Village Voice, 1/14/92, p.63): "Comprehending the new world order of rock may be as hopeless as figuring out what's going on back in what used to be the USSR. So let's think local, like Seattle, which is a lot less messy, and where the rock revolution of the decade, or at least its next 15 minutes, is fomenting." If you can't think global like the bumper sticker advises, think local. The regional particularity of the Seattle scene makes it somehow manageable to minds overtaxed by the complexity of the transnational.

Seattle becomes a way to make sense of the world. In this context, Ann Powers' comments on critical response to Nirvana's success resonate with broader meaning (SF Weekly's "Bay Beat", 2/12/92, pp.4-7): "Thrilled with the noise but unable to grasp what it signals, fans and critics have turned their attention to Seattle, where it all seems to be starting." The cognitively dissonant "noise" of the old world order's break-up leads us to seek sources of the new, "where it all seems to be starting" instead of finishing. Again and again critics emphasize the purity and authenticity of the Seattle scene as an origin, defining bands like Nirvana in opposition to the degraded, unoriginal commercial bands of the mainstream (usually described the way Hollywood is in alternative movie circles). Courtney Love, lead singer of the band Hole and beau-ette of Nirvana's Kurt Cobain, said early last year that Nirvana was "plowing a new playground for all of us to play in" (Lauren Spencer in Rolling Stone, 1/23/92).

All this originality, however, smells like a pastiche of other "original" scenes; the playground already existed. Nirvana "sounds like R.E.M. married to Sonic Youth, having an affair with the Germs" (Spencer). The success of Seattle bands like Nirvana did not lay the foundations for the playground, so much as make it possible to finally start playing for a mainstream audience. As article after article duly notes, these foundations were laid throughout the 80s by earlier alternative music scenes. These fall into two basic categories. They are either college towns or large cities that are somehow "alternative", usually to even larger urban centers nearby. Most important college towns had local music scenes self-consciously perceived "as such" in the 80s; of these Athens, GA (source of the B-52's, Love Tractor, Pylon and R.E.M.) is the most famous. Minneapolis (source of the Replacements, Husker Du, Soul Asylum and also Prince) is the quintessential example of a large "alternative" city: it is "alternative" to the sprawl surrounding Chicago to the south in that it is supposedly less intimidating and/or more boring and thus fertile ground. Often large cities, like Minneapolis, are themselves college towns. Sometimes a small college town and nearby large city have contributed to a shared scene: Boston — alternative to New York City — and Amherst, MA (sources of Dinosaur Jr., the Pixies, Throwing Muses and The Lemonheads) passed bands back and forth. These scenes have generally developed from a fortuitous combination of airplay on the local college radio stations, club advertisements and reviews in local fanzines and free papers, and the help of local independent record companies.

Despite this support, however, in the early to mid-80s it usually took a long time for bands to attract the attention of major labels or commercial radio. Gradually, however, it began to get easier and easier for new alternative or "indie" bands to move quickly to major labels and achieve some mainstream success. Rap had a lot to do with it. Public Enemy, N.W.A., Ice-T and many other acts proved that a marginalized niche could produce national hits with little major-label promotion. Sonic Youth signed with a major label, proving that someone with big money thought the post-punk avant-garde a marketable commodity. By the summer of 1991, the reasonably rapid rise of Jane's Addiction and popularity of the "alternative" Lollapalooza rock festival that lead singer Perry Farrell organized clearly heralded a significant change in the "natural laws" of commercial success. The success of the Seattle scene is thus neither an accident of fate, nor a testament to the superiority of Seattle bands' music. It is, rather, the product of many different scenes and the labor that went into them. Seattle is part of a nationwide "Amerindie subculture" (Powers). Jonathan Poneman writes that Kurt and Courtney both "got their start in the closely knit pop underground, which acted as an extended family across America" (Spin, 12/92, p.45). In reality, this underground is not just an American phenomenon. Calvin Johnson of K Records is not exaggerating when he names his annual Olympia, WA indie music festival the "international pop underground", what Ann Powers calls "a loose web extending around the globe, a kind of merchants' association/Masonic guild for rock-loving anarchists." Indeed, I buy the weekly British music papers Melody Maker and New Musical Express as much to learn about American scenes as British ones. To take an extreme example, the Stockton, CA indie band Pavement was featured again and again in the British papers before Sacramento-based Tower Record's Pulse magazine ran a story on them! Even the most regionally specific alternative scenes in the U.S. thus have global markets and often make their name overseas first!

All this suggests a fundamental tension between the manageable notion of the local scene and the "messy" complexity of the global network. How can we reconcile Seattle's portrayal as a regionally specific scene with the global web that nurtured it? Why do critics like Deborah Frost see locales like Seattle as alternatives to the dumbfounding complexity of places like the former USSR? Why is it necessary to have regionally-defined sources for all the noise on the international pop network? A nswering these questions requires that we broaden our focus. I think that critics' need for local scenes has a lot to do with the emergence since the 60s of what Edward Soja calls "postmodern geographies". As Fredric Jameson, David Harvey and many others have noted, the 60s gave birth not only to a "counter-culture" and proto-revolutionary movements, but also to a new economic landscape. In the defense industry mushrooming to meet the demands of the Vietnam War and in the first suburban clusterings of computer companies around Route 128 in Boston (Digital, Data General, Wang) and Stanford University in the Bay Area (Hewlett Packard), a decentralized, "exurban" economy with no need for the density of the "everything in one place" (totalizing) metropolitan "center" or downtown began to assert itself. The description of San Narciso in Thomas Pynchon's The Crying of Lot 49 documents just this shift away form the urban core. New high tech industries began to mirror middle-class "domestic production" in shunning the high-density city for decentralized suburbs.

In the 80s, however, it has become more and more clear that the decentralization pioneered by high tech industries has become the norm. Productivity is now "centered" in the de-centered clusters of office parks in what used to be called suburbia. Joel Garreau calls these clusters "Edge Cities", noting that the "old- fashioned Ozzie and Harriet commute from a conventional suburb to downtown is now very much a minority pattern...Most of the trips metropolitan Americans take in a day completely skirt the old centers. Their journeys to work, especially, are to Edge Cities" (Edge City, p.5). One-time suburbs are now the sources of economic productivity. Garreau goes on to say that Edge Cities are "tricky to define" because "they rarely have a mayor or a city council, and just about never match boundaries on a map" (p.6). Edward Soja echoes Garreau: "We're certainly not in Kansas anymore, but neither are we in old New York or Chicago — or even Los Angeles, the centrifugal ur-exopolis that is now being left behind in the wake of its endlessly repetitive contemporary simulations" ("Inside Exopolis" in M. Sorkin, ed., Variations on a Theme Park, p. 95).

It is within the context of the Edge City or exopolis' emergence that we must make sense of the need for local scenes. The dominant musical values of the indie network suggest one interpretation. In general, these values merely invert those of a stereotyped mainstream. Indie music is thought to be raw and immediate, while mainstream music is processed and mediated by "overproduction"; indie bands can reproduce their music in concert and even improve upon it, while mainstream bands use too m any electronic effects to reproduce them live without resorting to computers or pre-recorded segments; and indie lyrics are ironic and difficult, while mainstream ones are saccharine or banal in their simplicity. To sum these values up, we can say that indie music usually prides itself on authenticity of some form or another.

Since the Edge City or exopolis is usually portrayed as a "processed world" in which much of the labor consists of accumulating, entering, filtering and transmitting useless information, and is usually lamented as a culturally void no- place dotted with cookie-cutter, mid-rise industrial parks, it would be easy to interpret the culture of indie music as some sort of defense against the creeping inauthenticity of the new economic order. Many indie fans do. According to this interpretation, local music scenes like Seattle's could be said to constitute a stronghold against the encroachment of Edge Cities. Much as the university has been conceived of as a bastion of cultural meaning in the meaningless seas of mass or popular culture, the college town or alternative city would then be thought of as an inversion of the Edge City. Returning to Deborah Frost's metaphor, local scenes like Seattle would be seen as sources of authenticity in opposition to the republics of a disintegrating USS R whose very authenticity as autonomous states, as sources of true or "real" nationality, is perpetually in question.

Garreau emphasizes Edge Cities' lack of names. Opposed to this namelessness, the names of local scenes like Seattle's could be read as proof of their opposition to the growth of Edge Cities. This is what indie values would encourage us to do. Problem is, the distinction between alternative music scenes and Edge Cities is a lot blurrier than those values would suggest. Ann Powers and Deborah Frost both emphasize Seattle's until recently booming high tech economy as a key factor in the music scene's success. It is worth recalling that Microsoft, the quintessential exurban firm, is located in the Seattle area. Indeed, it is striking how many alternative music scenes of the 80s grew up alongside high tech industries. Minneapolis is home of 3M and other cutting- edge firms. Route 128 outside of Boston runs through some of the very first Edge Cities, while the Amherst area is the site of new ones. Athens, GA is not far from the Edge Cities of Greater Atlanta. Austin, TX, the town f eatured in Slacker, is located near the Round Rock high tech center. Chapel Hill, NC home of indie band Superchunk and recently touted in Entertainment Weekly (1/8/93) as the "next Seattle", is one anchor of the burgeoning Research Triangle high tech area.

This coincidence can be explained very easily: culture thrives where the money is. Without discounting this conclusion, however, I believe that there are more fundamental links between alternative music scenes and high tech areas. Both share a decentralized, do-it-yourself approach to production. Ann Powers emphasizes the "libertarianism" of the Seattle scene: "Indie isolationism is not far removed from the entrepreneurial spirit of capitalism: every one out for himself." She quotes Sub-Pop co-owner Jonathan Poneman: "Eventually, there are going to be pop stars on every block...Recording technology is becoming so accessible, and the networking is becoming so sophisticated, that pretty soon we'll have Nirvana in every precinct." Other articles focus on Seattle's "pioneer spirit" to make similar points. Anyone doing research on the high tech industries that grew up in the 60s and 70s would run across similar statements. Like music-making, equipment design and programming are undertakings one person or a small group can succeed at without a lot of start-up capital. Indeed, Microsoft founder Bill Gates' meteoric rise to enormous wealth is a Seattle success story to surpass even Nirvana's. Because high tech and alternative music industries are so entrepreneurial, they are also highly competitive. The vast majority of indie bands and high tech firms never achieve any lasting commercial success. Many disappear overnight. The possibility of having a Nirvana in every precinct may not be as Utopian as it first sounds, for in our current economic system most of those Nirvanas will never make it big.

Within this entrepreneurial context, identity becomes a problem. Just as the first Edge Cities are threatened with being "left behind" by their "endlessly repetitive variations" (Soja), a Nirvana must avoid being engulfed by the Nirvanas in every precinct waiting to take its place. It is this problem that links indie and high tech cultures most closely. This may explain why, upon starting up, both Apple Computer co-founder Steve Jobs' Next Corporation and Bruce Pavitt's Sub-Pop Records (the seminal Seattle indie label) spent more time and money coming up with distinctive graphic design for their products than they did on the products themselves. Of course, names have always been crucial in rock music and bands have always striven to come up with memorable ones. In the decentralized, entrepreneurial worlds of alternative music and high tech industry, however, avoiding the namelessness of the Edge City becomes far more difficult. This is why regional names take on added importance. "Silicon Valley" or "Seattle" are names for a decentralized, entrepreneurial economy in which individual identity is hard to come by.

I think that if we are to make any sense of Seattle, we must do so in the context of this identity crisis. As Edge Cities have become the dominant economic landscape, we have found ourselves increasingly bound up in an international web that resists individual identity. While our ideological upbringing encourages us to find sources for what's happening there, an individual agency "where it all seems to be starting" (Powers), the difficulty of that task has daunted us. Uncomfortable with our dissolution into the web of namelessness, we gravitate to regional names instead. Even if we can't single out actors, we'd at least like to identify where the action takes place. Seattle, then, becomes a hedge against Edge Cities named after the intersection of interstates, malls or not named at all. The concrete geographic particularity of a Seattle, its definition as a real place not interchangeable with any place else masks the landscape of Edge Cities. The obsessive, almost frantic turn to Seattle as an origin of independent culture thus transcends the world of music. Deborah Frost's metaphor is an apt one: we fear that our own world is coming to mirror the disintegrating USSR and think local in self-defense.

Charlie Bertsch was a graduate student in English at UC Berkeley when he wrote this. If you have any comments on this piece, or just want to talk music, you can e-mail him at

Copyright © Charlie Bertsch. All rights reserved.