Harboring Grunge

By Jennie Yabroff

Published November 25, 1996 10:33AM (EST)

grunge is dead. Who killed it? The Media, of course. The Pacific
Northwest was one peaceful little fishing village populated by unassuming,
flannel-wearing musicians, and then Rolling Stone and MTV and The New
York Times sharpened their pencils and pointed their cameras at Seattle,
and within a year poor Kurt Cobain killed himself and the whole scene was

At least that's what "Hype," a cozy little documentary about the grunge
phenomenon, would like you to think. Nevermind that "Hype" itself, by the
very nature of its being, is part of the media it so eagerly blames for
ruining the Seattle sound. Nevermind that the bands which got really
famous, like Nirvana and Pearl Jam and Soundgarden, may have had the
tiniest hand in their own fame, and nevermind that some of the smaller,
unknown bands may still be languishing in obscurity because, well, they
suck. "Hype" wants you to think that a few interviews with some
less popular bands and some poorly shot concert footage lend the film an
insider legitimacy and credibility that excuse it from the same
accountability it demands from other media. Don't believe it. The biggest
difference between "Hype's" coverage of Seattle and MTV's is
that MTV did it first  about three years ago.

While the film does show that there are more bands in Seattle than
Soundgarden and Nirvana, it fails to prove that any of them are important.
And while "Hype" condemns MTV for propagating the myth that grunge begins
and ends with Kurt Cobain, there's not the slightest suggestion that Cobain was anything
less than the patron saint of musical integrity. Regardless of whether
Cobain was really a humble artist thrust cruelly into the spotlight or
a celebrity involved in his own myth-making, the St. Kurt angle has been played out time and again.
But the entire second half of the film is devoted to Cobain, culminating in footage of
Nirvana's first performance of "Smells Like Teen Spirit." Certainly, to
document the "Seattle scene" and not devote a significant segment to Nirvana would be ridiculous;
but to indict the media for ignoring small bands while simultaneously building an entire film around a perfomance of Seattle's most commerical act to emerge from that scene is plain hypocrisy.

If Hype has one thing going for it, it's that it is thorough. The
documentary packs in far more Northwest bands than you'd see in a year of
MTV "Week In Rock" reports. Still, the selection of bands seems somewhat
arbitrary, and some of the concert footage is irrelevant  like the inclusion of Coffin Break, for example, a band that even the directors in their production notes admit "had nothing to do with the scene."

A true grunge aficionado might get a thrill out of the interviews with early Seattle bands like
The Young Fresh Fellows, but the sad truth is no one, from Eddie Vedder on down, has
anything interesting left to say about the scene. Oddly, Cobain's widow,
Courtney Love, is never even mentioned. As one of the few females to achieve
real success in the grunge arena  and certainly one of the more outspoken
members of the movement  Love's exclusion from the film is puzzling.

As less famous bands like Mudhoney and Tad offer the same tired lines
about "sacrificing artistic freedom" and not wanting to be "corporate
sell-outs," the camera bobs along, as if nodding in earnest
agreement. Yet no one has a harsh word for Sub Pop founders Jonathan
Poneman and Bruce Pavitt (maybe because the "Hype" soundtrack is being
released by Sub Pop?), who eagerly claim full responsibility for cultivating the Seattle scene.
Interviewed on the roof of Sub Pop's "world headquarters," Poneman and Pavitt instruct the filmmakers to pan the skyline, taking credit for the rise  and the highrises  of Seattle, and the camera obediently pans.

"Hype" treats middle America's obsession with grunge with typical hipper-than-thou disdain, yet no one bothers to point out that there's not much aesthetic difference between the flannel fashions that suddenly cropped up in malls across the country and the mass-marketed Sub Pop "loser" T-shirts. The message seems to be that ruthless marketing of a style is OK as long as you're "legit," i.e., local  once it plays in Peoria, it loses all credibility. Yet neither the film's director nor its producer, (Doug Pray and Steven Helvey, respectively) are from Seattle;
they're from Hollywood, a fact that makes the film's protest of
exploitation by outsiders ring especially false.

In order for a documentary to age well, it must simultaneously describe and
transcend the times it depicts, but "Hype" lacks the objectivity and
broader social analysis that would make it a compelling period piece.
Many of the comments made in the film could apply to any music scene, whether it's Seattle in the '90s or London in the '60s; yet they don't offer any new wisdom on music trends as a whole. While it tries
to be a time-capsule-ready take on the birth and death  or rather, alleged murder  of the Seattle
music scene, because of its myopic vision, "Hype" falls for
all the same clichis as the fad-hungry media it attempts to mock.

Jennie Yabroff

Jennie Yabroff is a regular contributor to Salon.

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