Intensities in Ten Suburbs

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One Moment in Time: The “Grunge Speak” Scandal

Posted by Andrew Unterberger on August 27, 2007

World history, except without the plague and railway strike parts

Every year, it gets a little harder to believe that Grunge really happened. As a musical or underground movement, it makes perfect sense, but as a mainstream and pop cultural one, it’s ridiculous that it ever gained the power that it did–it’s hard to imagine a musical genre that was often so willfully difficult (musically, asthetically, even politically, sort of) ever being quite so popular again, especially considering the unapologetically extroverted musical genres currently domianating the pop charts. Now that it looks like the last of even the post-post-grunge bands have died out (and no, I don’t buy that Nickelback has any more to do with Nirvana and Pearl Jam than they do with Deee-Lite and C&C Music Factory), it’s likely only a matter of time before before the revival starts, especially considering the two-decade-cultural-cycling theory I believe in, which means it’s at most a half-decade away. But for the remaining years of recycled 80s arena rock memories (Guitar Hero Encore: Rocks the 80s, the Apatow flicks, Chuck Klosterman), Grunge continues to feel like a fading, unlikely memory.

This distance makes bizarre occurences like the “Grunge Speak” Scandal of 1992 seem even stranger in retrospect. Though ’91 might have been The Year Punk Broke, ’92 was the year that the mainstream really started to take notice–when Nevermind and Ten peaked on the charts, when Cameron Crowe’s Seattle-set romantic comedy Singles first came out, even when the flopping of 80s superheroes Def Leppard’s much-anticipated Adrenalize made explicit rock’s changing of the guard. By the end of the year, the genre’s “Big Four” (Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Soundgarden & Alice in Chains) had been established, flannel and long johns were sweeping the country, and it was time for the press to take notice.

And so the New York Times sent reporter Rick Marin to get the inside scoop on the grunge scene. Her search for the scene’s perspective led her to Megan Jasper, a sales rep for Sub Pop records, the genre’s flagship record label. Jasper gave the Times just what they were hoping for–priceless info on the subculture from one of its key players, in the form of what eventually became a sidebar titled “The Lexicon of Grunge”: a series of slang terms specific to the Grunge scene, unknown to the rest of the western world, advertised by the NYT as “coming soon to a high school or mall near you.” The actual article is pictured above, but in case it’s hard to read, here’s the full list of the terms prosented (from the Wiki page, obviously):

  • bloated, big bag of blotation – drunk
  • bound-and-hagged – staying home on Friday or Saturday night
  • cob nobbler – loser
  • dish – desirable guy
  • fuzz – heavy wool sweaters
  • harsh realm – bummer
  • kickers – heavy boots
  • lamestain – uncool person
  • plats – platform shoes
  • rock on – a happy goodbye
  • score – great
  • swingin’ on the flippety-flop – hanging out
  • tom-tom club– uncool outsiders
  • wack slacks – old ripped jeans

Tom Frank, a reporter for Chicago cultural criticism mag The Baffler, realized that something was up with the sidebar, and eventually Jasper’s vocab lesson was revealed to be a sham–made up on the spot to punk the NYT, whom Grungesters like Jasper didn’t necessarily appreciate encroaching on their llittle subculture. Then, as Gen Xers were wont to do at the time, the article eventually became embraced ironically as a sign of Seattle’s media over-exposure and the inherent dangers within. Mudhoney even made a T-shirt out of it.

The funniest thing about this little sidebar (nicknamed “Grungegate”), aside from the fact that it actually got published, is the fact that anyone would believe it in the first place. I’m not saying that the Grunge scene was above a little semi-self-conscious ridiculousness, but these buzz words make the grunge scene sound as if it’s populated solely by the cast of Beverly Hills, 90210. “Lamestain”? “Harsh Realm”? “Swingin’ on the flippity-flop”? Did Marin picture conversations between Layne Staley and Jerry Cantrell like

“So Layney, you bound-and-hagging it tonight?”
“Yeah, well Jer, just getting bloated, swingin’ on the flippity-flop, you know how it is.”
“Score. Well, rock on, you cob nobbler.”

Tempting as it is to picture Alice in Chains members gabbing like schoolgirls in between smack injections, it seems sort of improbable. But, in a way, this proves even moreso just how unbelievably huge the Grunge scene really was getting this point. In retrospect, it’s hard to imagine Seattle folks like Soundgarden and Screaming Trees as anything but humorless, perpetually dour artist rocker types, but at the time, the mainstream press could just as easily have seen them as part of another rock scene (which, just like any other, would invariably be full of hanger-ons, teenyboppers and egomaniacal stars). Maybe it actually was, who knows.

The whole debacle is even funnier, though, when viewed in conjunction with the release of Robert Lanham’s The Hipster Handbook a decade later. Though largely satirical in nature, the book’s main selling point was a glossary of hipster terms for the education of non-Williamsburgers, like “deck” (cool), “bust a Moby” (dance), and “getting the cush,” “picking the berries,” “waxing Oedipal,” “parimony,” and “changing the diaper” (all getting a check from your parents). The influence of grunge speak on The Hipster Handbook is undeniable, marking a unique case of an article becoming more artistically influential after being outed as a fabrication.

Sort of have to wonder what happened to Rick Marin as a result, though. Can you get fired for not being cool enough to know when scenesters are lying to you?

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4 Responses to “One Moment in Time: The “Grunge Speak” Scandal”

  1. My name is Kenny said

    I’m almost as amazed at “dish,” “rock on,” and “score,” which seem to be used correctly but don’t seem to be specific to any particular scene. Isn’t “dish” like from the ’40s or something?

  2. yancy said

    As someone who came of age when glam gave way to grunge, I should definitely remember the grunge speak scandal, but this is the first I’ve heard of it. My new lifelong goal is to properly use “swingin’ on the flippety-flop” in conversation with a straight face.

  3. Joe said

    I need to start working some of these into my daily vocabulary.

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