The idea that media saturation can destroy a music scene is hardly a new one. Like most cliches, it’s rooted in truth–the increasing meaninglessness of the term “alternative rock” is certainly due in part to the eagerness with which the mass media devours (and regurgitates) whatever the music industry feeds it. But if we’re to believe Hype!, the recent documentary about the rise and ruination of the Seattle music scene that makes its local premiere Friday at the Music Box, this cliche is the whole truth. With a numbing array of talking-head interviews and predictable concert footage, the film–which would have been more aptly titled Gripe!–allows its subjects’ regrets and complaints about the effects of media attention to snowball into a veritable indictment.
The fact is, several other factors contributed to the decline of the Seattle scene, and their absence from filmmaker Doug Pray’s field of vision is a black hole that sucks away the film’s credibility. It’s hard not to cringe when Soundgarden guitarist Kim Thayil indignantly says, “It was our thing, and then all of a sudden it belonged to people who you never thought you would share your music with”–of his own volition, he signed to a major label, made videos, toured arenas, and took millions of dollars from those insensitive jerks. Boo-fucking-hoo.
Hype! traces the emergence of the Sub Pop label from a rather stagnant scene; its owners hoped to make local favorites like Green River and Soundgarden the superstars their fans thought they deserved to be. But the movie doesn’t linger on the fact that the success of this endeavor had everything to do with playing the media to generate exactly the sort of hype the film attacks. The journalist from the ultrainfluential British tabloid NME who got the ball rolling didn’t just stumble upon the Seattle scene on a hiking holiday; he was flown in by Sub Pop. And the label marketed itself first and foremost–as a brand synonymous with that scene. So when one of the bands on Sub Pop’s roster, Nirvana, exploded in 1991, so did Seattle. Sub Pop did for Seattle in the blink of an eye what Twin/Tone was never able to do for Minneapolis.
As bands like Nirvana and Soundgarden transcended their regional affiliations, they left Sub Pop, and the label started putting some of the money it made off their contracts into bands from places other than Seattle–Velocity Girl, Sebadoh, Chicago’s Red Red Meat. In fact, what becomes clear by the end of the 90-minute film is that the pond was too shallow to float the boat. Most of the Seattle bands–from unknown yobbos like Coffin Break to major-label snoozes like 7 Year Bitch–were inept, unoriginal, and bland; without the hype, most never would have gotten even the 15 minutes they did. By contrast, Chicago–anointed “next big thing” by Billboard as Seattle began its decline–with its large population, rich musical legacy, and diverse artistic factions, never melted under the brief, intense heat of the limelight.
With all that in mind, most of the Seattle scenesters in Hype! start to look like ungrateful brats: Exasperated by a clueless New York Times reporter, Sub Pop employee Megan Jasper–who almost certainly would be employed elsewhere had her bosses’ ploy failed–improvises a list of grunge slang terms that the paper publishes as authoritative. Eddie Vedder moans that the industry keeps “taking and taking…frothing at the mouth,” while “the bands aren’t in it for the dough, they just aren’t.” (Admittedly, Vedder’s behavior since 1994, when Pray finished filming, suggests that he may be one interviewee who meant what he said. Pearl Jam’s stance against Ticketmaster, its refusal to make any more videos, and the stylistic evolution of its music stand apart from the passive cynicism that dominates the film.)
One of the film’s rare enlightening moments comes courtesy of Leighton Beezer, a computer programmer who played chaotic noise rock with Mudhoney’s Steve Turner and Mark Arm in the Thrown Ups. Nimbly demonstrating “the difference between punk and grunge” by adding a subtle slide effect to the same two guitar chords, he says: “Look at these people complaining about being too much in the spotlight or always being scruti-nized…what did they expect?”
Last summer when this column reported the sale of the Bop Shop building, new owner Wayne Berman insisted he was in no hurry to oust the quirky jazz club. But last week the Sun-Times reported that proprietor Kate Smith was moving the Bop Shop to the Chopin Theatre space after Dion Antic, who owns Iggy’s and Harry’s Velvet Room, informed her that he would be moving in–a month before her lease ended. “It seems as though there was a mistake,” Berman mused when I reached him by pager; turns out Antic’s lease does in fact start February 1, even though Smith’s ends February 28.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Kim Thayil photo.