Visit theallusionist.org/grungehoax to listen to this episode and read more about it.
This is the Allusionist, in which I, Helen Zaltzman, dress in mismatched layers of language, to look artfully dishevelled.
Coming up in today’s show: we’ve talked about invented languages before on the show, but not like this one. If you’re a 90s kid, into grunge, or a fan of pranks, this story will be for you.
There are a few swears in the episode, so be ready to add them to your sweary scrapbook.
On with the show.
MEGAN JASPER: I was the lucky recipient of a telephone call from the New York Times in the early 90s when they were writing a huge piece on Seattle, and they wanted to focus on the grunge lexicon. They wanted terms and phrases and words that we all used in the music scene; words and phrases that you would only know if you are part of the Seattle music scene.
HZ: On 15 November 1992, the New York Times printed an article entitled ‘Grunge - A Success Story’, about how grunge had become the latest big thing - ‘from subculture to mass culture’, as the article put it. In the preceding couple of years, the Seattle music scene had been co-opted by the mainstream, and by this point, record labels were putting stickers on album covers saying ‘Seattle’; just a couple of weeks before the NYT article, Marc Jacobs caused a stir in the fashion industry when he showed his grunge collection for Perry Ellis, after which he both won an award and was fired; Vogue printed a ‘Grunge & Glory’ fashion spread; and Kurt Cobain was photographed wearing a T-shirt printed with ‘grunge is dead’, in case you were wondering whether everyone was pleased with all these developments. And chasing the zeitgeist before it dipped below the horizon, there was the New York Times.
“When did grunge become grunge?’ the first paragraph went. “How did a five-letter word meaning dirt, filth, trash become synonymous with a musical genre, a fashion statement, a pop phenomenon?”
Immediately, you notice an error: ‘grunge’ is a six-letter word, not a five-letter word. But that’s just your warm-up error; don’t peak too early.
Read on, and there’s a sidebar entitled “Lexicon of Grunge: Breaking the Code”, “coming soon to a high school or mall near you”. And there followed a list of grunge slang terms.
bloated, big bag of bloatation – drunk
bound-and-hagged – staying home on Friday or Saturday night
harsh realm – bummer
plats – platform shoes
score – great
Not familiar with any of these terms? No. Nor was anybody.
MEGAN JASPER: What they didn't realize is that no such language really existed. And so I decided to have a little bit of fun with it.
HZ: This is Megan Jasper. She’s now the CEO of Sub Pop, the Seattle-based record label, and the coiner of all the words listed in the NYT grunge lexicon. Her little bit of fun has gone down in history as the grunge hoax.
Back in 1992, Megan had been Sub Pop’s receptionist. Since grunge got big, the label had been inundated with requests from the press. “Tell the story of the Seattle music scene,” again! “Give us anecdotes about band members,” again!
So nobody was particularly surprised or excited when a New York Times journalist phoned.
MEGAN JASPER: He originally called Sub Pop and asked to speak to Jonathan Poneman, who is one of Sub Pop's co-founders and still operates the label. And Jonathan, I don't know if he just was busy or tired or what, but he didn't take the phone call and he told them that they should speak to me instead. And then Jonathan called me and said, "I think you're gonna have more fun with this than me."
HZ: So Jonathan was like, “Get ready to bullshit.”
MEGAN JASPER: Yeah, yeah. And I said, "What do they want to talk about?" And he said, "You know, they just want to know like a bunch of information about Seattle and the music scene and blah blah blah." I think Jonathan had just had it with speaking about Seattle and explaining everything, and he knew that I love a prank and he enjoys pranks and I think he just knew that I would fuck with someone. I had left Sub Pop and I was working for Caroline at that time, and I wasn't even sure they would call. But sure enough, after Jonathan hung up, my phone rang and it was the New York Times.
HZ: Did you manage to get them to believe anything else or did you just stick to the vocabulary?
MEGAN JASPER: No, it was just the vocabulary. That's all he cared about, the writer.
HZ: Why do you think they thought there was such a language?
MEGAN JASPER: At that time, Seattle was sort of a forgotten city in the United States, in that it sat in a corner that wasn't really talked about. An example would be touring bands: when they would play west coast tours, they would often just play LA or San Francisco and then move along to another part of the country. It wasn't until there really was a huge spotlight on the city that more opportunities came and that people really started looking at Seattle as a city. So for a long time, this was a place where people thought Bigfoot lived and and they thought we were maybe low on knowing what was happening in the news. It was really weird. It was also a time that where there was no internet. I'm not saying that the internet fixes everything or that it makes us all-knowing or that people should have even just assumed that Seattle was a normal city - because it really was, it just was a little sleepy - but there wasn't a whole lot known about Seattle in some other parts of the country. So maybe - maybe - that was enough to make someone think that, I don't know, weird shit existed. I suppose if people thought Bigfoot existed, maybe the lexicon of grunge was not so far-fetched.
HZ: And so it was that Megan was on the phone with the New York Times, offering words that were supposedly in the grunge lexicon.
MEGAN JASPER: I used some that were believable, because I didn't want them to doubt me at first. So I called boots 'kickers' because that seemed like that was - I think people called boots 'kickers'.
HZ: They say 'kicks' now for shoes.
MEGAN JASPER: Yeah, somewhere in the world. And I said that torn up jeans were 'wack slacks', and that the fuzzy sweaters that Kurt Cobain used to wear were called... I can't remember what I...
HZ: ‘Fuzz’, she said they were called ‘fuzz’.
MEGAN JASPER: I said that the ‘Tom Tom Club’ - which, I love that band - I said that those were outsiders, people not from Seattle. I said that 'swinging on the flippity flop' meant 'hanging out'. 'Okey dokey artichokey' meant 'right on'.
HZ: Oh wow.
MEGAN JASPER: Who talks like that? “Okey dokey artichokey.”
HZ: It's just so time-consuming.
MEGAN JASPER: Yes.
HZ: Did anyone start using the words?
MEGAN JASPER: As a joke, yes. People uses them as a joke and then it sort of spread from there. So words like 'lamestain’, which I think was a loser, 'cob nobbler' - I feel like those started making their way out into the world in funny little ways.
HZ: And when the New York Times piece came out, how did people that you knew react to it?
MEGAN JASPER: The city of Seattle celebrated it in a way that blew my mind. I had so many people coming up to me all the time telling me how much they loved it, or I saw people with the article and they would just put a safety pin on it - they were wearing it like it was like it was a pin. And people made T-shirts. It made people laugh. So here it was celebrated. And I think a lot of folks in the world of journalism found humour in it.
HZ: In March 1993, the Baffler magazine printed an article pointing out that the New York Times had fallen for a joke.
MEGAN JASPER: When the Baffler printed that the lexicon was a joke, I think it made a lot of writers and editors talk about how the New York Times could ever have been pranked - how does this happen with a paper like The New York Times? And the answer is, I don't know.
HZ: Maybe it was the geographical distance making it seem like anything was possible and was too far away to check. Maybe the journalist thought other music genres like jazz had a lot of slang so grunge must have a lot of slang. Maybe it was the notion that subcultures are weird and incomprehensible to anyone not in them, but you don’t want to embarrass yourself by letting on, so don’t question it.
MEGAN JASPER: Yeah? I guess? Okay, here's what's baffling - I mean there are so many things - but for any of the bands that were huge at the time out of Seattle - so Soundgarden, Nirvana, Mudhoney, Alice in Chains, Pearl Jam - you could read interviews that any of them have done and in just about any publication back then, and you'd see that they spoke like normal human beings.
HZ: Although, not quite always, thanks to a similar prank Megan had played a few months before the New York Times called her. She had previously dropped some fake grunge terms to the British magazine Sky.
MEGAN JASPER: I don't have a copy of it, but I remember kind of fucking with them and sharing all of these fake things, and Mudhoney read that article when they were overseas, when they were in the UK touring and, as a joke, they actually started using some of those terms; but they did it in a way that was so over the top - and they were probably hammered when they were doing it. And so maybe that's something? Maybe the New York Times saw that and thought it was real? I have no idea.
HZ: It was very surprising that the New York Times of all things was not using fact checkers.
MEGAN JASPER: It was shocking. That was shocking. When we spoke on the phone he sounded like a very nice person but he never questioned anything. He was so busy transcribing, listening and transcribing; back then it wasn't as easy to just record phone calls - maybe he just had to use his mind in a way where he wasn't really even hearing what was being said. He was probably just so busy at making sure that he transcribed it properly. But I don't know. Still you have to look at it afterwards and go, "What the fuck did I just write?” I think even with the internet not having existed at that time, the fact that fact checkers didn't make a phone call to see if any of those words were real or not is somewhat bizarre. Can you imagine fact checking "swinging on the flippity flop"? You would probably look at it and say, "Let's not fact check that; there's no way that's real.” Then I think a lot of people were appalled that something that was a joke could actually be printed in one of the most prestigious newspapers we have.
HZ: It's a really funny joke though.
MEGAN JASPER: I know! I thought it was pretty good too. Even my mom appreciated it. And she praised me for being a good liar.
HZ: Back in 1992, what kind of stuff had been happening to make you and your colleagues this level of irritated with journalists writing about this?
MEGAN JASPER: When I first moved to Seattle, it felt like a little music utopia, because it really amazed me that you could go to almost any show and you'd see a lot of the same people at those shows; and a lot of the folks were people in bands, they were supporting each other all the time, showing up all the time, having so much fun. They weren't standing and watching the music with their arms crossed and looking like they were studying everything on stage. They were loose. They were having fun. They were drinking beer. They looked so happy. And as there became a brighter spotlight on the city, we had A&R people coming in, signing bands immediately; that created funny dynamics between bands, because why does one band get signed and another doesn't? And the whole vibe changed. Everything was seen as an opportunity.
HZ: But for very few people really.
MEGAN JASPER: That's exactly right. And before it was seen as an opportunity, it really was this environment or place that just brought people together. And there was something so kind of pure and perfect and awesome about it - even though it wasn't pure and perfect and awesome. But it was really beautiful.
HZ: Unlike the word ‘grungy’, 1950s slang for dirty, possibly a portmanteau of grubby and dingy. It had been used to to refer to music before - 1970s metal reviews, 1950s rockabilly sleeve notes - but the word’s first known appearance in reference to Seattle-based music was in 1981, when future Mudhoney vocalist Mark Arm wrote a letter to a fanzine describing his own nascent band Mr Epp and the Calculations as “Pure grunge! Pure noise! Pure shit!” He says he’d picked it up from the Australian music scene. But that’s not exactly how the word caught on to describe a music genre/bands from Seattle/bands that sound a bit like bands from Seattle/bands that look a bit like bands from Seattle.
Marilyn Manson claimed to have invented the word ‘grunge’ in his review of Nirvana’s 1989 debut album Bleach. He didn’t. It actually came from Sub Pop. In their 1987 catalogue of new releases, an EP by the band Green River, coincidentally fronted by the aforementioned Mark Arm, was described as “ultra-loose grunge that destroyed the morals of a generation”. Sub Pop founder Jonathan Poneman later said, "It could have been sludge, grime, crud, any word like that." But it wasn’t. It was ‘grunge’.
MEGAN JASPER: People just started using it.
HZ: What was the feeling about that when that actually caught on?
MEGAN JASPER: The feeling was gross. I mean, everyone was grossed out. And it felt like that was a moment when it was being marketed. When people started using the word ‘grunge’ regularly, it made people feel like the city, this place, this experience, this scene, this culture was all of a sudden being marketed; and that made it feel cheap. And it didn't feel fitting. It felt like a joke. And so people would laugh about it; but when the word really started getting used, people felt disgusted by it. Because it was used lightly as a descriptive - it was just an adjective. Never was that meant to be a music genre. And when bands started being described as grunge, it was hard to even know what that meant, because that would be Alice in Chains. Mark Lanegan was grunge at the time. I remember people describing that band Creed as grunge. These bands that sounded nothing like one another. I suppose it's whatever you want it to be.
HZ: I guess that's the problem with recently made up words - people don't know what they mean.
MEGAN JASPER: Yeah, so they can mean anything.
HZ: Do you wish that it had been a different word? Or just that there had been no word at all?
MEGAN JASPER: No, I feel like... You know, as gross as it seemed to me at the time, looking back so many years later, it's hard to wish it was anything else. With some time and perspective, I think it's pretty wonderful that Seattle became so known as being a music city. As crazy as that time was, and as weird as it felt, and although it changed the city quickly - in some ways those changes weren't seen as wonderful - it also did change the city and some really wonderful ways, and it provided opportunities to some people who may have never had those opportunities otherwise. And it created a living for some folks who were struggling to make a living. I feel like it allowed for us to grow and become stronger in a lot of important ways. We have an actual music commission as part of our city, a group of people who work with the mayor's office; that we have an Office of Film and Music in the mayor's offices is incredible. So you know, I kind of think whatever you want to call it or whatever anybody wants to call it, who fucking cares? It did some damage and it did some wonderful things as well. And so I think you have to just take the term that was given and call it good and even try to see some pride in it. Or at least just be able to to laugh and and see the humour in it.
HZ: Megan Jasper is the CEO of Sub Pop. Visit subpop.com to find all the label’s artists and their tour dates - Megan recommends the forthcoming album Titanic Rising by Weyes Blood, an artist Megan loves almost as much as she loves pranks. For some more of those, keep listening for today’s Minillusionist.
HZ: Megan Jasper clearly has form in playing pranks, but other than grunge hoaxes, what other pranks has she pulled?
MEGAN JASPER: Oh, I am not above decorating someone's front porch where I have holiday items that are not anywhere near that time of the year. My prank right now that I am in the middle of is with my husband: he doesn't realize that there is an app that's a remote for our TV, and every time he is watching TV at home and I'm not there, I always switch the the TV to a different channel that goes to a kids' channel or to a really conservative station. And he hasn't said anything to me yet, but I've been doing it now for a week and a half.
HZ: What if he thinks he's hallucinating?
MEGAN JASPER: I know! I kind of was hoping that he either thought the TV was broken or the house is haunted, but it hasn't come up yet and I give it another week before he says something.
HZ: Good luck.
MEGAN JASPER: Thank you. This is the kind of shit that makes me feel happy in a day. There is always something.
HZ: My friend turned up our place wearing the same kind of shoes as my husband, but his feet are three sizes smaller. So while my husband was out of the room, we switched one of the shoes, and then watched him for minutes trying to put it on.
MEGAN JASPER: Oh my God, that's amazing. That's so good. See, I think these things don't have to be grand. They just have to be fun, right?
HZ: Not cruel.
MEGAN JASPER: Exactly.
HZ: I think the holiday is quite helpful. You know why not decorate for Halloween now and beat the rush.
MEGAN JASPER: Oh my God, I know. And the beauty of doing that is if you can park down the street or hide and just watch, you see people stop and just enjoy it and stare and then continue walking. And that is the best. Watching people respond to it: there's nothing better.
HZ: So your rules for a good prank: funny; not too cruel; and make sure that you've got a good view of it.
MEGAN JASPER: Yes, you have to be able to enjoy it.
And I think ideally the prankee has to be able to enjoy it in some way as well. I grew up as the youngest member of a household, and therefore the most prank-vulnerable, but I grew to appreciate the ingenuity and timing of some of the japes. Also I learned never to trust anyone ever. On Facebook and Twitter, I asked you what your best prank was. And wow, did you deliver. Here are just a few; I’ll put a load more up at theallusionist.org/grungehoax. OK, here’s one from Tom:
When my sister and I were in high school it was still dark when we got up for school each day. I woke her up at 3 a.m. saying we were going to miss the bus. She ran to the kitchen to eat breakfast and then realized the time. She has never spoken about it. It was 40 years ago.
Siblings are evil.
Ian Chillag of Everything is Alive, Radiotopian sibling podcast:
I convinced my mother that they had added snow angel making to the Olympics and she has never forgiven me.
That’s so sweet!
Paul Bae, from the Black Tapes and Big Loop podcasts:
My friend accidentally injured my back at the gym. Next April Fools after it healed I faked the injury again and made him literally carry me around Montreal to do my errands.
A back injury for a back injury.
I found a random, nondescript, key in a drawer when I was in high school. I waited until a friend left his keys unattended, then put it on his key ring. It took him a week to discover it. It drove his whole family nuts trying to figure out what it was. I never told him.
That’s like the start of a magic realist story.
Lynn, who makes props and specialises in extremely realistic miniatures:
I once made a tiny exotic frog, photographed it in the garden, sent it to my boyfriend while he was at work and he showed the whole office and they were all saying I needed to call the RSPCA. I was at home laughing my ass off.
Recently I hid 30 pictures of Hillary Clinton pointing around a seminar room, and then told the people whose room it was that I hid 32 pictures, hours of fun!
My friend once invited me round, I asked if she wanted me to bring anything and she requested some Fry’s Turkish Delight. I gave her one bar, but also hid five more around her house for her to find later. She seemed pleased! She didn’t find the fifth until several months later; I’d hidden it in the file with her tax return documents.
Dylan: We get a lot of snow where I grew up. In high school we encased a guy's car in a perfect cuboid of snow, using all the trucks we had at our disposal in our rural town. He comes out, laughs, digs out and goes home.
Next day, he left his keys in car. We move his car to the other side of the school, and place a perfect cuboid block of snow where it was. His reaction as he got to about 40% of the way through was amazing.
Annoying, but you’ve got to appreciate the effort.
And one final prank:
Someone I know put a solved Rubik's Cube at the feet of a friend's 8 month old baby and silently left the room.
The Allusionist is a proud member of Radiotopia from PRX, a collective of the finest podcasts you can feed your ears. The shows run the gamut from funny to thought-provoking to intriguing to emotional heptathlon, and none of them waste your time, which is the quality I’m after in podcasts. Find all of the Radiotopians at radiotopia.fm.
Your randomly selected word from the dictionary today is…
thridace, noun: inspissated lettuce juice used eg as a sedative.
I had to look up ‘inspissated’, it means thickened or congealed. So there you go, a choice of words to use in an email today.
This episode was produced by me, Helen Zaltzman. Thanks to Bekah Zietz Flynn and Hrishikesh Hirway. The music is by Martin Austwick, he concocted some fake grunge for the fake grunge lexicon, you can hear his real music at palebirdmusic.com.
Find the show at facebook.com/allusionistshow and twitter.com/allusionistshow. And keep abreast of Allusionist events, hear all the episodes, read all the transcripts, see the full dictionary entries of all the randomly selected words, find a lexicon of every word covered in the show, at theallusionist.org.