Have you ever been swingin’ on the flippity flop in your best wack slacks, getting into a big bag of bloatation when your night as spoiled by some tom tom club? No, no you haven’t because those words were never uttered in real life. They were made up, and for a few glorious days in the 90s people who weren’t part of Grunge culture but wanted to make out they were thought this were real. Let us introduce you to the glorious hoax that was Grunge Speak.
For people outside the explosion of Grunge culture in the 90s, it was as it Smells Like Teen Spirit triggered a cultural watershed as big as punk before it. Of course, it wasn’t one moment, much like the later Britpop: people who were involved experienced a building of new sounds and forces before the mainstream latched onto the trigger song. The Grunge sound, dress and attitude spread all conqueringly among a generation… and while this meant some of us were part of a glorious moment, it also left people outside, looking in, feeling outside, wanting to be in. Through this glass window a joke slid.
The New York Times was one of the publications that wanted an in on Grunge culture. They were prepping a Grunge issue, and journalist Rick Marin had a task: find out what language grunge kids were saying. Not a bad idea, as every subculture develops its own language. Unfortunately for Marin he reached out he spoke to Sub Pop co founder Jonathan Poneman, a man with a sense of humour, and he directed Marin to former staffer Megan Jasper, 25, who was at Caroline Records. He didn’t name her because she knew Grunge culture, such as it was, he named her because she loved to wind people up, which was a genuine term back then, and meant pranking people. Marin asked Jasper what ‘the kids’ were saying, and Jasper came back with some gloriously made up terms.
And so, when the actual fucking New York Times published a full Sunday section on ‘Grunge: A Success Story” they had no idea that the sidebar listing “this lexicon of grunge speak” was completely fictional. Brilliantly Mudhoney, who were touring in Britain, saw this nonsense and decided to absolutely run with in, dropping the words into a Melody Maker interview. For a wonderous time, people who’d grown up with the emergent grunge stood eyes wide as those trying to look cool dropped some bizarre alien slang. People would turn up at gigs by Grunge bands with the newsprint stapled to their shirts.
Then things got dark. The Baffler’s Thomas Frank didn’t believe all this and asked Jasper if it was real, she confessed no. When this was picked up by ever larger media the New York Times asked Jasper if she’s conned them, and she said no, in case Marin or his boss would get fired. However, the New York Times wanted an apology from Frank, and it got messy. The joke was out. Grunge speaks’ plastics detector was done.
Over time, Jasper rose to become the CEO of Sub Pop (she started as an intern), and you can hear about it in her own words here: https://theworld.org/stories/2018-09-20/swingin-flippity-flop-grunge-speak-hoax
The Grunge Lexicon
bloated, big bag of bloatation: 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
swingin’ on the flippity-flop: hanging out
tom-tom club: uncool outsiders
wack slacks: old ripped jeans