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Sunday, September 19, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.
By Clark Humphrey
Hasbro recently staged a publicity stunt at the Space Needle for a nostalgia-themed edition of its Trivial Pursuit game. At the event, a company representative proclaimed Seattle "the city of the '90s." Ahh, those giddy days. The days of Nirvana and early Pearl Jam, billionaire nerds and trendy bars. When slick fashion designers claimed to be "Seattle-inspired" and when every third TV series and every fifth movie seemed to be set here. An era that began with "Twin Peaks" and Starbucks and ended with the WTO riots and crashing dot-coms.
James Lyons, an English film historian and lecturer, remembers the Seattle media hype. He's written about it in a veddy-veddy British academic treastise.
Seattle has been called "a city that's more like a small town." "Selling Seattle" is a small book (169 pages plus endnotes) that's more like a weighty tome, full of academic jargon. His passage about the "Northern Exposure" TV show includes the terms "quotidian," "intertextual," "metaverse," "valorised" and "autonomous televisual auteurs."
Then there are these three, rather unrocking sentences about Kurt Cobain and company: "What was clear was that grunge music, initially an imprecise term for a blend of punk rock and heavy metal being played by some bands in Seattle, had transcended its sonorial origins to become a full-blown media phenomenon. Moreover, if the look and sound of grunge seemed omnipresent, this did nothing to diminish the spotlight of attention focusing on Seattle, which became the signified epicentre of media hype. ...
"What grunge offered was a distinctly urban musical idiom, with all the signifiers of tradition, locality, and authenticity, characterized by vibrancy and a potent and lucrative mixture of youthful anger and ennui, talismanic yet largely apolitical individuals, without the unmistakable overtones of post-industrial decay and racialised inequality closely associated with cities such as Los Angeles and New York."
As you might have surmised from the above, Lyons cares more about the corporate-media context of the music than about the music itself.
And while he admits having visited Seattle during his research, the book might as well have been entirely written in England. Lyons isn't concerned with the real city, except to compare it with the media Seattle.
For one thing, he reminds us that at least some African Americans live in the real Seattle, unlike the Hollywood Seattle. He notes the lack of black characters in "Frasier," "Singles" and "Disclosure" and how the only black character in "The Hand that Rocks the Cradle" was a mentally handicapped handyman, a convenient "other" for the white female villain to blame for her own crimes.
Lyons devotes an entire chapter to pondering whether Seattle's former "Most Livable City" image was really just a media code phrase for "most nearly all-white city." He quotes newspaper and magazine articles praising our supposed safety, cleanliness and orderliness, and he questions (without giving easy answers) whether they express an unspoken longing for a more segregated past.
In much of the book, Lyons depicts a public image imposed upon Seattle by the national media. But he also discusses the images created by homegrown advertisers and exported to the world. Starbucks turned espresso from a quaint European custom into a middle-class accouterment. Sub Pop Records sold white noise by white boys. REI and Eddie Bauer sold an outdoor lifestyle, almost an outdoor religion.
Lyons ends by saying the media's Seattle hype was destined to fade. It represented the American utopian dream, "to find a new city, rather than confront the difficulties posed by the old." No real city can live up to such ideals, so the search continues. The record labels have gone off searching for "the next Seattle," the movie makers have fled to Vancouver and Frasier has left the building. The rest of us remain behind in the real city, living our real lives.
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