25 Years Ago: ‘New York Times’ Falls for the Great Grunge Speak Hoax
Fans of off-mainstream music often end up reading articles about the art they love written by bemused mainstream journalists. Typically, these writers have been ordered to cover the story because their bosses are uncomfortable that they’ve already missed the boat.
It’s been happening since rock ’n’ roll arrived in the ‘50s, and soon began amassing column inches in the press all over the world. From the beginning, many of those inches were devoted to the genre’s imminent demise – thus proving that, while the mainstream was pretending to “get it,” they didn’t “get it” at all.
That was certainly the experience of Megan Jasper, a recently laid-off receptionist for Seattle’s Sub Pop Records. Contacted by the New York Times about the then-burgeoning grunge movement, she knew they didn’t “get it” – and she didn’t want them to “get it.” So, on the spot, Jasper invented one of rock's greatest hoaxes.
Sub Pop were at the epicenter of the scene. Bruce Pavitt’s label had given Nirvana, Soundgarden and Mudhoney (among others) their first record deals, becoming known along the way for having developed the “Seattle sound.” Still, like many in the city’s hyperactive music scene, Jasper didn’t believe there was a “movement” at all.
Her old Sub Pop boss had passed along the call, which found a typically arrogant, acerbic reporter asking if grunge had its own slang. The 25-year-old Jasper – who later returned to become the label's visionary executive vice president – made an impish decision: She invented a list of phrases that the Times then published on Nov. 15, 1992.
“All subcultures speak in code,” Rick Marin wrote for a story headlined "Lexicon of Grunge: Breaking the Code." “Megan Jasper, a 25-year-old sales representative at Caroline Records in Seattle, provided this lexicon of grunge speak, coming soon to a high school or mall near you.”
This was her list:
“Bloated,” “big bag of bloatation” – drunk
“Bound-and-hagged” – staying home on a weekend 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 flippity-flop” – hanging out
“Tom-tom club” – uncool outsiders
“Wack slacks” – old ripped jeans
Jasper said in a TV interview later: “I was like, ‘Why don’t you give me a word and I’ll give you the grunge slang for it?’ If they’re lame enough to try and scrutinize this totally stupid thing, why not f--- with them?”
A follow-up piece in a cultural magazine called The Baffler revealed the truth. Thomas Frank reported in March 1993 that Jasper had indeed made the whole thing up, as an act of revenge against the mainstream approach to music she loved.
“No one can say the New York Times is out of touch with the young,” Frank wrote, sarcastically. “The Times went looking for some colorful argot from the Seattle rock scene and Ms. Jasper was only too happy to oblige them with some of the most inspired fake slang outside of Monty Python.”
Jasper told Frank that she’d been astonished by journalists’ “weird idea that Seattle was this incredibly isolated thing.” She added: “I could tell [the interviewer] anything. I could tell him people walked on their hands to shows.” Frank observed: “As anyone knows who has actually spent any time in indie rock or ever been to a show in Seattle, no one actually uses these expressions. But you can be certain they will soon.”
At the same time, he revealed that Jasper's prank actually dated back to an earlier interview with the U.K.’s Sky Magazine: Members of Mudhoney recognized this stunt for what it was, and used some of her made-up words in a talk with Melody Maker. Next thing you know, the New York Times is calling.
The Times demanded an apology from Frank, accusing him of falsely claiming they’d published inaccuracies. He refused. “Having the New York Times’ misinterpretation of the grunge ‘phenomenon,’ we are hardly surprised that you fail to understand the nature of this continuing prank," Frank responded. "We at The Baffler really don’t care about the legitimacy of this or that fad, but when the Newspaper of Record goes searching for the Next Big Thing and the Next Big Thing piddles on his leg, we think that’s funny.”
In an entertaining twist, some of Jasper’s phrases (including “lamestain” and “harsh realm”) made it onto T-shirts in Seattle, but only as a sarcastic commentary on the prank. The images were actually blown-up, one-line reproductions from the original Times story.