By Jacob Katel
By Laurie Charles
By Nate "Igor" Smith
By Abel Folgar
By Kat Bein
By Jacob Katel
In 1994 four records by four Seattle bands debuted at number one on the Billboard charts -- Soundgarden's Superunknown, Alice in Chains' Jar of Flies, Pearl Jam's Vs., and Nirvana's Unplugged in New York -- and sold a total of 25 million copies in America alone. That's a pretty phenomenal total for one city, but of course there's a story behind the circumstance, and Hype! attempts to tell that tale through objective eyes. And as a corollary, its soundtrack is a pretty good collection of a decade's worth of the Seattle-style punk that later became known as grunge, even as that very sound stumbles toward its clumsy demise.
This is a sonic aesthetic that's now fairly familiar to most of Western civilization in the shined-up and glitzier form exported by tiresome bands such as Bush, Silverchair, and Stone Temple Pilots, but Hype! shows that the origins of grunge are much dirtier -- not to mention more viscerally exciting -- than radio would currently have you believe. From the U-Men to Gas Huffer, there is clearly a deeply cohesive northwestern esprit, and Hype! has captured this cohesiveness admirably. Heard all at once, songs such as Girl Trouble's garage-schlocky "My Hometown" and Some Velvet Sidewalk's rockin' "Mousetrap" have more in common with one another then they seemed to at first; despite the widely differing philosophies of their record labels, there's a connection to both the Sonics and the Stooges that makes them sound great -- perfect, in fact -- when heard back to back.
To its credit Hype! attempts to document not just the Sub Pop sound but the sound and vision of an entire community; as such, there's a surprisingly moderate amount of Sub Pop material here. True, flagship acts Mudhoney and Nirvana are here, as are Tad and the Fastbacks and Supersuckers (who joined the Sub Pop stable only after the label's huge economic surge). But the U-Men, the Wipers, Dead Moon, and Green River all pre-dated the company's formation; the Young Fresh Fellows and Flop recorded for L.A.'s Frontier label; and Some Velvet Sidewalk and Girl Trouble are on K and Estrus, respectively. The Posies and Pearl Jam were, of course, major-label dudes almost from the get-go -- and theirs are the two tracks that sound out of place on this collection.
Seattle's rock scene was always accused of being strangely unfriendly toward women in rock bands, a charge Hype! bears out: Besides the Fastbacks (who have broken every barrier in rock), only 7 Year Bitch and the Gits break the all-male rule, and in truth neither band could get arrested in Seattle before a combination of the grunge explosion and personal tragedy made them famous for aspects other than their music.
Alas, Hype! is also an extremely telling document about the fleeting nature of fame, because this aesthetic already sounds terribly dated. As diligent and conscientious as Hype! is, it arrives perhaps five years too soon: Grunge is still in the middle of being co-opted and destroyed, and its original fans are still in the middle of grieving over the tragic way this story ended. In January the film debuted at the Sundance Film Festival; despite the presence of MTV, the ever-present hype machine, and Eddie Vedder -- who sang "Leaving Home" with his friends the Fastbacks at the official Hype! party -- the general lack of distributors' interest in the film at such a venue was instructive. It underlined the essential dichotomy between the mainstream's attitude about grunge and grunge's own inflated opinion of itself.
Besides, for all the talk about grunge going mainstream, the real issues of the genre -- the D.I.Y. aspect and the unpretentious anti-glamour once symbolized by flannel shirts, ski caps, and combat boots -- never really captured the American imagination the way they should have. Grunge's dirty ethos and sour sense of humor somehow got lost in the translation: It became more a fashion statement than an artistic one, a trend instead of a movement. Yes, Sub Pop hyped itself to fame and fortune, but the lack of seriousness with which it took the project is reflected in the way the label has -- commercially speaking, anyway -- all but dropped off the planet since.
There's no question that grunge is dead, yet inside the CD cover of Hype! (and on-screen at the end of the movie) is a message that reads, "Your town is next." For all the vaunted cynicism of grunge, this is just the kind of super-romantic, almost adversarial sentiment that made Seattle what it once was -- a place that exuded a hope-in-the-face-of-hopelessness mentality, that took pride in what it created out of nothing. Apparently Seattle is still dreaming, and Hype! rolls over to hit the snooze button for a few more winks.
-- Gina Arnold