At the International Pop Underground Convention in Olympia, Wash., the summer before last, a four-day concert that had roughly the same resonance in '90s underground culture that Woodstock had in the '60s, Fugazi lead singer Ian MacKaye spent most of his time taking tickets and picking up trash--not unlike Mick Jagger volunteering to help out in the first-aid tent at Altamont--and the atmosphere was so wholesome that the one guy trying to sell drugs was practically run out of town. (This crowd was more interested in scoring whole-grain spaghetti with tofu-based tomato sauce.) Members of Hollywood's all-woman band L7, pre-fame, snapped a photo of the audience to show to their moms back home. The festival was a sort of synthesis of the democratic precepts and small-is-beautiful rock 'n' roll now sometimes gathered under the catchall term of "grunge."
The event was set to coincide with the Pet Parade, an Olympia tradition since 1929, in which little kids dress their dogs and cats in funny costumes and tow them in wagons through the streets of downtown. About half the musicians got up early to watch. Punk-rock rage was something we were used to; punk-rock niceness was something new.
After the music wound up each night, hundreds of punk rockers roamed downtown . . . and kept carefully to the sidewalks. What I'm saying is, at three o'clock in the morning, 200 punks stood at a deserted intersection and waited for the red light to change.
After a couple of decades or so of me-firstism, up-the-system and anarchy-as-chic, \o7 civic responsibility\f7 is the revolutionary concept. The punk-rock No Future ethos has evolved to this: Be More Than a Witness. Let the grown-ups sneer at it all--the cool thing is principled dissent.
Only a generation as large and as culturally dominant as the baby boomers could afford to spend their youth as revolutionaries; for the demographically impaired people born much after the mid-'50s, it's hard enough just to get along.
I was thinking about Olympia a couple of weeks ago when CNN's "Style With Elsa Klensch" presented the fall New York collections, whose dominant look is grunge: floppy, stripy, expensive clothes inspired by the flannel shirt/ripped jeans/grimy boot thing of underground rock 'n' roll, mega-buck knockoffs. Ultra-skinny, Marc Jacobs-for-Perry Ellis-clad models strode down the runway, while a massive speaker system blasted L7's fiercely feminist anthem "Pretend We're Dead."
Later on, designer Christian Francis Roth posed for the cameras--holding a guitar he could not play--and said: "Grunge means ripped jeans and flannel shirts. Of course, here in New York, it's stripes and plaids." Hip people don't have causes; they just try them on.
When I was young and angry, my friends and I used to go into Fiorucci, the old punk-rock department store in Beverly Hills, to sneer at the Encino matrons who came there to buy shiny, black boots made from Hefty bags. They believed the punk-rock lifestyle was something you could try on as casually as a pair of jeans. Of course, we were the ones who were wrong. The lifestyle could be bought and sold, and in a world where anybody with an American Express card could purchase Crazy Color, pre-torn bondage pants and cunning little safety pins that appeared to but didn't actually pierce your cheek, \o7 we\f7 were the chumps still listening to Black Flag and the Germs while the fashionable people had long since moved on to Depeche Mode or Laurie Anderson . . . or grunge.
A few months ago, I mentioned to Courtney Love, who as the leader of the band Hole and wife of Nirvana's Kurt Cobain could be considered the godmother of the grunge generation, that the new earnestness might be pretty hard to fake, that Nirvana had sold a trillion records in large part because the emotion was real. "But we really haven't seen them \o7 try \f7 to manufacture it yet, have we?" she said sweetly. "By this summer, it's going to be like when record company art departments were putting fake tattoos on their bands after Guns N' Roses got to be so popular. 'Get him dirty,' they'll say; 'Get that kid into a torn sweater.' " And she was right. By the end of summer, they had.