Hearing Geography and Infrastructure in Seattle Grunge Culture, Part 2

Essential Question

How did Seattle’s geographic isolation contribute to the development of Grunge culture?


In the 1970s, 80s, and 90s, aspiring bands had little incentive to travel to Seattle. The city is tucked away in the Northwest corner of the country, nestled between the Pacific Ocean’s Elliott Bay on the West, and Lake Washington, Wenatchee National Forest, and Mt. Ranier on the east. For a band in a van, travel to Seattle required a substantial investment in both time and money. In the pre-internet era, bands also had little means to communicate with potential fans in advance, or to predict the size of the audience they would encounter if they did make the trek to Seattle. As Ben Gibbard asks in the Seattle episode of Sonic Highways, “if you’re in a band and you’re traveling around in a van…are you really going to drive 900 miles from California to play a show to five people in Seattle?”

Seattle, however, was not quiet. In fact, throughout the 1980s and well into the 90s, the city was alive with the sound of music. And much of that music was made by Seattleites.

The city’s geographic isolation may in fact have been an asset to the local Rock bands in the 1980s. They weren’t influenced by traveling bands performing new trends, and seemingly had little motivation to achieve national success by copying popular mainstream Rock bands. Seattle musicians were what Sub Pop Records founder Bruce Pavitt describes as a “network of hobbyists,” inspired more by communal enjoyment and creative approaches to music than notions of fame.

Pavitt was part of the industry that developed around those “hobbyists.” While bands such as Green River, Soundgarden, and Mudhoney developed “Grunge,” a unique, particularly Northwest take on Rock music, a local industry of recording studios, writers, and artists grew alongside them. In 1986, Pavitt launched the Sub Pop record label. By the early 90s, he and business partner Jonathan Ponemon had honed in on the “Seattle” sound, issuing the first recordings by Soundgarden, Nirvana, Mudhoney, and many other artists. The recordings, which were adorned with local photographer Charles Peterson’s sweaty, front-of-the-crowd action shots, captured the full throttled spirit and lack of pretense that seemed to define Seattle music. And the outside world began to take notice.

In this lesson students explore the rise of Grunge in Seattle as a way to consider what might inspire the development of “scene” within a community more broadly. Students will analyze video, photographs, and written accounts, and investigate how the Seattle music scene grew from a small network of local “hobbyists” to a national phenomenon within a decade. Students  then develop their own music scene, and considering how elements of music, art, and fashion might evolve within it.

Note to teachers: For a more detailed, map-driven exploration of Seattle’s geography, consult Part 1 of the Seattle Sonic Highways lesson. Consult the Emergence of Grunge lesson for an exploration of Grunge in the broader context of American society in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

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Upon completion of this lesson, students will:

  1. Know (knowledge):
    • How the Seattle Grunge scene developed through the efforts of a wide range of artists, professionals, and hobbyists
    • How local music “scenes” and economies interact and emerge
    • About the Sub Pop record label and its importance to American Music
    • About the style and impact of photographer Charles Peterson
  2. Mastery Objective:
    • Students will be able to gain a deeper understanding of the ways cultural movements grow in prominence by examining how the Grunge scene in Seattle developed thanks to the combined efforts of musicians, writers, engineers, and artists.


Motivational Activity:

  1. Ask students:
    • What do you think it might mean when someone uses the word “scene,” for example, the “Rap scene,” or the “scene at the football game?”
  2. Have the class settle on a single example of a “scene,” then ask:
    • How do you think a scene is created?
    • What do you think makes a scene get bigger or smaller?
    • What kinds of people might be responsible for developing a scene? (Encourage students to think about who we look to as “taste makers,” as well as the roles of different occupations, such as recording engineers, artists, musicians, audiences, etc.)
    • What do you think might make a regional scene become more of a national scene?


  1. Show Clip 1, “The Seattle Local Music Scene”, and ask students:
    • What about the geography of Seattle seems to have made it fertile ground for a thriving local music scene?
    • What do you think Bruce Pavitt might mean when he describes the musicians of the Seattle scene as a “network of hobbyists”?
    • In what ways do you think someone who is a hobbyist might approach performance differently than someone who aspires to be a professional? (Encourage students to consider the compromises one might make when attempting to “make it” as well as the more carefree approach of something of is just doing something for fun.)
  2. Show Clip 2, “The Approachability of Grunge” and ask:
    • In what ways does Ben Gibbard suggest he felt the local music scene helped him become empowered to perform in ways that the national music scene did not?
    • How might the musical freedom that Gibbard discusses have had an impact on the Seattle Music scene? (Encourage students to consider how musicians in Seattle did not feel the need to adapt to national popular music trends such as hair metal).
    • Other than performing an instrument, how might people participate in a local music scene? (Encourage your students to think of a number of ways in which people can work together in art such as photography, art used for posters, albums, and in performance spaces, and even in the making of magazines and recordings.)
  3. Tell students that in the following Gallery Walk activity they will be comparing the work of Charles Peterson, a photographer associated with the Seattle grunge scene, with photography from national concerts and national promotion of the era. Break students into small groups and distribute Handout 1 – Gallery Walk Questions. Have the groups look at the Gallery Walk Photographs and answer the questions on the handout.   
  4. As a class, discuss the following questions:
    • In what ways do you think Charles Peterson’s might have created a visual representation of the Seattle music scene?  
    • In what ways can you connect Peterson’s photography with Ben Gibbard’s earlier suggestion that Seattle music made him feel that he could participate?  
    • Considering the non-Seattle photos in the Gallery Walk–Iron Maiden, Van Halen, Poison–how might have the Seattle scene offered a different outlet for personal expression than mainstream Rock music of the period?
    • What might have been appealing about the Seattle Grunge scene to those who lived outside of the city? Can you picture yourself in the audience at any of the concerts you’ve just viewed photographs of?
  5. Tell students you’ll now explore the role of locally made magazines and recordings in the development of the Seattle Grunge scene. Show Clip 3, “The Sub Pop Record Label” and ask:
    • What do you think a “fanzine” is? What might be involved in its creation? (Note to teacher: A “fanzine” is a magazine made by music fans and usually distributed at concerts, record stores, and informally.)
    • Why do you think someone might have chosen to create a “fanzine” at the time? Why do you think Bruce Levitt chose to make one for Seattle? (Encourage students to consider the desire some music fans have to share their favorite bands with others, something they might use social media to do now. At the time, music from Seattle received almost no national media attention, so Levitt created Sub Pop to feature the music he loved.)
    • In what ways do you think Sub Pop’s move into producing recordings was important in the late 1980s? How else do you think people would have discovered new music at that time? (Encourage students to recognize that before the internet most people first heard new music through radio and MTV, and neither of those mediums played anything from the Seattle rock scene.)
  6. Distribute Handout 2 – Excerpts from “Mudhoney – Sub Pop, Sub Normal, Subversion!” and read it out loud as a class. Ask students:
    • What did True find exciting about Seattle grunge bands?
    • In what ways has the “anyone can be involved” spirit of the Seattle music scene been represented in this article? (Encourage students think about “Steve’s” comment about the band Blue Cheer playing louder as opposed to “better,” and that all he wants to do is “rock out” and “have fun.”)
    • Why do you think this article refers to Seattle as the home of the “anti-hits?” What might this suggest?
    • Why might an American reading this article become interested in the Seattle Grunge scene?
  7. Have students return to their groups and tell them they will now create their own “scenes.” Distribute Handout 3 – Build A Scene. Have groups complete the handout and then present their “scene” to the class.

Summary Activity:

  1. Ask students:
    • Is there a scene in your town or region?
    • How might you compare it the Seattle scene you just discussed?
    • How do you think the internet might have changed the way people interact with “scenes” in which they are interested?

Extension Activity:

  1. Create an artistic or literary work based around the scene you developed in class with your student group. Projects might include:
    • Designing an album cover/band logo/promotional poster
    • Writing a “zine” article on an imaginary band in the scene, or a review of their album
    • Create a fashion croquis (sketch) of a typical outfit worn by someone in the scene
    • Develop a business plan for a record company or recording studio that caters to the scene


Common Core State Standards

College and Career Readiness Anchor Standards for Reading (K-12)

  • Reading 1: Read closely to determine what the text says explicitly and to make logical inferences from it; cite specific textual evidence when writing or speaking to support conclusions drawn from the text.
  • Reading 6: Assess how point of view or purpose shapes the content and style of a text.
  • Reading 8: Delineate and evaluate the argument and specific claims in a text, including the validity of the reasoning as well as the relevance and sufficiency of the evidence.
  • Reading 9: Analyze how two or more texts address similar themes or topics in order to build knowledge or to compare the approaches the authors take.

College and Career Readiness Anchor Standards for Writing (K-12)

  • Writing 1: Write arguments to support claims in an analysis of substantive topics or texts using valid reasoning and relevant and sufficient evidence.
  • Writing 7: Conduct short as well as more sustained research projects based on focused questions, demonstrating understanding of the subject under investigation.
  • Writing 9: Draw evidence from literary or informational texts to support analysis, reflection, and research.

College and Career Readiness Anchor Standards for Speaking and Listening (K-12)

  • Speaking and Listening 1: Prepare for and participate effectively in a range of conversations and collaborations with diverse partners, building on others’ ideas and expressing their own clearly and persuasively.
  • Speaking and Listening 2: Integrate and evaluate information presented in diverse media and formats, including visually, quantitatively, and orally.

Social Studies – National Council for the Social Studies (NCSS)

  • Theme 1: Culture
  • Theme 3: People, Places, and Environments
  • Theme 5: Individuals, Groups, and Institutions

National Core Arts Standards


  • Anchor Standard #7-Perceive and analyze artist work.
  • Anchor Standard #8-Interpret intent and meaning in work.
  • Anchor Standard #9-Apply criteria to evaluate work.


  • Anchor Standard #11-Relate artistic ideas and works with societal, cultural and historical context to deepen understanding.