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.