Wednesday, April 8, 2015

TMFW 83 - The New York Times Joins the Tom-Tom Club

The fall of 1991 was the commercial birth of the grunge movement.  First, Pearl Jam's Ten was released at the end of August.  In September came Nirvana's Nevermind, and then October featured Soundgarden's Badmotorfinger.  By Christmas, kids were decked in store-bought flannel from South Carolina to Southern California.  But the cultural impact of grunge continued much longer, and in November, 1992 the grunge craze was still in full effect.  The New York Times - always on top of the latest trend - featured a story on the movement, exploring its birth, rise to prominence, and adoption/adulteration by corporate interests.  
The story - headlined "Grunge: A Success Story" was perhaps cursed from its first paragraph, when it failed basic counting and asked "How did a five-letter word meaning dirt, filth, trash become synonymous with a musical genre, a fashion statement, a pop phenomenon?" (emphasis added.)  But it became famous - or more accurately, infamous - for a sidebar that accompanied the article.  Titled "Lexicon of Grunge: Breaking the Code," it explained that "all subcultures speak in code; grunge is no exception," and went on to provide a handful of grunge slang words that would be "coming soon to a high school or mall near you."  The words were reprinted from a list that had appeared in the British magazine Sky, which were provided by Megan Jasper.  Jasper was at the time she talked to the magazine a receptionist in her early 20s at Sub Pop records (the label that first signed both Nirvana and Soundgarden).  They included:
"wack slacks" - old ripped jeans
"swingin' on the flippity flop" - hanging out
"harsh realm" - bummer
"cob nobbler" - loser
"lamestain" - uncool person, and
"tom-tom club" - uncool outsiders
Those words certainly qualified as "code."  But the problem for the Times is that the code most definitely did not belong to the "subculture" of grunge.  By that point, the commodification of Seattle culture, and the suggestion that it was somehow a singular thing that could be distilled to some simple essense, had struck a nerve with the people who were actually living it.  When Sky magazine did their "journalism" by simply calling a record label and asking for the latest slang, Jasper thought "if they're lame enough to try to scrutinize this totally stupid thing, why not fuck with them?"  And so she did, and made all of the words up.  
Shortly after the Times printed their list, a Chicago publication called the Baffler published an article titled "Harsh Realm, Mr. Sulzberger," in which it quoted an interview with Ms. Jasper and revealed the hoax.  The story was picked up by The New Republic and others, and the pranking of the stalwart New York Times got legs.   
From there, the story gets a little complicated.  The Times, embarrassed by their sloppiness, contacted Ms. Jasper (for the first time - they had not fact checked the list before publishing it) and intimated that the journalist who'd written the story would possibly be fired if it turned out Jasper's words were a hoax.  Jasper felt bad - "I would feel shitty if someone lost their job over a stupid prank," she later said - and so she denied ever talking to the Baffler.  Emboldened by this, and believing as a result of that denial that the Baffler piece was false, the Times demanded a response/retraction from the BafflerThey faxed over a cheeky response that read:
"Of course the Baffler stands by its story, and we can document our conversation with Megan Jasper.
Having seen The New York Times’ misinterpretation of the Grunge ‘phenomenon,’ we are hardly surprised that you fail to understand the nature of this continuing prank.
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 its leg, we think that’s funny."
To put the issue to bed, Ms. Jasper came clean shortly thereafter.  The Times never printed a correction.  And 20+ years later, the newspaper is remembered both for its ridiculous story and for its petty, embarrassing response.  They proved themselves to be lamestains in the truest sense. 
BONUS FACT: New Wave fans in the TMFW audience will recognize that "Tom Tom Club" is the name of an early 1980s band.  The group, which was started as a side project by two members of Talking Heads, has released six studio albums.  Their first two singles - "Wordy Rappinghood" and "Genius of Love" - were each #1 songs on the U.S. Dance chart.
BONUS FACT 2:  Chris Carter, the creator of The X-Files, made a sci-fi show called Harsh Realm that briefly ran on Fox in 1999.  The name was taken from a comic book, which took its name from Ms. Jasper's slang invention.
BONUS FACT 3:  By the time Ms. Jasper experienced her 15 minutes of fame from pranking the Newspaper of Record, she had already been laid off from Sub Pop when hard times saw their staff shrink from over 20 to just 7.  But in 1998, she returned to the label, and more than 15 years later she is still there and is now an Executive Vice President.  She seems by all accounts to be supremely cool.

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