Earlier this week, The New Yorker revealed that a Talk of the Town item from 1996 was “largely untrue,” and had gotten into the magazine as a result of a prank played on its author by his sources. The item was about Thomas Pynchon, and quoted members of the now defunct indie rock band Lotion as saying that the famously reclusive author had started following them around on tour in the capacity of a groupie. According to the New Yorker’s Christopher Glazek, when reached for comment last week, one of the band members said, “Oh, God, you got the big bullshit story!”
The whole thing was pretty charming, even if faintly embarrassing for the magazine. But to get to the point: it recalled a vaguely similar story from 1992, when the New York Times was fooled by a former Sub Pop Records employee named Megan Jasper into printing a glossary of slang terms purportedly native to the Seattle grunge scene. The glossary ran as a companion to a feature on grunge published in the Times‘ Styles section, and included such terms as wack slacks (“Old ripped jeans”), dish (“desirable guy”), cob nobbler (“loser”), and lamestain (“uncool guy”).
According to a piece by Thomas Frank in an old issue of the recently resurrected Baffler, Ms. Jasper’s prank started when she was contacted by the British magazine Sky, who wanted her help figuring out what they saw as Seattle’s impenetrably insular music scene. From Mr. Frank’s piece, which can be read in its entirety in the collection Commodify Your Dissent:
The British know better than any other people the commodity value of highly visible youth subcultures, especially imported ones, and naturally Sky was anxious to be the first to discover a new style that they could sell to unhappy English kids. Nonetheless, Ms. Jasper was surprised by the various journalists’ “weird idea that Seattle was this incredibly isolated thing,” with a noticeably distinct rock culture. The result of this credulity was that, as Ms. Jasper put it, “I could tell [the interviewer] anything. I could tell him people walked on their hands to shows.” After seeing the piece in Sky and recognizing the joke, members of the Seattle band Mudhoney were careful to use all the strange words in an interview with young mind-molder Melody Maker, which is now planning a major feature on the (nonexistent) grunge movement. From Britain the story went to the Times, which so wanted to believe there was a new youth movement underway that it was apparently willing to forego the usual fact-checking.
According to an item in the Observer that ran in March 1993, the hoax was noted by someone at The New Republic who had read the Baffler piece, prompting the Times to launch an investigation. But when the author of the grunge piece, Rick Marin, and his editor, Penelope Green, contacted Ms. Jasper about it, she denied ever giving an interview to the Baffler and reiterated the authenticity of the slang words she had originally provided. This led Ms. Green, the Times editor, to figure that the real pranksters at work in the affair were actually the editors of The Baffler. She wrote them a letter saying they had three hours to provide their side of the story.
The editors faxed over the following:
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.
Ms. Jasper admitted to the Observer that the grunge terms she had supplied Mr. Marin were in fact fake, and explained that the reason she had defended them when confronted by the Times was that she was scared the reporter who wrote the story would lose his job because of her joke.
By way of conclusion, the Observer noted: “The article on grunge was ill-fated from beginning to end. In the opening lines, the article defined ‘grunge’ as ‘a five-letter word meaning dirt.’ The word, however, has six letters.”