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By Jesse Fox Mayshark

SEPTEMBER 29, 1997:  Back in January, when everyone was busy making their New Year's predictions, cultural pundits from Rolling Stone to The New York Times assured us 1997 was going to be the year of electronic dance music (variously known as techno, drum 'n' bass, and [gag] "electronica"). They were wrong, of course—just as they were wrong when they predicted the exact same thing five years ago—but I guess it sounded more exciting than predicting the "Year of the Spice Girls."

The fact is, trends and scenes can't be manufactured in pop music any more than in any other medium. All the major media can do with a trend is wait for it to emerge, pretend they "discovered" it, and slowly bleed all the life out of it—a process depicted in all its sad details in the sharp documentary Hype (1996, NR).

The film examines the "Seattle scene" of the mid-to-late '80s and its subsequent explosion and exploitation as the epicenter of grunge. In interviews with musicians, journalists, and various hangers-on — including members of Soundgarden, Pearl Jam, Screaming Trees, and many lesser-known bands—it shows how bored Northwestern teenagers turned a sleepy, conservative city into a hotbed of creative vitality. It also shows how the excitement of the initial music boom, when everybody knew everybody else and the same faithful fans went to all the shows, turned into, first, disbelief that anyone outside Seattle noticed, and then complete disillusionment as market forces rushed to cash in on the "next big thing." The movie includes great performance clips from a host of past and present Seattle bands, which make the music's dark chords and angst-ridden vocals resonate in a way they only occasionally have in recordings.

About 10 years ago, another documentary explored the hippest scene of that era in Athens, Ga. Inside Out. Athens, home of the University of Georgia, is best known for producing R.E.M. and the B-52s, but the film digs up several other notable acts (Pylon, Flat Duo Jets), along with an eclectic arts scene. Because Athens never attracted the attention that Seattle did, the film doesn't have any of Hype's cynicism (or focus). It's a mildly goofy but entertaining look at a small, creative Southern city. Highlights include R.E.M. performing "All I Have to do is Dream" and a visit with primitive artist Howard Finster.


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