Beezer Martelly

Grunge's Racial Imagination: Whitewashing the Seattle Sound and Body

Grunge, a music genre that blends metal and punk dubbed the “Seattle Sound,” emerged in the mid-1980s during a time of vigorous city boosterism. Coalescing in “seedy” nightclubs and restaurant backrooms in Seattle’s “blighted” Chinatown District, grunge helped give the area a racial makeover. How does centering race in grunge open new possibilities for examining the cultural and spatial work sound performs? First, I will consider how sounds, like the distorted guitar, originally coded as “black” migrated through heavy metal, hardcore punk, and grunge to be re-racialized as “white.” This migration bespeaks the “gentrification” of rock. Nevertheless, this study also interrupts a black and white racial binary, insisting on the significance of Asian American musicians. Examining how the genre refigures multi-ethnic Seattle as white, I explore how Asian American musicians navigated the music industry and struggled to maintain claims to the spaces in which the genre developed. Given that clubs central to the genre’s development were concentrated in Seattle’s Chinatown-International District, I ask how and by whom were Asian American grunge musicians structured as “foreigners,” and to what extent does this process relate to a wave of neighborhood redevelopment and gentrification? Overall, this project examines the potential for ephemeral sound to transform physical reality, tracing this power through the racial imagination.