Mom! Stop Making Devil Horns!
The Confusing Nostalgia Trip of These Streets
The 20th anniversary of that pride/cringe-inducing time in Northwest history—those pivotal years when the world finally turned its gaze to Seattle, saw the flannel, heard the squall, and said, "We'll take it, how much do you want for it?"—has brought a surge of new books and documentaries examining The Time When We Did the Big Thing. Sarah Rudinoff (playwright, actress, singer, and Stranger Genius Award winner) and Gretta Harley (composer and musician) also felt they had a story to tell—a version with more estrogen—and set out to interview the women who made music in Seattle between 1989 and 1995. These Streets is a fictional concoction they assembled with playwright Elizabeth Kenny based on what they learned. What did they learn, exactly? It's tough to say.
The impulse behind These Streets makes all the sense in the world. Women are underrepresented in history! Women in Seattle, making music! Yes! Tell me more! But there are problems.
For starters, These Streets is confusing. Characters are tough to identify, stories trail off, contradictions contradict, the live band fits awkwardly into the production, and the questions that supposedly propelled the project never really get asked.
We (kind of) follow the story of Christine, Dez, Ingrid, Kayla, and Bryan as told through their present-day selves and their 1990s versions. Confusingly, the two sets of characters don't look anything alike, but they also don't really seem alike (except the Ingrids, with their similar grins and thumb-biting habits).
The band angle is also hard to follow—the musicians never take off as personalities, just staying put while characters rotate on and off the stage. (Though Harley stood out as a guitarist and seemed much more than just a hired hand.) In the midst of this confusion, there is too much actorly varnish—dancey dancing, Broadway-style singing—on these supposedly gritty, angry people.
The dialogue is glib and ostentatious in a 1990s way ("didactic discourse," anyone?), which is sometimes funny, but the narrative clunks along with too many cheap hits of nostalgia: "Who the hell is Soundgarden?" "Did you guys hear about the teen dance ordinance?" The historical winking and nudging is heavy-handed to the point of mom-dinner embarrassment. Mom! I've heard you and your friends tell these stories to each other my whole life! We get it! Tell me something new! And, for the love of god, stop making devil horns!
Stories unique to women in music—sexism in the scene, problems getting recognition—are missing. The characters lightly brush over a few lady issues, but seem committed to remaining vague. Their gist: "We were misclassified as riot grrrls, which is wrong because riot grrrls were a political movement, or feminists, because we figured that, you know, that work had already been done. We didn't want to be known as women, just as people who could fucking rock out." Devil horns. If the idea is that women should just be left to rock out and not pestered to take any stands about gender (which is perfectly reasonable), then These Streets is simply the tale of a few '90s bands that didn't make it big.
The '90s are already difficult to represent, and These Streets compounds the problem with a kaleidoscope of voices and writers. (The program cites more than 40 interviews, and the director's note is almost an apology for how confusing the story is.) First, Seattle sucked because no one paid attention (no bands ever toured here!), then Seattle sucked because everyone paid attention (evil record labels!), now Seattle sucks because no one paid attention correctly (my band wasn't mentioned in the retrospective!). The '90s now wants the same thing as the '90s then: nothing and everything and you'll never fucking get it, man. But y'know, some music just never makes it out of the basement.