I went to school in Olympia
And everyone's the same
And so are you in Olympia
And everyone's the same
On first impression, Hole's "Olympia" appears to be just another '90s song of teenage angst. However, after looking a little deeper and performing some sleuthing, the final track on their 1994 Live Through This
reveals itself to be far more subtle ~ and far more interesting ~ than that.
Olympia is the capital of Washington State. It’s a small city, and feels more like a large suburban town than a proper city. In terms of music history, it’s best known as one of the principal fermentation areas for grunge music and one of the early stomping grounds of a little Pacific Northwest musical trio going by the name Nirvana.
Perhaps a little lesser known in mainstream culture, Olympia was also the starting place of Bikini Kill, which was the band most widely credited with starting the Riot Grrl radical feminist punk rock movement. The Riot Grrl spoke about numerous social issues, but was most distinctly known for their brash, uncompromising stance on women's rights and sexual equality.
Bikini Kill was formed by Kathleen Hanna and Kathi Wilcox. The pair was motivated by politics, not money or fame. Part of their mission was to get more punk rock women on stage, and to share their message of feminine empowerment. Hanna and Wilcox first met while taking classes at Evergreen State College.
Evergreen was established in 1967. It isn’t hard to see how the experimental and revolutionary spirit of that era was infused in the school’s foundations. Students don’t take classes and they don’t get grades as any other college student thinks of grades. Instead, every quarter they take a single course that infuses various academic disciplines under the umbrella of a single intellectual theme. When the course is over, their professors give them a written evaluation and determine how many of 16 possible credits to award them.
"Occupy Olympia" event
(thanks, Jeff Suwak)
Those things represent the "official uniqueness" of Evergreen. Now, the "unofficial uniqueness" that any Olympia resident will attest to is that Evergreen also tends to attract politically radical students and counterculture enthusiasts. Opinions on the "Greeners" subsequently tend to exist at one extreme end of the spectrum or another. There are those who enthusiastically defend the school's ideological spirit, and then there are those who revile the influence it has on the city. From its very beginnings, Evergreen has been a magnet for controversy.
There is an alternative mix of Hole’s "Olympia" that has lead singer Courtney Love singing “We took punk rock, and we got a grade.” This seems to be a clear jab at Evergreen, where classes on things like punk rock or tribal dance are common, and where students can often invent their own curriculum. But this one line is not enough to connect the song with Evergreen. For more conclusive evidence, we’ll turn to this quote by Love:
“The whole Riot Grrrl thing is so... well, for one thing, the Women's Studies department at Evergreen State College, where a lot of these bands come from" - such as the aforementioned Bikini Kill - "is notorious for being one of the worst programs in the country. It's man-hating, and it doesn't produce intelligent people in that field.”
Love was sometimes associated with the Riot Grrl movement, perhaps simply because she was a brash and outspoken female musician. But she seems to have taken offense to her correlation with the movement she described as “imperious.”
Love sings, “I went to school in Olympia and everyone’s the same/ And so are you in Olympia and everyone’s the same/ We look the same, we talk the same,” perhaps pointing out that in being a magnet for outsiders all over the country, Evergreen achieves a sort of radical-homogeneity where a specific brand of nonconformity becomes the standard of conformity. Looked at in this way, "Olympia" becomes more than a teenage angst I-hate-life song. It’s a funny, satirical comment on the culture of the time. It’s a broadcast of a larger dialogue that was happening at that time between Love and Riot Grrl, which can also be seen as a microcosm of the larger feminist dialogue of the era. Either way, it’s an interesting conversation piece to keep in your pocket for the next time a music trivia conversation breaks out at a party.
"Olympia" is listed on the Live Through This
album as "Rock Star," because the removal of the latter song was a last-minute decision made after the artwork was already finalized. "Rock Star" was removed because it had the line: “a barrel of laughs to be Nirvana, you’d rather die.” The album was actually completed before Love's husband (Nirvana lead singer) Kurt Cobain's suicide, but released after, and the fear was that the line could easily be deemed inappropriate. Considering the controversy that erupted over the album anyway, and over Love’s role in her husband’s death, it was probably a very wise move to remove the song.
In a way, Courtney Love is akin to cultural icons Hunter S. Thompson and Charles Bukowski. Both of those men were talented artists, but the mythology of their outrageous lifestyles has tended to overshadow their creative achievements. Amidst all the problems with substance abuse, despite all her inflammatory behavior and stage antics, Love can wail. She’s a smart, passionate, and talented musician. "Olympia," like all the tracks on Live Through This
, attests to that.
~ Jeff Suwak
Songplaces contributor Jeff Suwak is a writer and editor living in the Pacific Northwest. He is the author of the novella "Beyond the Tempest Gate" and various works of short fiction. He also writes for The Prague Revue. He loves being berated on Twitter @JeffSuwak and receiving visitors at jeffsuwak.com.