Although I was told to never write a disclaimer in writing school I feel it is necessary in this case: the following post should be considered in good fun. It is not a serious attempt to deconstruct alternative music, no matter how pretentiously it reads.
It should instead be looked at as an intellectual exercise done while bored substitute teaching. Take it with a grain of salt: it took me two hours to write and wasn’t really researched and was instead written off the top of my head. It is consciously inspired by David Byrne’s classic paper “I Hate World Music” from 1999.
I Hate Alternative by Dr. Louis Fairbanks, III
I hate the word alternative as it applies to music. This is an interesting proposition for a fan and musician such as myself to make, as much of my record collection (and indeed, much of my own music) could be easily classified under this banner. However, I can still say without a doubt that I do indeed hate alternative music. There are at least two reasons for this hatred which can be traced back to semantics and historical revisionism.
Whoa let’s step back for a moment. Perhaps I should introduce myself: my name is Louis Fairbanks the Third, respected musicologist who holds a doctorate in critiqueality. Rather, I hold a doctorate much in the way of Dr. Dre or Dr. Who: not so much a doctor by training but more by, say, bold claims of awesomeness. Dr. Dre is a bad ass m-fer who has changed the musical world in ways that are still being felt decades later. Dr. Who is a Time Lord. I think that alone has earned him (at least) an honorary doctorate, if not a teaching post in some lower rung university such as Yale.
I digress. Which is normally fine by me, but my digression has nearly taken over the sense of the article and pulled it into areas it need not go. Who cares who I am or how bad I claim I am? You should by the end of the article. Especially as I am going to delineate why alternative music has lost its importance and become nothing more than a popcorn fart in the air of popular culture.
Essentially, there are two reasons I’ve come to despise alternative. One: the term creates a false dichotomy which unfairly maligns both itself and the style of music to which it is an “alternative.” Second: the word itself and even the type of music it is supposed to represent has altered over the last thirty years and become nearly meaningless and inseparable from the mainstream. If alternative is to have a purpose, it is to serve as a, ahem, “alternative” to mainstream taste for those who do not enjoy mainstream music. At its best, it served this purpose. However, the term has become meaningless and must be replaced.
Part One: The History of Alternative
Alternative music can be traced back to the very beginning of recorded musical history. While music fans in the 30’s and 40’s bopped to big band music and early jazz, hardcore blues albums could have been considered an “alternative” to mainstream taste. These gritty axemen and axewomen gave people with an interest in more “down to earth” music a chance to vent their frustrations. This is also true of early country and western music, such as early “Carter Family” recordings.
However, I can’t really claim to be an expert in this type of music. So I won’t. Counter cultural ROCK music became a big deal in the 60’s, with the rise of avant-guard experiments such as early psychedelic music from bands as diverse as “the 13th Floor Elevators” “Strawberry Alarm Clock” and even “The Amboy Dukes”, an early vehicle for the guitar talents of one douche bag Ted Nugent.
Electronic effects also became a big deal, as did weird eastern influenced sitar madness. Proto-punk rampagers such as “The Stooges,” “The MC5” and “The Velvet Underground” set the stage for the late 70’s punk revolutions. In fact, some of the most important and influential rock music ever recorded came between the years of 1966 and 1969.
Then came the early 70’s. These counter cultural advances were co-opted by a mainstream that thought they could tap into this source of music and make big bucks. Groundbreaking bands such as “Yes” and “Genesis” became big names with their wildly experimental music but eventually became laughing stocks due to their overweening ambitions and difficult to process playing styles. This formerly “alternative” style had become popular, co-opted and annoying. It had become the mainstream and an “alternative” to this style needed to exist.
Honestly, it is not the music of these progressive rock bands that offends so much as it is the corporate take over of these styles and their overwhelming success. More honest bands such as “King Crimson” operated according to their own impulses and broke up at the height of the success of progressive rock. The music had gone from being groundbreaking and interesting to bland repetitions of past successes sponsored by Pepsi (not literally, but metaphorically).
So naturally the punk explosion occurred in the late 70’s as an alternative to this type of music. Later on, punk was co-opted and turned into “New Wave” which in and of itself was co-opted and turned mainstream with synth pop and other once edgy bands such as the “Talking Heads” turning very popular. The music was still fine but the success turned it from “edgy” “hip” and “alternative” to what was perceived at the time as being rather bland mainstream music and a complete sell out.
Alternative music then switched over to noise rock bands like “Sonic Youth,” underground noise pop bands like “the Pixies” and folk rock (for lack of a better word) such as “R.E.M.” Underground rock sought to synthesize punk and hardcore with more tuneful melodies, such as in the case of “Husker Du” and “the Minutemen.” These bands successfully became a tuneful, meaningful alternative to the co-opted mainstream punk and new wave styles.
And then “Nirvana” and “grunge” happened. Of course, grunge was a style that existed prior to “Nirvana.” Bands such as the awful “Green River” and the awesome “Mudhoney” were mixing punk, hardcore and classic rock into a weird stew long before “Nirvana.” Early sludge-work “Melvins” can even be considered a blueprint for much of the world of grunge.
In fact, many people argue that “Nirvana” is barely even a grunge band but instead is a pop punk band. This is hard to argue but is irrelevant: “Nirvana” was now grunge and bands such as “Pearl Jam” “Alice in Chains” “Stone Temple Pilots” and countless others jumped on the grunge bandwagon. At this point, the history of alternative becomes even more difficult to track than it was before.
My history of alternative music is rather incomplete, filled with glaring holes, historical inaccuracies and my own opinion. This is indicative of the herculean task involved in tracking down all the changes in alternative music. In fact, it helps illustrate my first point quite well: creation of a false dichotomy.
Part Two: False Dichotomy
The reason that “alternative” music has constantly shifted since the beginning of recorded musical history (and perhaps even before we recorded music) is due to the fact that it has no inherent musical values in and of itself. It simply exists as an “alternative” to the mainstream musical experience, regardless of the quality of the alternative or even the mainstream music. It is the yin to the yang, the white to the black, the good to the evil.
Or vice versa: in fact, most definitely vice versa. Alternative music often deftly positions itself as the “edgier” more wild form of music when compared to the mainstream musical experience. Which is perhaps true and in fact is vitally important to understanding the term “alternative.”
Many people may take exception to the fact that I am lumping what could be called “underground” or “indie” music in with the term “alternative.” They have a very specific understanding of what the MUSIC of alternative sounds like, which is exactly the problem. I don’t wish to confuse terms, but for the sake of simpler understanding, assume that I am lumping all underground music in term with “alternative.” They are, to a certain point, essentially the same term for generations.
The false dichotomy set up by the term “alternative” creates a world of “good” music where “good” music is defined by terms such as “cool” “hip” “edgy” “groundbreaking” and many others. The mainstream is then denigrated as banal, boring and stooping to the lowest common denominator to sell records. Essentially, “alternative” is put on a pedestal as being “better” than the mainstream music.
There is some truth to this statement, if one is concerned about progress in music, artistic ability, meaningful lyrics and serious musical content. However, these terms are completely subjective, which renders them meaningless. What is meaningful to one person may be meaningless to another person. Just because several thousand people claim that“in the time of the chimpanzee I was a monkey” has deep meaning does not make it any more true than denying depth to “I prefer a bad excuse…no news!”
The proper way to define alternative music should be music that plays to a specific audience in a way that pleases their expectations. Bands such as “They Might Be Giants” have a sound that pleases several thousand, perhaps millions of people. However, they have never been a truly major success due to their (purposeful) quirks. Alternative bands seek to create a new sound that does not appeal to all audiences and all tastes.
This is noble, especially if the band does strike a chord and inspire millions of audience members. However, an alternative musical group seeks not to join the mainstream and sell billions of albums but to stand outside the “norm” and inspire those who are not inspired by the mainstream. At least, this should be the cause of alternative bands. After all, if they are not offering something that differs from the mainstream, what is their purpose? Why are they labeled alternative music and not mainstream?
Let’s save that question for later. Instead, lets focus on the purpose of the mainstream. The purpose of the mainstream is simple: to provide musical entertainment and satisfaction to as many people as possible. As a result, the mainstream often focuses on music that is simplified, streamlined, catchy and written under certain unifying standards. This is vitally important to the mainstream: they must try to avoid alienating people.
Naturally, a certain alienation exists amongst people who don’t like the sound of the music or find it too banal and simple for their taste. However, you can’t please everybody so this is the reason an “alternative” category exists. It exists for those music fans that want something that goes beyond what they consider the limitations of the mainstream music media.
However, it takes a lot of skill to come up with music that satisfies millions, if not billions of people. The melody may be simple but it does have to stand out in a crowded field of sound alike artists. A good mainstream artist, one worth considering does stand out from their peers through use of interesting melodies, ear catching lyrics and often times danceable beats.
Dancing isn’t, of course, the only use for mainstream music as much of it is designed to make the listener reflect and to touch their emotions. It is often artistically unsuccessful because of a banality of melody or statement but it still affects millions of people anyways. Consider: a song that is, perhaps artistically limited and poor when compared to a better alternative song, touches a nerve with millions of people in a way the more artistically successful but “alternative” or “underground” song simply cannot.
This is the advantage mainstream music has over the underground: wider exposure and wider expectations. A mainstream album by a successful artist must sell millions of copies to be considered good. A good alternative artist may sell thousands or even hundreds of albums and feel successful. One approach is not inherently better than the other, objectively. Instead, they serve two different purposes that contrast and compliment each other. This dichotomy has, over time, rendered the term meaningless.
Part Three: Alternative is Meaningless
Up until the early 90’s, alternative was a meaningful category for music. However, with the break out success of the grunge bands such as “Nirvana” and “Pearl Jam” it rapidly began to mean less and less. These formerly “alternative” bands suddenly became chart topping entries. They had invaded the mainstream and it was seen as a sign of huge success at the time. And it was, in many ways, a return to the musical values that alternative minded music fans held dear.
Of course, this quickly changed when other, less artistically minded bands began appropriating the musical forms, tones and styles of alternative bands. Instead of using it as a form of self expression that delineated them from the mainstream, they integrated other mainstream ideals into their songs. Slowly, but surely, these “alternative” grunge bands had their sound appropriated by the mainstream. This is nothing unusual.
However, what was unusual was that the TERM alternative was actually appropriated by the mainstream. This happened to disco: at one point, it was an underground musical form that became popular. It also happened to punk and metal music as well. These terms represented different genres of music that had become popular and well integrated into the mainstream. This is not a problem to me.
Alternative was NOT a genre of music: it was music that stood opposed to the mainstream. It was supposed to be the opposite of mainstream. However, hard rock bands that were influenced by grunge, but which held none of the serious tones and ambitions, were labeled “alternative.” This was a major misunderstanding of the definition of “alternative” music.
By 2012, the term “alternative” has come to represent bands that are little more than hard rock bands that operate entirely within the mainstream. They have huge radio hits, big music videos and embrace all elements of mainstream acceptance. Again, I cannot hold these successes against them but find labeling it as “alternative” to be a serious mistake.
Terms, words and symbols such as these are often co-opted to mean different things throughout history. For example, the Nazi Cross was simply a sign of unity before being used by the Nazi party. Of course, it now represents fascism and horrible racism. This symbol cannot be reclaimed: it will forever be linked to the horrendous crimes of the Nazi party.
Of course, the appropriation of “alternative” is nowhere near as serious as the appropriation of the Nazi Cross. But it has rendered the term “alternative” to be meaningless in the modern age. It no longer represents music that can be defined as “that which goes against the mainstream.” It has become the mainstream.
Conclusion: What of Other Terms?
Naturally, one can still refer to this type of music as “underground” but this is an unwieldy term that doesn’t quite fit the needs of the term. “Underground” indicates music that is barely known and hardly acknowledged by the mainstream. Instead of selling hundreds of albums, they may sell a dozen.
This obscurity is not a problem. “Underground” music and music fans find that the quality of music is inversely proportional to its popularity i.e. it gets worse the more popular it gets. “Alternative” music had some symptoms of this disease but didn’t worship at the altar of obscurity so promiscuously.
Another term that has been thrown around is “indie” which is closely tied to “alternative” in its own way. However, it is not the same thing and comes with its own problems I honestly don’t feel like getting into at the moment. If you’ve read this far, I’m sure the idea of even one more page of this nonsense is horrifying. Maybe for another day.