Alternative Rock

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Alternative Rock

The popular musical genre called "alternative rock," immensely popular during the 1980s and 1990s, drew upon the conventions of rock music even while it attempted to distance itself from traditional or "classic" rock. Alternative rockers differentiated themselves from their traditional rock predecessors in part with their call for greater diversity and experimentation in music, and in part with their critique of mainstream society and of major record labels in favor of small independent companies. While alternative rockers produced catchy music geared for mass consumption, their music—with its emphasis on distorted guitars and ambiguous lyrics—wasn't suited to conventional tastes. Furthermore, alternative rock lyrics were often critical or skeptical of mainstream values.

Alternative rock—which is also referred to as "indie rock," "college rock," "post-punk," "new music," "power-pop," and more recently, "grunge"—traces its roots to the 1970s, when new wave and early punk bands experimented with diverse styles in music, dress, and ideology. Alternative rock was also influenced by "alternative music" more generally, which includes such genres as industrial, avant-garde, and experimental music, as well as gothic rock, ska, reggae, and alternative hip-hop. While influenced by these many styles, alternative rock is best understood as residing somewhere between rock and punk rock, and is ambivalent about its desire for mainstream appeal and its rejection of mainstream values.

New wave bands like Blondie, The Talking Heads, Devo, and Adam and the Ants as well as early punk rock bands like Iggy and the Stooges, The Ramones, The Sex Pistols, and The Clash had a major influence on alternative rock. Punk was particularly influential for its radical critique of society and its call for the destruction of conventional musical sensibilities. Alternative rock, however, blended punk attitude and aggression with rock melodies and song structure. The Police, U2, and R.E.M. became immensely popular during the 1980s with catchy and energetic songs and had a major influence on the development of alternative rock. Indeed, the popularity of such bands as The Police, U2, R.E.M., The GoGos, The B-52s, and Midnight Oil can in some part be explained by their songs, which at 3-4 minutes long, with catchy riffs and steady beats, are well suited for radio play. In contrast, some of the longer and more complicated rock songs of such performers as Eric Clapton and The Who were less accessible and came to be seen as stagnant and old fashioned. Alternative rock bands aimed to reach out to a new generation of youth with high energy, melodic music which spoke to contemporary social issues.

Alternative rock shared much of the punk ideology of non-conformity and the questioning of mainstream values. Yet while punk was notable for its explicit anger, alternative rock offered more subdued critiques and covered a greater range of topics and emotions. Bands like The Jam, The Pixies, and The Lemonheads sang about political issues but also about love and other social relations. Isolation and loneliness were common themes which indicated an ambivalence about modern society. The Smiths, in particular, were known for their overwhelming sense of melancholy. The Replacements, an influential alternative rock band, blended energetic outbursts with subdued elements of folk-rock or jazz. Singing about comical aspects of social life as well as more sincere emotional concerns, lead singer Paul Westerberg was especially known for his self-deprecating sense of humor. As he asked in "I Will Dare," "How smart are you? How dumb am I?" Another Minneapolis band, Soul Asylum, known for their energetic music and powerful guitar work, was also self-mocking while singing about a variety of social concerns and emotional issues. Sonic Youth and Dinosaur Jr. were particularly important for their noisy guitar work and punk influences. These bands gave rise to what, in the 1990s, would come to be known as "grunge," which developed most visibly in Seattle with bands like Mudhoney, Nirvana, Soundgarden, and Pearl Jam. Grunge was characterized by a heavy guitar sound which harkened back to the classic rock of Deep Purple, Led Zeppelin, and other bands. Grunge became a major phenomenon in the 1990s as Nirvana, Pearl Jam, and others sold millions of records.

The musicians and fans of alternative rock tended to dress in a manner which was influenced by both punk and mainstream attire. Alternative clothing tended to be less extreme than punk and was not worn to explicitly shock people but was often slovenly and promoted an image of apathy toward conventional dress styles. However, because alternative dress was less radical, it allowed the wearer greater acceptance in mainstream culture, particularly in family, work, and school.

Alternative rock espoused a critical stance toward the music industry and capitalist society in general and shared with punk a "Do It Yourself" emphasis which is critical of major record labels. Many alternative bands, however, began on independent labels and later moved to major labels. Alternative rock bands faced the dilemma of trying to maintain the critical stance of punk while accepting many aspects of mainstream society. Thus, while criticizing conventional society and the rock industry, alternative bands frequently ended up becoming a part of it.

Despite its mass appeal, alternative rock has been critiqued on several grounds. Punks argued that alternative bands "sold out." Others argued that it alternative was a largely white and male-dominated enterprise. As Eric Weisbard states in the Spin AlternativeRecord Guide, "[alternative rock] is too indebted to a white American vocalist screaming about his betrayed entitlements over an exquisitely layered squall of guitars, bass and drums." In this sense, alternative rock, while espousing diversity and originality, became somewhat conventional. Many suggested that the term "alternative" may have outlived its usefulness. Alternative rock gained such popularity in the 1980s and 1990s that its music, style, and ideology were in many ways incorporated into the mainstream.

—Perry Grossman

Further Reading:

Arnold, Gina. Route 666: On the Road to Nirvana. New York, St.Martin's Press, 1993.

Frith, Simon, and Andrew Goodwin, editors. On Record: Rock, Pop, and the Written Word. New York, Pantheon, 1990.

Negus, Keith. Producing Pop: Culture and Conflict in the Popular Music Industry. New York, Routledge, 1992.

Weisbard, Eric. "Introduction." Spin Alternative Record Guide. New York, Vintage Books, 1995.