The "Alternative" Thread

Discussion in 'Music Corner' started by JM, Dec 3, 2019.

  1. JM

    JM Forum Resident Thread Starter

    Columbus, Ohio
    Writing for Salon in 2017, Annie Zaleski postulated:
    Why 1987 remains the most important moment in alternative rock
    And in 2016, writing for The A.V. Club, Sean O'Neal argued that:
    In 1996, alternative rock died a messy, forgettable death
    We tend to form our taste in music during our adolescent years which for many members of my generation coincided with the late 80's and early 90's, at least in part. That could make me an unreliable narrator to write about this topic, being that I'm "too close" to the subject. However, being young, wide-eyed and observant during those years positioned me to be a spectator of a great renaissance in consequential guitar based music — perhaps the last one.

    What was so special about this era, in my estimation, is that it was completely organic. Meaning, it was born out of a desire for something different from what the mainstream had to offer. Rock music in the 80s was a little sexist, a lot trashy and wrapped in leather pants. It didn't feel authentic; it felt like a cliché.


    By 1987, MTV had become the pre-eminent taste maker for youth culture. If you didn't have a video, you simply didn't stand a chance at breaking through. Luckily, with 24 hours to fill and another 24 hours with the still unpacking VH1, there was plenty of airtime to devote to music off the beaten path. As Annie Zaleski wrote in her Salon article a couple of years ago, MTV was devoting full hour long blocks to "120 Minutes" and "The Cutting Edge".

    The underground had been percolating since the early 1980s after the original punk movement ebbed. But there hadn't been an outlet for those artists to be heard unless you lived in a college town or a major metropolitan city. What shows like "120 Minutes" and stations like VH1 did was expose the other 90% of America to a non-mainstream oeuvre. Where else could you see The Replacements sitting on a couch, eating a sandwich and smoking cigarettes like you did with the video for"Alex Chilton". Or a beautiful young pseudo-popstress like Natalie Merchant (10,000 Maniacs) bopping to "Like the Weather".

    Songs like those were not being played on the radio; certainly not in the city I lived in (Memphis). But with MTV, it didn't matter because it democratized what you could be exposed to in a given day. The major labels were of course still pumping out their major label product but minors and indies (Sire, DGC, 4AD and Matador, to name a several) were given access to the party, finally. These labels gave a much needed home to bands that were bubbling under the mainstream radar.

    A myriad of bands rose to prominence in this era: R.E.M., The Jesus and Mary Chain, The Cure, Pixies, Sonic Youth among many others.


    While doing press for his documentary "1991: THE YEAR PUNK BROKE", David Markey said: "In addition to all of the things we were seeing on this tour (Sonic Youth '91 tour), from television to fashion magazines, we just saw that punk rock was finally being digested at large".

    Prior to 1991, the door was still on the hinges (so to speak) and the Billboard charts hadn't yet begun to feel the influx of underground artists bubbling to the top. There was a palpable appetite though, among my age cohort to consume music that wasn't force fed to us. Some liked Guns N' Roses and Metallica just fine but there was a sense from others (like myself) that there was something more "genuine" around the corner if we just peaked.

    The MTV program "Dial MTV" was a fun afternoon excursion for those of us that came home from high school and had zilch to do. There was a noticeable sea change that occurred in the latter months of 1991. The emphasis on Mainstream fare gave way to something else; that something else was called "Alternative". And while I've never been fully comfortable even saying the word because it sounds like something a guy in a suit come up with, it did adequately coral all of the disparate styles of music: Post Punk, Shoegaze, Dream Pop, etc.

    By the first week of January, 1992 Nirvana's "Nevermind" had knocked Michael Jackson's "Dangerous" off the top of the Billboard Albums charts.


    Everything in motion eventually comes to a rest. Music, not unlike visual art, has movements. The "Alternative" movement whimpered to a conclusion in 1996 as Sean O'Neal wrote in his A.V. Club article.

    As the major labels had discovered, there was no "next Nirvana" coming after the hammer blow that was Kurt Cobain's suicide. All of the effort that has been spent on fostering the underground and bringing it to the mainstream was reallocated to other areas. MTV began airing "Amp" which was a show centered around the burgeoning "Electronica" music craze. I'm sure programmers were desperate to catch the next wave before it hit. And it was clear that "Alternative" wave had receded.

    What was once a threat to kick in the front door crash the party quietly slipped out the back entrance and made it's way to the where it currently resides: Parts Unknown.

    With all movements, be they in music or visual arts, the torch is carried forward by successive adherents to the basic tenets of said movement. Indie Rock of the early 2000s to today continues to bring occasional ear worms and for the nostalgic idealists among us, that'll have to be "good enough".


    As of 2019, Billboard still has an 'Alternative Songs' chart. Although, what gets played on 'Alternative Stations' can raise many eyebrows as it bares little resemblance to what came before and sounds suspiciously like slightly evolved Top 40 music. Pitchfork wrote about the evolution of the 'Alternative' movement a couple of years ago in their excellent Radio-Friendly Unit Shifters essay.

    So, what's the point of all of this? Gen X nostalgia, I suppose; and also, curiosity. Curiosity about if lines of demarcation can really be drawn with a genre of music that never wished to be defined in the first place? Do you start with Proto-Punk/Punk/New Wave? Was The Velvet Underground the first "Alternative" band? Or did the distillation not really happen until MTV coalesced around a format with the aforementioned shows like "The Cutting Edge" and "120 Minutes".

    Discuss, please.
  2. Rafael Blues

    Rafael Blues Forum Resident

    If you look at Nevermind, the album that took alternative music to the top, you will find that it is very different from other Nirvana albums and that it is very different from other albums released by other bands called grunge. Nevermind is basically a pop album with distorted guitars, it's the song the Beatles would do if they had distortion available. Every alternate wave of the '90s came from Nevermind, if Nirvana had not become more melodic and released Nevermind, none of that would have happened, alternative music would never have hit the charts. Note that In Utero was not half as successful as Nevermindo did. The alternative music came to the top just because Cobain was really great at mixing heavy guitar with pop music, not to mention that his appearance was irresistible to the girls, basically it was the same combination that made the Beatles pop, pretty faces and beautiful melodies, it's a fatal combination.When people got tired of listening to Nevermind the era of alternative rock was over.
    Last edited: Dec 3, 2019
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  3. c-eling

    c-eling I never dreamed another way.

    1986 kicked it off for me.
    Picked this up due to liking the cover. Had no clue who or what it was :laugh:
    Shortly later discovered the early singles on the Wax Trax! label and started grabbing bands that they represented here in the US.
    I don't remember MTV having any influence, I do remember seeing Front Line Assembly's- The Blade one late night.
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  4. What is Alternative alternative to nowadays? It's the bus abandoned at the train station on the way to the airport.
  5. Scourge

    Scourge The Contagion in Nine Steps

    Before 120 Minutes, it was PostModern Mtv, which kind of splintered off into 120 Minutes and Alternative Nation.

    I wrote a couple of things on Reddit about this earlier this year, from a purely personal perspective:

    Seven Imaginary Years

    Further Listening
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  6. mark winstanley

    mark winstanley Pick up a fast car, burn my name in the road

    I am a fan of all sorts of music, and what is classified as Alternative is one form....
    I must say though, I don't really like it being referred to as "genuine" with the implication that other music is not.
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  7. Rocky's Owner

    Rocky's Owner I Don't Rent Air

    Los Angeles
    Wasn't 120 Minutes going for a few years before Postmodern MTV started? My philosophy professor at University said he "almost" appeared on Postmodern MTV. He thought he was hip because he liked Pearl Jam. Heh heh.

    120 Minutes played some great stuff around 1987-1990. For me it started going downhill after that, but I discovered many great bands around that time.
  8. JM

    JM Forum Resident Thread Starter

    Columbus, Ohio
    That's awesome thanks for sharing.
  9. katieinthecoconut

    katieinthecoconut Forum Resident

    United Kingdom
    Although I guess this thread is meant specifically as nostalgia for a specific time frame, it's worth pointing out that alternative genres still exist today. There's still alternative rock, post-punk, gothic rock, and so on. It might not be, ironically, as mainstream as it became then, but it's not like it died out.
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  10. vinylontubes

    vinylontubes Forum Resident

    Katy, TX
    I'm glad you didn't title this thread Alternative Rock. Because I actually hate that term. It's not a genre, it's a radio format promoted by what was then Clear Channel, where they would play Alternative songs but allow a few Rock artists, mostly Guns N' Roses to be included. Alternative Rock is also an oxymoron. Alternative music can't be it's own antithesis.

    Back in the '80s, there was the push by again Clear Channel to push the demographics of the Baby Boomer to radio. This was a clear line that the Gen-X music wasn't a priority to marketing groups. This was also Clear Channel's big move. The same way Ted Turner turned his empire of roadside billboards in to a media conglomeration, Clear Channel was doing the same thing with radio. Billboards weren't the big money makers they were in the '70s. So both of these groups used their unrented adveristment space to promote their own products. Turner had TV and Clear Channel was buying up radio stations. Clear Channel wasn't playing our music, and they were pushing off the AOR Rock stations from expanding their repertoire to newer music. Clear Channel put themselves in a win-win situation. They were promoting their Classic Rock stations on those billboards which would force their competition to fight back with renting out billboards from Clear Channel and Turner. The entire Alternative music thing was entirely organic. Instead of supporting radio hits, X-ers just bought records. Back in the '80s, most of this music was in the Punk genre at the record stores. I would say, bands like U2 who were starting to get some radio play on older Rock stations were being shunned to compete with playing Classic Rock songs. With the Goth bands like the Cure and indescribably the other worldly Jane's Addiction, the punk labeling didn't really apply so Alternative became more common. Mind you, this was the age when Cassettes dominated. So, music was very portable. You'd hear your friends music on their car or swap tapes and listen to them during study hall on your Walkman. We would have a preference to Spin magazine over Rolling Stone. We'd stay up late to watch 120 minutes, or a lot of us would figure out how to use the record settings on the VCR. College Radio with their week signals were the only stations that played Gen-X music. If you were close enough to college radios broadcast tower, one of your car's presets was always reserved for their station, even though half the time environmental conditions prevented a good signal. This was back in the day of analog presets tuned with a dial. Half the time you'd have to tweak the dial to even hear your station, because the adjacent NPR station usually had a stronger signal and when they weren't broadcasting new, they were playing Classical music. To me, if I had to pick a band first alternative band, it wouldn't be the Velvet Underground. I would actually pick The Doors. This was the probably the band that first ignored by Classic Rock radio. MTV didn't ignore them, they had videos and their music wasn't the staple or radio it would become until the '80s. Their albums really didn't become Platinum sellers until the '80s.

    If I had to pick 2 things that brought Alternative music to the forefront of world, it would be first 120 Minutes. Then pushing things further, Perry Farrell's Lollapalooza tours. Yes, X-ers songs were being played on Alternative Rock stations. But, most of X-ers knew that this was just Clear Channel up to their old tricks. Having driven off all the AOR stations into bankruptcy, Clear Channel had bought them up and finally started pushing Gen-X bands. But, they had little to do with growing the popularity. Instead, you tended to get a bunch of 1 hit wonders. Pearl Jam and Soundgarden were probably the exceptions following on the more Grunge movement after Nirvana. Clear Channel was just running a new marketing campaign. Most X-ers hate marketing. We were latch key kids. Our childhood was watching mindless ads on afternoon television and Saturday morning cartoons. By the '90s, we were pretty numb to marketing. We'd bought toys like Stretch Armstrong that we'd want until we actually got one and fell apart in couple of days. We learned a few things. Don't trust the media. We were all about media, but, buy the time we were paying for our purchases, we could ignore the hype. Don't get me wrong, we listened to Alternative Rock stations. Somebody was finally playing songs X-ers liked. But, X-er really support the our bands becoming huge stadium acts. We'd usually go to a self funded festival tour show where you could enter a mosh pit next to the stage rather than paying a lot for crappy seats in the nosebleed section of a stadium.
  11. JM

    JM Forum Resident Thread Starter

    Columbus, Ohio
    Totally get where your coming from. As mentioned, I'm of the opinion that what generally constitutes "alternative" music now is something else. And I'm very willing to admit that could be my age. At the same time I chuckle as I type that because the idea was that it was a collection of styles that was not easily defined. It was a catch-all phrase to begin with.

    As with any sub-genre, there's sill new music being made in practically every form. All movements flow and ebb and what comes after the initial movements doesn't sound like later incarnations. Just as an example, Punk (1973-1977) doesn't sound like New Wave (roughly 1978-1985), which doesn't sound like "Alternative" (1986-1996). And, again, those are arbitrary lines defined by me. They are in no way official but part of the point of this thread was to kind of discuss that very point, when the movement began and when (and if) it ended.

    I mean, the overarching point to your point is that Twenty One Pilots, AWOLNATION, Imagine Dragons, Billie Eilish, etc have very little in common with the bands I mentioned from the era I mentioned. That music, though not my cup of tea, is I'm sure enjoyable if one is inclined.

    And, I'm not picking on music today either. I do seriously think things changed in the mid-90s. It wasn't just one thing either, the confluence of digital recording, home studios, the Internet, Napster and so on democratized music in general. I'm not saying that's a negative, mind you, just reality.
  12. Dillydipper

    Dillydipper Sultan Of Snark

    Central PA
    In the U.S. radio world, there was this "pirate radio" thing going on, sometime in the mid-to-late '80s, an attitude-driven splinter format involving modern Rock, as a backlash from the Classic-Rock-heavy stations focusing on "Dad's music". It was feared that, since "Dad's music" was the only thing that was ever getting any traction with mainstream rock listeners, the format was killing itself through desperate pandering. I worked at one of these attempts to re-take the modern rock sound seriously, taking a more "Top 40" approach to the music, including more effective rotations that were needed to drive up time-spent-listening and brand identity. Oh there were U2 and REM-status artists, but also college-level stars as well, and only the "classic" sort of artists that would foster a sense of significance rather than bloat; you were more likely to hear Bowie than Steve Miller or Boston, for instance, to highlight rock's heritage as the music rather than the overplayed stars.

    We had our own fun with it, making lo-fi marketing work for us (we partnered with an advertiser at one point, and used their own commercial to "pirate" our own shaky-cam spots inside of it, and laid-out print ads like you'd see in a "Trouser Press" zine); we hijacked the competition's airplane banner at a stadium rock show; we got fans to hang signs over overpasses, and bail before the police would show up. We gave away the world's crappiest-but-still-legal car as a ratings sweep stunt. Most importantly, we would satirize the stuffy local Classic Rock and CHR leaders where they couldn't touch our creativity. In short, we had the kind of attitude and mayhem that screamed "pirates" real rock should. And slowly...we were winning.

    What seemed to kill these few, savvy stations from taking off? Well, without "Old Time Rock & Roll" and "Bohemian Rhapsody", the Classic Rock competitors essentially bulldozed them, holding onto the attention spans of their target listeners. As always, troglodyte fans would hang on breathlessly to every "two-for'-Tuesday", to find out of "a little Santana" meant "Oye Como Va" and "Evil Ways" this week, or "Evil Ways" and "Black Magic Woman" this time. And the other thing that watered them down bands. Ready-for-record-contract acts featuring glam over musicality allowed the major labels to re-write the playlists of these younger rock formats, because the female listeners couldn't get enough Guns n' Roses and Bon Jovi. So, while the format struggled to make inroads, "adult"-targeting stations tried a new flavor yet again, and that's where Spin Doctors come in, and a totally re-vamped image called, 'Alternative".

    Now, as a radio person who lost his station when Corporate started simulcasting Oldies on FM & AM, did I have an opinion on Alternative. Since nobody could really put their finger on what "Alternative" was going to be. It was going to be what you said it was going to be, since it was more about marketing than a sound. The audiences flocked to it, and still they relied on the station to tell them what it sounded like. And it might be different in every radio market, depending on who else in town owned the competition. Was it expanding the brand, or a vector against an existing rival? Was it something fresh and innovative, or was it just "the ones you like without the ones you don't"? Was it male-leaning, female-skewed, young-targeted?
    Frankly...yes. Whatever you thought it was, or whatever it wanted to be, the only constant across the country was, like no other radio product before this, it was successfully sold on the name first, the music to define it later.

    But of course, once the billboards went up, the record labels dropped everything to come up with the product that could service the interests of younger rock fans that didn't know what they wanted, but they were sure they just wanted "an alternative" to what they were getting.
    Last edited: Dec 3, 2019
  13. katieinthecoconut

    katieinthecoconut Forum Resident

    United Kingdom
    Billie Eilish isn't alternative in any sense of the word, though. She's a pop artist being marketed as a little bit edgy. She's about as alternative as Madonna. (You can probably compare her to P!nk in the 2000s if you must compare her to someone.)

    I get mad when people call her alternative, I guess. Sorry.

    I wouldn't say Twenty One Pilots or Imagine Dragons are either, though. They're very poppy, very mainstream.
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  14. JM

    JM Forum Resident Thread Starter

    Columbus, Ohio
    And yet, to prove my point about the ever changing definition of things... "Alternative" stations play those artists. There's a station in my city that is independently owned (not part of a major corporation) but they adhere to the Billboard Alternative Charts.

    Home | CD102.5 - The Alternative Radio Station - Columbus, OH

    They used to have 2 hours every evening when they played "classic alternative", they no longer do that unfortunately.
  15. NettleBed

    NettleBed Forum Resident

    new york city
    I lived through the era n the U.S. and don't believe this in the slightest. Nevermind became a hit *because* the audience was already receptive to what it had to offer. It didn't pave the way for the audience. Jane's Addiction, RHCP, Soundgarden and Alice in Chains all proved the concept of alternative popularity before Nevermind. "Alternative" was doomed to fall from grace as the main force of the mainstream as soon as it became the main force of the mainstream, 1) since some degree of authenticity was essential for its credibility, and 2) nothing lasted all that long, in the rock music era, as the prominent sound of the mainstream. It was always changing.

    I do agree that the pop sensibilities of Nevermind were a big reason why it became popular. And at no time in popular music history has a lead singer with a perceived sex appeal been anything other than a positive, as far as bringing in a bigger audience.
    Last edited: Dec 3, 2019
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  16. JM

    JM Forum Resident Thread Starter

    Columbus, Ohio
    Agree completely. When Nirvana hit, there was an audience that was rabid for something that wasn't what MTV had played throughout their first decade and classified as "rock". All due respect to Cinderella, Def Leppard, Motley Crue, Guns N' Roses, Metallica and so on... they weren't what many of us wanted to hear. Our appetites had been whet by The Replacements and Pixies and punk rock that we heard about... we were ready for something different. And as you say, RHCP (and Jane's Addition) had already had big success as had Soundgarden and AIC.

    It wasn't an accident that Nirvana hit. They were born out of a movement and they distilled it all into easily consumable music which is why they were able to dethrone MJ. But they were not a pop band.

    Because of their success, it caused labels to churn out B, C and D level versions of them looking for the next goldmine. Once it was clear the "next Nirvana" wasn't coming, the majority of the crowd moved on as did the labels and taste makers of the time.

    What you say about credibility (I still think in terms of indie-cred) is key too. All of the bands that were born during or gave birth to this "movement" had indie-cred. Whether existing for years on a minor label or playing shows for years before signing. Motives and integrity were always part of the equation.
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  17. Scott Davies

    Scott Davies Forum Resident

    Every time I read about the 90's it gives me such or horrible black feeling of hopelessness. "Alternative" didn't exist in the 90's because all the soundalike crap that was being spewed forth became chart hits. What was the "alternative" to that? For me, it was going through my budget bookshelf find of the 3rd edition of the Trouser Press Record Guide and reading about the 80's Alternative bands I hadn't previously been exposed to, and then hitting the vinyl stores and coming home with loads of $3-$4 new discoveries. While some ended up crap, others are favorites to this day. And that broadening of my horizons made the homogenized blandness of the 90's that much more painful to endure. It really felt like a musical hell on Earth. So much faux-angst and rage, so many drug overdoses, so much unmelodic screaming. Bands that were once favorites went down the toilet for the sake of being "cool", i.e. REM, U2, Depeche Mode, The Cure, while other bands who retained their dignity were disregarded, i.e. Siouxsie and the Banshees. And I don't care if Cobain or Reznor liked the occasional cool 80's Alt band, I sure got a lot of crap from people at the time who thought New Wave and 80's as a whole was an embarrassment compared to the "credible" garbage the 90's spawned. It's a good thing I don't let peer pressure determine my musical interests, otherwise I wouldn't have the catalog and discoveries I have. It was great finding sealed imports by Eyeless In Gaza from 1982 in 1994 when no one was interested in that genre. Or even coming to appreciate Sparks around the same time and finding bins jammed full of every one of their albums (which you absolutely will not find today). So in a way, I guess it's good that the true Alternative music, and vinyl, were both disregarded at the time because it meant purchases were cheap and plentiful. That's literally the only good thing I can think about the 90's. Ok, that and I had a full head of hair.
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  18. NettleBed

    NettleBed Forum Resident

    new york city
    The credibility thing was real. "Alternative," then and as the years went on, had the same kind of identity crisis as any of the descriptively-named music genres. Was alternative really "alternative" if it wasn't alternative to anything any more? So "alternative" eventually became "indie," because it kind of had to ("indie" always being accepted - for those in the know - more as an aesthetic than an actual label status). But at its core, during its time, "alternative" was musically subversive, and existing in opposition to something else; that something else, at the time, being things like hair metal and "dinosaur bands." And while large mainstream audiences are always just along for the ride, any genre/movement depends, to some extent, on its true believers and the press for valuable support. Thus, the reek of corporate grunge/alternative was particularly pungent and more stridently denounced by the hard-core fans, tastemakers and the relevant periodicals than something similar in another genre might have been.
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  19. wellhamsrus

    wellhamsrus Duke of Earl

    I lived through this and agree entirely. Nirvana made the alternative mainstream, before the internet killed genres. You don't become popular by appealing to the edgy alternative subculture. Nirvana had an appeal that transcended the boundaries. Much to Cobain's dismay.
  20. JM

    JM Forum Resident Thread Starter

    Columbus, Ohio
    Not saying I disagree with you but when do you think these bands "sold out" (my words, not yours)?
  21. JM

    JM Forum Resident Thread Starter

    Columbus, Ohio
    I think this is a myth.
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  22. NettleBed

    NettleBed Forum Resident

    new york city
    IMO U2 has no consecutive trio of albums as good as Achtung Baby/Zooropa/Pop.
  23. Or Boy-October-War

    Or War -Unforgettable Fire- Joshua Tree
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  24. NettleBed

    NettleBed Forum Resident

    new york city
    I fully expect that those might appeal to certain segments of their fans, but IMO none of those is as good as their trio of 1990s albums.
  25. Scott Davies

    Scott Davies Forum Resident

    Depeche Mode - Violator and even worse, the grungy Songs of Faith and Devotion
    The Cure - Wish. Friday, I'm in love? That's not the Robert Smith who sang Charlotte Sometimes
    U2 - They started getting too big and boring with Joshua Tree but really became the 'we're so cool in our sunglasses' Alt darlings with the overrated Achtung Baby. And then seeing Edge do his Numb thing with feet rubbing his face was just trying to stay "relevant" and appeal to the kids of the day.
    REM - Out of Time was mediocre at best, then came the unforgivable Man on the Moon and the pinnacle grunge wannabe sellout that is Monster

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