Now alternative music is a very fuzzy concept. Although, except for the mid-90s, this direction was not mainly defined.
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Just like the term “New Wave,” the word “alternative” does not carry any specific meaning. However, if we consider alternatives broadly enough, many styles such as punk, heavy metal, funk, rap, pop, and rock-n-roll partially fall under it.
“alternative” is a collective name for all the post-punk bands that were formed and created after 1983-1984 when the new wave began to run out of steam and up until the moment when alternative rock joined the mainstream in 1995.
Although Live has little to do with alternative rock, the influence that R.E.M. and Nirvana had on them can indeed be regarded as part of the underground and anti-mainstream movement in rock’n’roll.
In addition to time frames and specific aesthetics, alternative rock is also primarily characterized by a particular way of reinterpreting and reworking the musical heritage of rock, combining seemingly incompatible things into a coherent whole. In addition to the standard set of instruments: guitar, bass guitar, drums, and synthesizer, to a large extent, begins to be used.
The formation of Alternative music went somewhat differently in America and Britain. Although bands became equally prevalent in both countries, such as R.E.M., there were many unique bands like Pearl Jam and Stone Roses, which never managed to spread their success across the ocean. Moreover, the spread of entire sub-genres was sometimes limited to one country (funk-metal, for example, was never popular in Britain).
The combination “alternative music” was first used in 1979 on American radio KZEW for the name of the program dedicated to new wave music – Rock and Roll Alternative. Also earlier, this combination was used by Terry Tolkin, a columnist of the Rockpool Newsletter, for the new wave post-punk bands, who later, in the 90s, got his independent label to support the bands performing in the alternative rock genre.
In general, the progenitors of alternative rock were post-punk, one of the manifestations of which was Krautrock, which was gaining popularity in the 70s.
Kraut rock was prevalent in the region of its birth – Western Germany. In general, Kraut means “German” in slang, going back to the name of the traditional German dish of sauerkraut.
Kraut rock was notable for its psychedelic sound, coming from the avant-garde German music of the 50s. Maybe this genre didn’t bring up a generation of alternative rockers. Still, later it significantly influenced the formation of another post-genre – post-rock: the Krautrock bands’ sound-inspired Radiohead, Stereolab, and Tortoise.
Birth of genre
Let’s go back to alternative rock. In the 80s, it became fashionable to experiment with sound, move away from the classics, or modernize it beyond recognition. Post-punk also began to change, and experiments with the sound transformed the genre into a new wave (bands New Order, U2, The Cure). Adepts of classic post-punk were not famous and remained unclaimed by the audience. Other experiments led to the “small bands scene,” which brought up such mastodonts as Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds. In the 80s, the alternative was a lot of underground genres and had its vector in the American scene, different from the British sound, which transformed into Britpop on one side and gave a start to the development of post-rock. It is thanks to the British alternative that we can enjoy shoegazing. A striking representative of this was My Bloody Valentine (considered to be the founders of the shoegazing genre).
Outside pop music and classic rock, the world is divided into dance music and heavy metal ballads. Everything else fell underground, which could only endure by recognizing itself as an alternative to the establishment. Thus, as strange as it may sound, alternative rock is not an alternative to pop music; it is an alternative to tired of all ballads and classic rock ‘n’ roll, which was already morally outdated at that time.
In the ’90s, the genre became more concrete. The band R.E.M. broke out of the underground, signed to a major label, and became mega-popular. In the early ’90s, bands like Jane’s Addiction, Red Hot Chili Peppers, and Nirvana signed significant contracts. In 1991, Jane’s Addiction leader Perry Farrell proclaimed from the stage of the Lollapalooza festival his audience “alternative nation.” Alternative rock became a symbol of experimentation over classic sound, which was also followed by meters of experimental rock genres U2 (album Zooropa), Tom Waits (joint performance with the band Primus), David Bowie (industrial record 1. Outside), and Depeche Mode (with ambient disc Songs of Faith and Devotion)
Nirvana made the final step into the underground of alternative rock with the album Nevermind. Specifically, the track Smells like teen spirits, which became number six on the Billboard chart, topped many charts in 1991 and 1992, and the trail went platinum in many countries and twice platinum in Italy. The Nevermind record sold 40,000 copies, which also astonished audiences of critics and major labels.
Decline in popularity
Alternative rock was prevalent from 1992 to 1996, which coincided with the popularity of the Lollapalooza festival. The festival’s soul was Perry Farrell from Jane’s Addiction, but in 1996 he cooled down and concentrated on his new projects. In the same 1996, organizers wanted to invite Metallica, who had already become classics in the metal genre, as headliners. Still, fans were scathing – the festival’s concept implied the presence of young underground artists, but not the mastodons of metal from the 80s. By 1997 the underground ceased to be underground, so the festival experimented with genres and headliners, included not only very alternative bands like KoYap and Tool and The Orb but also rapper Snoop Dog and electronic guys like The Prodigy. They were already mainstream but very far from alternative rock and metal.
The festival’s concept died out, and the alternative rock genre died out with it. In 1998 organizers couldn’t find a headliner and canceled the festival. From 1998 till 2003, Lollapalooza was not held.
But the decline of the genre led to the development and transformation in new directions, which became no less famous and self-sufficient: nu metal (KoYap, Limp Bizkit, Linkin Park, Slipknot), emo (Sunny Day Real Estate), post-grunge (Creed), and Radiohead entered the peak of popularity transforming their creativity into post-Britpop (like the bands Coldplay and Travis).
In the early 00s, bands that critics referred to as the alternative rock genre:
- Snow Patrol;
- Franz Ferdinand burst onto the scene.
The representatives of the new alternative scene ascribed their music to the revival of post-punk. At the same time, it started to form into a separate genre, not Indie, acquiring more formalized features. The most prominent representatives are the White Stripes and the Strokes.
Red Hot Chili Peppers released Californication, Muse, Foo Fighters, and Arctic Monkeys became more and more popular and were proclaimed as the symbol of the revival of alternative rock.
Alternative rock began to acquire a different face, moving away from the rock sound and acquiring more shades of the British scene. It was harder and harder to distinguish between post-Britpop, Indie, and alternative rock. Over time, the whole set became called Indie, and alternative rock continues to be debated whether it’s still alive or dead.
I prefer to think of it as neither alive nor dead. And it wasn’t because the term is just a shroud for different genres, movements, and trends in underground and not only underground music.