Alternative rock/pop is the umbrella term used to describe the bands that emerged between 1984 and 1995 as the exciting culmination of Punk, New Wave, and Hardcore. These artists represent a wide array of musical styles-the soft and sweet feel-good sounds of Twee Pop, the flannel-driven distorted guitars of Grunge, the moody darkness of Goth-Rock, and the pure metal noise of Industrial. While these bands all represent various styles and sub-genres, they’re grouped under the generic term “Alternative” because of one common trait–they all function outside of the mainstream.
The term “Alternative” was forged into the minds of the music listening world in 1992 with the unparalleled success of the Seattle-based Grunge trio, Nirvana. It was the combined efforts of their album Nevermind- knocking Michael Jackson off the top of the charts-and the constant rotation of their video for the single Smells Like Teen Spirit on MTV that brought this new style of music to mainstream listeners and left them craving more. To answer the demand, an onslaught of bands like Soundgarden, Pearl Jam and Alice In Chains followed Nirvana’s lead and exploded onto the music scene. This push produced a rock movement that dominated the early to mid 90’s and warranted the need for a new classification of rock, one that eclipsed the college and modern rock labels and captured the diversity of the music. The term “Alternative” officially came to life and was adopted as the icon to represent the evolution of 20 years of underground music, and in doing so stamped itself into music history forever.
The breakthrough success of Nirvana in the early 90’s helped put Alternative music on the map, but the eruption they created was actually the culmination of a simmering underground movement that started in the late 70’s and early 80’s. This surge of underground music thrived with bands aspiring to retain artistic freedom, determined to follow the anti-mainstream rock-and-roll formula. As a result, the majority of the music being produced was eccentric and lacked the catchy riffs and choruses needed to get the attention of major record labels and radio stations. Only occasionally would an album or song break onto charts. Without commercial appeal, artists signed with independent labels, relying on college radio stations to play their songs and touring relentlessly to create an underground the Alternative explosion in the 90’s. Artistically, the bands mounting the underground scene were so diverse, Alternative rock was destined to be a melting pot for them all. This fusion of sub-genres is ultimately what set Alternative rock apart.
When tracing the history of Alternative rock/pop, it’s important to realize there was no true British invasion like that experienced by the American rock-and-roll outfits in the 60’s. Some Alternative artists like The Cure and REM were fortunate enough to experience moderate crossover success in both the British and American markets, but as a whole, bands were unable to make the transition. British Alternative and American alternative, while similar in nature, had two different schools of thought. The British distanced themselves by making their music substantially more pop-oriented. They also answered the demand of club-goers by experimenting with the realm of dance music. Most of the American alternative bands tried fervently to avoid pop, and with the club scene not as prevalent in the U.S., never really focused on the evolution of dance textures.
In the early 80’s, the transition from New Wave to Alternative was set in motion with the birth of bands like REM and Hüsker Dü in America, and the introduction of The Smiths in Britain. These bands were pioneers of Alternative music, but they did so in wildly different fashions-in true form for the genre.
REM was the first band to cause a stir among the masses in America. In 1983, their ringing guitar riffs and melodic vocals combined with the stylistic traces of folk and southern rock elevated their first album, Murmur, into the top 40-charts. This push into the mainstream, coupled with the album’s critical success, started a chain reaction. Scores of bands rushed to follow in the footsteps of REM, imitating the harmonious, lyrical formula-bringing into existence several new sub-genres including Jangle Pop and The Paisley Underground. Unfortunately, the similar style of these bands caused them to suffocate one another and by the end of the 80’s most had faded into obscurity. REM, however, proved versatile enough to cross into mainstream rock and establish itself as one of the greatest long-lasting rock bands of all time.
rem.jpg – 9298 BytesWhile REM opened doors for the lyrical side of alternative, Hüsker Dü was busy helping pave the way for the heavier sounds of the movement. They were able to take the roaring guitars and the lightening tempos of Hardcore and fuse them into a more cohesive style of music. While Hüsker Dü never made it big commercially, their accomplishments did help succeed in getting music listeners acclimated with the sounds of heavier music. This was vitally important for the bands that followed.
Meanwhile, across the great blue Atlantic, The Smiths forged new ground with songs like “This Charming Man,” creating a transition from New Wave to Alternative. Though they weren’t around very long and logged only two Top-10 hits, the English band’s impact was lasting because of their inventive combination of Beatle-esque melodies, lead singer Morrissey’s haunting vocals and quirky lyrics, and Johnny Marr’s rich guitar tracks harking back to a more innocent era in music. The Smith revolution paved the way in the late 1980s for the inventiveness of diverse English bands from the Cure to the Jesus and Mary Chain to Joy Division to the pivotal experimental and commercially-success dance band New Order.
In America, in the late 80s, REM began to dominate the scene. Their 1987 Document album and the mega-mainstream hit “The One I Love” became practically an anthem on college campuses. Other styles given consideration during this time were rough Punk, eclectic Alternative Pop, and sheer noise of Industrial Rock. Diverse bands explored these developing genres, quenching young audiences’ appetite for more-from the pseudo-punk bands the Replacements and Soul Asylum who merged the gap between more traditional rock-and-roll sounds to the gripping lyrics and catchy tunes of The Violent Femmes. Industrial music took on new meaning and popularity with the Chicago band Ministry, leading the way for more mainstream bands like Nine Inch Nails and their 1989 debut album Pretty Hate Machine.
Industrial takes a back seat with the merger between the cracked punk sounds of the Pixies and raw energy of Jane’s Addiction. Commercially popular in the UK, the Pixies pop slant opened doors for later bands. Jane’s Addiction kept things heavy and angry, finding pivotal critical success in magazines like Rolling Stone. A unique combination of punk, heavy metal, and pop, the bands were now garnering the attention of major record labels leading the way for the important mainstream success of bands like Radiohead and Soundgarden.
nirvana.jpg – 15511 BytesThen came the Nirvana magic-and all hell broke loose. Acknowledging the band’s pop format and extreme diversity of influences, ephemeral lead singer Kurt Cobain once said “Our songs have the standard pop format: verse, chorus, verse, chorus, solo, bad solo…all in all, we sound like the Knack and the Bay City Rollers being molested by Black Flag and Black Sabbath.” The undeniable cover boys of the Alternative movement, Nirvana’s unparalleled commercial success with songs like “Smells Like Teen Spirit, “Come as You Are, “Heart-Shaped Box”-coupled with their wildly popular unplugged appearance on MTV-brought the walls crashing down for a flood of bands. Single-handedly, Nirvana passed the torch for the acceptance of bands like Pearl Jam, Stone Temple Pilots, Green Day, Live, Silverchair, and the English band Oasis. No longer on the outskirts of society and the music industry, these bands hit it big on mainstream airwaves, MTV, and made Alternative the norm. Virtually every pseudo-Alternative band now being played on pop stations-from Third Eye Blind to Matchbox 20-owes its mainstream recognition to Nirvana and its slew of followers.
So today in the 21st century, as the musical styles and terms continue to evolve, as more and more mainstream bands try to label themselves as Alternative, and as true Alternative rockers get older and inch closer and closer to the mainstream, the term has become diluted and perhaps means “hip” rather than “outsider.” Oh well. C’est la vie. Things change. Yes, even king of rock-and-roll Elvis Presley was at one time before his death on the top of the Easy Listening Charts.