A Really New Alternative
Somewhere on a road that ran endlessly through the small towns of Ohio, I was lost. Well, I wasn't driving, and the driver on this 5-hour road trip knew where he was going. It was the radio. I had never been to Athens, Ohio before, so I was attempting to locate some good alternative stations to listen to, or at the very least, some good rock stations, and that is when I became lost in confusion.
Actually, things were fine until we reached Columbus. We had been listening to mostly classic rock stations. Then we switched to a station that called itself "alternative." I was excited; as much as I like classic rock, those stations never play Nirvana, Alice in Chains, or other bands of this sort. But something went wrong. The first song was something from Matchbox 20. Nothing to be unexpected I suppose. Next came Third Eye Blind, then Hootie and the Blowfish, and the Wallflowers. Somewhere in there was a swing band ("Cherry Popping Daddy's"?)! In fact, everything that this station played was nothing more than a load of Soft Batch cookies.
Things became more curious. We switched to a station that claimed to play "all the greatest hits from the 80s." Maybe this won't be so bad. After all, Van Halen, Metallica, Ozzy, Def Leppard, and Tom Petty were all popular in the 80s. Maybe I wouldn't hear any punk-rock, but at least my taste for heavy metal would be satisfied. Or so I thought. I heard nothing but 80s retro, and with that, I began to find my way. I began to understand something that I really had learned a while ago but had never really paid much attention to.
The names have changed.
There was a time when an alternative station would play Nirvana, AIC,
Soundgarden, Pearl Jam, Smashing Pumpkins, Stone Temple Pilots ... bands that
actually rocked. Now "alternative" has come to represent Hootie and the
Blowfish wannabes, or Nine Inch Nails wannabes. For some reason, somebody
with quite a bit of influence says that Alice in Chains belongs in the same
category as Matchbox 20. Maybe it is convenient for the music stores. Maybe
most of the radio stations in America are too lazy to reinvent a name for the
new music. Oh, some stations will try to be creative. Instead of saying
"alternative," they will call themselves "modern rock," "new rock," or better
yet, "new rock alternative." What is a "new-rock alternative"? Don't be
fooled. It's all the same thing.
How could this have happened? I suppose the answer can be traced back to the origins of the term "alternative." I'm not an expert on this, and over the years I might have forgotten a few details, but I think I still know how the story goes. Once the 90s came around, heavy metal had been the mainstream hard rock genre. Then came the Seattle bands, "grunge" bands they were called. You remember them: Nirvana, Alice in Chains, Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, Screaming Trees, and many more. They were aggressive and hard-rocking. They were an "alternative" to heavy metal. But something strange happened. These bands began to gain a large following, and in the process, many other bands rode their coattails to success. Many old punk-rock bands began to be accepted by a larger audience: Green Day, Offspring, Bad Religion. They had a similar type of sound to grunge, so the name "alternative" was given to include everybody.
Alternative was a nice, convenient name. It included a wide range of bands. Nirvana, Alice in Chains, Bad Religion, Smashing Pumpkins, Stone Temple Pilots, and Weezer could all be included in this wonderful name. While these bands may have sounded different, they still shared a fast, hard, and aggressive sound. Guitars and drums dominated. Then things took an even
stranger turn. It wasn't long before these "alternative" bands were so popular, that they replaced heavy metal as the hard-rock favorite in the
mainstream. If the alternative bands had been an alternative to the
mainstream, they now had to face the reality of being the mainstream.
This should have sounded an alarm to somebody. Maybe it did to Kurt
Cobain.... At any rate, people were comfortable with "alternative" being
synonymous to "mainstream," even though the two terms were obvious
contradictions. Things went smoothly until a band called "Hootie and the
Blowfish" came along.
Hootie was a different sort of alternative rocker. This band wasn't as fast or aggressive as the Seattle grunge bands or the punk bands. They didn't sing about death or heroin. They were friendly and nice, and people loved them! I suppose I am partially guilty of this. Hey, I'm a sports fan, so I enjoyed watching the "Only Want to Be With You" video. There was a backlash of course. Some of the alternative stations refused to play Hootie, citing the overall wimpiness of the music. But Hootie sold millions of cds, and the popularity of Hootie could not be denied. Before you knew it, the
Wallflowers, Matchbox 20, and Third Eye Blind had entered the scene. They may have been an alternative to the mainstream bands, but for whatever reason, nobody wanted dump the old alternative rockers from this category.
So here's what I say about all of this. The first thing that must be done is to change the names. Dump "alternative." How about we start with a general "hard rock" category and work from there (are the guys from Alice in Chains reading this?). In the hard rock category we can have "metal," "grunge," "punk," and "classic" rock names. These should be pretty self-explanatory. Maybe the distinction between punk and grunge would be tough, but everyone should know that the big Seattle bands are "grunge," (you know: Nirvana, AIC, Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, Screaming Trees) and all bands who sound like the Seattle bands can be grunge too. With that taken care of, let there also be a "soft rock" category. That's where Matchbox 20 belongs. All the 80s "retro" bands can fit here too. Anyway, when people go to music stores, they can look "hard rock," and know perfectly well what they are getting. Radio stations can also take advantage of this. Many stations can call themselves "hard rock stations." They would be well within their rights to play people Tom Petty to Weezer to Alice in Chains to Everclear to Circle Jerks to Pennywise. If there were a big enough demand, some stations could focus on a more specific genre and be a "grunge" station or a classic-rock station or maybe a "punk/grunge" station. There you have it. No more of these pretenders. No more of this "alternative" garbage. No more confusion. Let the names actually mean something. Let the names actually describe the music. Isn't that the reason we categorize music in the first place?
So, are you prone to agree? Disagree? Did you just enjoy the insight contained in this article? Give Greg some feedback... just make sure that the message has the subject "Feeding My Eyes;" thanks!