PART ONE: “Alternative” to What?
By Chris Moore:
Classifying and categorizing, partitioning and labeling. As humans, we love to take hold of vast, mysterious expanses and sort through them, putting neat little tags on each of the pieces and placing — sometimes forcing — them together into nicely packaged puzzles. We call it “studying” and academia has often been dominated by experts who take pleasure in putting their knowledge to good use.
Now, this is certainly not all bad, but it’s certainly not all good. On the one hand, we need labels to help us understand relevance and form connections across time periods and genres. It is vital to understand that romantic writers are different from realist writers for a very specific set of reasons, a very specific set of beliefs about human nature and life itself. This being said, on the other hand, we sometimes get to a point in certain subjects when the labels, tags, and titles become cumbersome.
Rock music, I assert, has become one of those subjects.
If you are a fan of any band and have done any research online, then it should not shock you to learn just how many different genres of music there are. Indeed, it is not so much that there are too many genres, yet it seems there are too many categories or sub-genres. I understand there is a clear and necessary distinction between classical music and pop/rock music. I even understand the need for titles such as “Neo-Classical” and others that serve the purpose of tracking music over a number of decades, even centuries. However, rock music, for all intents and purposes, has only been around since the 1950s. In less than sixty years, music critics and rock historians have managed to accumulate quite the catalog of titles by which to…um, catalog…rock music.
Tonight, I’ll tackle the term “alternative” rock.
I love alternative rock. And, having said that, I must admit that I’m not sure at times what alternative rock actually means or includes. For instance, the term alternative rock — or alternative music or alt-rock — has come to be used as an umbrella term for a wide range of acts in the 1980s, 1990s, and beyond. Alternative rock has branched out and flowered into dozens and dozens of subgroups. There’s punk rock, grunge, new wave, and post-punk just to name a few. I like to think that I’ve done my research and I’ve listened to a wide range of rock music, and yet I have little to no idea of the specific criteria that separate one sub-group from the next.
What I find most interesting — and what I’d like to focus on in the remainder of this article — is the idea of “alternative” rock. We all know that rock essentially began in the 1950s and 1960s, starting with its roots in folk and country and blues. (This could, of course, be fodder for an entirely different article!) After the age of classic performers like Buddy Holly and Chuck Berry passed, the age of songwriter performers was ushered in by the Beatles, Bob Dylan, and many others. The seventies unfolded another series of events in rock music history, probably most notably the beginning of the unraveling of the relationship between pop and rock.
Then came the 1980s. With the eighties came the popularization of technology in music, which we all recognize today in the signature synthesized sounds of many if not most popular eighties singles. In retrospect, many look back on this and laugh. The eighties have been the breeding grounds for some hilarious parodies and comedies in the 1990s and even more recently.
That being said, there were some bands in the eighties that wanted to play rock music, and yet they did not seem to fit in to any particular mold. Take R.E.M. for example. R.E.M.’s debut album, Murmur, sounds nothing like the popular music of 1983. Still, as Mitch Easter points out in the liner notes to the re-release of the album, they didn’t necessarily sound like anything that had come before, either. This is interesting because this alternative rock band chose to play the same instruments that rock musicians had been playing for decades — guitar, bass, and drums. The basics. R.E.M. may play the classic instruments, but the overall sound was drastically different from other rock music. In addition to Peter Buck’s guitar sound, Michael Stipe’s vocals are characteristically difficult to understand on their early work. This is quite a departure from the multi-layered harmonies and lyric-centered rock of previous decades. Although they would go on to develop and mature in their style, that first album seems to have set a tone that many look back to as an early marker in the alternative rock music movement.
Since the eighties, more and more bands have sought to create an “alternative” to the norm. Some bands keep more of the traditional elements than others, and some have more of a respect for the rock of old than others. This idea of “alternative” really does appeal to me, as I believe it appealed to a great many avid listeners in the 1980s and 1990s. I came of age in the late nineties, just as alternative music’s hold on the national attention was waning. Nirvana had come and gone. Somewhere along the way, “alternative” rock seems to have been born, risen to popularity, and then receded into the background. I hear some remnants of alt rock in some of the indie and the punk/emo music being made now. And yet, it feels fractured and insignificant to me. It truly feels as if I am a man out of time — if only I could have appreciated the music that was being created, recorded, and performed when I was a toddler!
As I scroll through the Wikipedia post on alternative rock music, I find the range of subgenres to be daunting. There’s Britpop, college, rock, geek rock, gothic rock, noise pop, post-rock, twee pop, alternative metal, industrial rock, and so much more. I’ll have to check out math rock — that’s one I’d never even heard of!
In my relatively brief time as a consumer of all things rock, I have felt a more and more profound splintering of the genre of rock. Particularly in the alternative rock category, it feels as if any semblance of unity has been abandoned to a vast multitude of record labels, genre titles, and music magazines. I wonder if there ever actually was a more unified feel to the alternative music of the 1980s and 1990s, or even of the classic rock of the 1950s and 1960s, but I suppose I’ll never know.
I suppose I can only continue to thumb through the used CD racks and fill in the gaps one album — one song — at a time.