Armagideon Time

Alternative take

August 8th, 2016

There was a time when I’d actively seek out stupid shit on the internet with the intent of skewering its wrongheadedness with self-aggrandizing glee. Those days have long passed me by, as life is too short and the rewards have grown too small to justify the aggravation. If I do it at all these days, it tends to be on a platform better suited for passive-aggressive rants fired on a hair-trigger. (Which is a florid way of saying “on Twitter.”)

The whole content farm model is so insatiable and shameless to start. It’s easier to simply ignore the nonsense and move on than it is to pick individual examples for a smug shellacking. In this corner, Some Debt-Indentured Millennial Cranking Out Content For Short Money on a Big Site! In the other corner, An Embittered Relic Sneering to An Audience of Dozens for Free! An epic tussle of flea bites and whiffed body blows!

That said, sometimes an especially egregious fragment of uncut idiocy slips past my middle-age apathy filters and begs to be called out for the bullshit it truly is.

The current example is an AV Club piece about the 1996 “death” of the post-Nevermind alt-rock renaissance. Truth to tell, it’s not too bad as far as these things go. There some wit and insight between the copious embedded videos; and while piece’s lede might be a bit overdramatic, the core thesis is relatively sound and supported by historical evidence.

The same, unfortunately, cannot be said about the passage in particular that triggered my “For Fuck’s Sake” reflex with a burning vengeance.

“But for everyone living in the thick of it, watching alternative rock die fast and leave a bloated corpse came as a surprise”

This is, how you say, a completely and utterly bullshit attempt to drape a dramatic bang over the whimper of the historical narrative.

The only folks who were shocked by alt-rock’s flailing, saggy demise into Adult Alternative irrelevance were the acts who’d deluded themselves that the gravy train would last past a single charting hit and the teenyboppers still young enough to believe that popcult trends endure indefinitely. (Such as the way a junior high classmate of mine thought the Thompson Twins were the apex of pop music up through 1987.)

It certainly didn’t come as a shock to the record labels, as they’d been clutching at subgenre straws with increasing desperation since the scene’s initial grunge-driven burst to prominence began to fade. Nu-punk! Chick rawk! Britpop! Anything to keep the streak going! Pre-grunge alt-rock stalwarts grew more boring and overproduced with each subsequent release, while a raft of hungry and forgettable newcomers landed major label deals after playing two shows at a college town dive bar. Every new issue of Spin or Rolling Stone seemed to hail the arrival of the Next Big Thing while slagging off the previous contenders to the crown.

From the end-user perspective, it became pretty obvious as early as 1993 that the whole “alternative” tag was a bit of demographic targeting which went well beyond the associated musical acts. That was the paradox at the core of the alterna-splosion — how can you sustain a narrative of opposition when you constitute the mainstream? All the organic and DIY trappings of the scene — from ‘zines to mosh pits to leather jackets and Docs — were co-opted and turned into ubiquitous aspects of a branded lifestyle.

That may sound like the gatekeeping of an early (well, “earlier”) adopter, but the point I’m trying to get at is that it “alternative culture” was essentially a fad ultimately beholden to the same forces it cynically dismissed — “authenticity” as empty ad slogan. (And despite not caring for most of the contemporary music of those years, I did appreciate how “underground” books and albums that had previously been out-of-print or import-only saw wide domestic re-releases.)

It was wobbly from the very start. There was no rapid collapse, but a protracted period of bleeding out as the audience grew older and the industry tried to re-calibrate and channel the investments it made into something capable of appealing to the widest — or most currently profitable — possible audience. 1996 may have marked the complete alignment of MTV, VH1, and alt-rock radio playlists, but that the merely the culmination of a process that had been unfolding for years.

There was no sense of sudden shock, no profound lamentations, no surprises about what had happened to the alt-rock scene — just a lot of shrugs and some bewilderment that a Butthole Surfers song had made it into the Top 40 charts.

Related posts:

  1. Alternative dumpster
  2. Wrecks and candy
  3. Left off the dial

3 Responses to “Alternative take”

  1. Chris Wuchte

    I actually just finished reading that article myself. It’s a little odd seeing a pop cultural moment that you lived through being post-mortemed to such an extent.

    I can see why they fixated on 1996, since it was a pretty vivid turning point. For me, the moment I realized things were shifting was when I visited my sister out in DC, and it seemed like every public place we entered was playing not Pearl Jam, Stone Temple Pilots, not even Collective Soul or Bush, but “Wannabe” by the Spice Girls. A quick Google search shows me that, yes, that song hit in 1996.

    For me, though, grunge/alternative was dying out when In Utero didn’t exactly set the world on fire the way Nevermind did, and Pearl Jam’s Vitalogy showed them sounding more like classic rock than anything influenced by punk. Follow that with dozens of bands emulating Eddie Vedder, so the radio is now populated with third-hand Neal Young.

    Sometimes I wonder if things had been different if more musicians had emulated Kurt Cobain instead. He wasn’t without his flaws, but his influences and musical tastes alone make him a more intriguing inspiration to me. Alternative would have still died, but maybe things would have remained more diverse and interesting for a little longer. As it was, I have vivid memories of turning off the local alternative station because they were playing yet another Pearl Jam soundalike.

  2. minkubus

    When did ‘alternative’ cease to be a marketing synonym for ‘rock? I seem to recall it lumbering on in record stores and department store kiosks at least ten years after the quoted article’s arbitrary cutoff.

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