this is me confused about unwittingly having written best ~rock~ song lol dork https://t.co/wQlKkZAXjL— Lorde (@lordemusic) May 19, 2014
Plenty of people in my feed were also asking why Lorde, with her electro/trap/art-pop sound, would be considered “rock.” (Her debut album Pure Heroine was also nominated in a rock category.) The answer eventually came from Billboard’s charts director Silvio Pietroluongo, who tweeted, “Alternative and Triple-A [Adult Album Alternative] are considered rock. Lorde had No. 1’s on alternative radio.” The BBMAs don’t have a “pop” category, and Lorde has to go somewhere, right? It can’t be country, R&B, rap, or Latin, so…yeah, rock...? But, I would actually rather quibble with that other word that Pietroluongo introduced into the conversation.
Alternative. Hello, old friend. You’re still here, huh? Still hanging around like a patchouli-stained flannel after all these years? We tried to ignore you, tried seeing you in a different light. And yet, some people just can’t seem to make a clean break with you, as though you even mean much of anything anymore. Alternative. Followed by the word “energy,” it’s a nice idea. Followed by “lifestyle,” it’s mildly pejorative. But, followed by “music?” It’s just kinda tired.
But, naming a genre after a cultural rebellion was always a dicey proposition, and while “alternative” quickly took off as a thing, it was also a nebulous thing. The snotty Green Day, the earnest Pearl Jam, the dreamy Smashing Pumpkins, the snarky Sublime, the smoked-out Cypress Hill, the “conscious” De La Soul and Arrested Development — alternative served as an umbrella for them all. It spawned a traveling festival, dubbed Lollapalooza, and a long-ago music channel called MTV showcased the scene on Alternative Nation. But then, something happened to the term.
By the time the TRL era rolled around, with its nü-metal, boy bands, Britney, Christina and the like, “alternative” had come to refer to a far more specific kind of rock: the skate- and pop-punk synonymous with The Warped Tour. The rise of emo-punk in the early 2000s came and went, and while that heyday of My Chemical Romance and Fall Out Boy may be behind us, there’s still something called Alt Nation. It’s a channel on the satellite network SiriusXM, dominated by acts with a signature blend of guitars, emotion, and bombast. It’s where you’ll find Imagine Dragons, Bastille, and Paramore — what SiriusXM calls “New Alternative Rock.”
So, the term means something to radio programmers and apparently to some awards shows. The American Music Awards have an “alternative” category (recent winners: Imagine Dragons, Linkin Park and Foo Fighters, hardly edgy, out-there bands) as do the Grammys, who brings its famously fuzzy way of explaining things to the description of what constitutes “alternative:”
This category is intended for recordings of a non-traditional form that exist (at least initially) outside of the mainstream music consciousness. Its avant-garde approach may utilize new technology or new production techniques and contain elements of rock, pop, R&B, dance, folk, or even classical musical styles.
Modest proposal: Why not dispense with “alternative” already, and call those artists what they are? Why aren’t Imagine Dragons just a rock band, as opposed to “alt rock?” What is “alt R&B,” anyway? Why aren’t The Weeknd or How To Dress Well simply R&B artists, no better or worse, or at the end of the day all that different from R. Kelly? Conor Oberst is a towering talent, but folk or rock will suffice — the “indie” designation just seems dated.
The UK seems to get it. Britain has never been as hung up on the “alternative” label, perhaps because music there has traditionally been far less balkanized. “Pop” in Blighty has long incorporated a multitude of sounds, and to this day the still-relevant BBC Radio 1’s playlist includes Arctic Monkeys and Tiesto, One Direction and London Grammar, Jake Bugg, CHVRCHES, Katy Perry, and Lorde. Such an eclectic embrace on radio is much harder to find in the States. While people seem to be moving in a more inclusive direction — my most-played records of the past year include Foxygen, Kendrick Lamar, Parquet Courts, Lady Gaga, Disclosure, Swans, Sky Ferreira, and Chance the Rapper — but American programmers don’t think like that. Good luck finding a radio station that will play Mac DeMarco next to Ariana Grande. For their purposes, segregation works.
“Alternative” may not actually mean anything anymore, but because it’s still useful to outlets and awards shows, they’ll likely cling on to it as long as they can. For the rest of us, maybe it’s time to engage in another tired expression and hit Ctrl+Alt+Delete on the term.