Why “Alternative” Music Isn’t Relevant Anymore

135865_6575_prePhoto: Courtesy of ABC.
One of the funniest moments during Sunday night’s Billboard Music Awards was one that was easy to miss. When Lorde walked on stage to receive her second trophy of the evening, she had a quizzical look on her face, and took a second to throw up devil horns. “Thank you?” she began, gracious as ever, but sounding slightly puzzled. You see, “Royals,” for much of 2013 the most ubiquitous song on radio stations from sea to shining sea, had just been named Billboard’s Top Rock Song of the Year. Now, I’ve got nothing but love for the antipodean teen with the incisive lyrics, sinewy melodies, and smoky voice — who has also gained the respect of Nirvana, David Bowie, and Conor Oberst. But, "rock?" Not so much. The incongruity of the honor was not lost on Lorde, who even tweeted about it after the show:
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.
03_001_GovernorsBall_2013_SamuelJamesPhotographed by Samuel James.
Hey, philosophically, temperamentally, Lorde is surely alternative. That was the essence of “Royals” — an anthem that snuck up on us when we weren’t looking and pointed toward an alternate way, a non-Rolex-and-Maybach-worshiping way. Sometimes, culture needs a corrective, as it did when “alternative” first came into popular usage in music, about a quarter century ago. As Bush Sr. was getting set to launch Operation Desert Storm, a musical offensive was underway as well, out to topple the bloviated status quo that was late '80s rock. Perry Farrell, Billy Corgan, and Billie Joe Armstrong were music’s new heroes, a far cry from Nikki Sixx and Sebastian Bach.
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.
14_048_RobynMiller_Look3_MariaDelRioPhotographed by Maria Del Rio.
Yada yada, “outside of the mainstream music consciousness?” The all-time top winners in the Grammy alternative category are Radiohead and The White Stripes (three each, most recently in 2009 and 2008, respectively). Again, not exactly scrappy unknowns. And, speaking of things alternative, how about what’s known as “alternate revenue streams,” a.k.a. music licensing? It’s part and parcel of any band’s income, big or small, in 2014. We’re now in a time where alt and indie (another term that’s nearly meaningless, but that’s for another time) acts are regularly selling their music to sell us stuff: Vampire Weekend for Tommy Hilfiger, Imagine Dragons and The 1975 for Samsung, The Black Lips for T-Mobile, Bright Eyes for the real-estate site Zillow, for crying out loud. The once-iconic Pixies now even lend its “big big” hook from “Gigantic” to the iPhone. It all sounds awfully mainstream to me.
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.

More from Music

R29 Original Series