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Death of a Genre

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Just a little less than twelve years ago, Nirvana released what was viewed as the seminal alternative rock album, Nevermind. And while that album with its widely played single, Smells Like Teen Spirit, brought light to alternative music, for me it signalled the end of a genre that I had come to love.

I grew up in the 70’s, starting my musical obsession with Beatles 8-tracks, moving to KISS, then on to the Sugar Hill Gang and finally settling on the Smiths, Pixies, Joy Division in the early 80’s. I can remember just how difficult it used to be to even find cassettes (yes, I am THAT old) of the bands we liked. We would hunt high and low and then trade tapes made on our double decks.

I will admit we took a certain joy or glee in being in on something that others did not seem to know about. They were content to bounce their heads along to whatever Madonna or Micheal Jackson song was popular. And maybe just a bit of the elitist in me was satisfied to know I was somehow cooler than they were.

But all of that came to a crashing halt during my junior year in college, with the release of that damn Nirvana album. Not that it was their first album, heck it’s not even their best. But it was more visible than anything they had done. The single rocketed up to the top and was all over emptyvee and teenybopper radio. Shortly thereafter, every major label wanted their own alternative band.

A&R reps scoured Seattle and other alternative hotspots for the next big thing. Bands that would otherwise have become boy bands saw the riches at the end of the alternative tunnel. And what that meant was a diminishment in the quality of music. It also resulted in a sort of cultural imperialism in which hordes of frat boys and teenybopper girls became “alternative” overnight.

And that is still the case today. Can you remember when piercings and body art were a symbol of rebellion against society’s mainstream values? What does it mean today except that one is capable of following the pack, like a lemming.

Thanks a lot Kurt!

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About Justin Anderson

  • Nothing for it; now “Alternative” had become the mainstream, You’ll have to become a prog rock fan!

  • Rob

    Or you can do like I am doing, go through all of your old cassettes and figure out what the hell was on those mix tapes, and set up a free internet radio station and pick and choose. I only listen to the radio at work, because our LAN doesn’t allow streaming audio, but at home I have found some great Web radio sites.

  • Gosh, two postings about the death of a musical form on the same day: all I can say is, “THEY’LL NEVER KILL POLKA MUSIC!”

  • Eric Olsen

    Bill, two in one day is called “zeitgeist.”

  • Good one, Eric!

  • Andy

    you still have all your old Beat Happening tapes…

  • mike

    I don’t buy this argument for a second. That “body piercings,” et al morphed into mainstream fashion is not surprising, since fashion is not and never has never been a way of sticking it to the Man.

    The alt.music of the 80s was innovative, but its commercially succesful descendant was in most respects vastly superior. Nirvana and Pearl Jam refined the sound and produced music that is still great today. Green Day and Rancid were much better than the muddled punk of the 80’s.

    Best of all, alt liquidated 80s mainstream rock. Rock stations today sound better than they did in the 80s, and kids listen to rock actually played by bands their age. Korn is a huge improvement over Poison. Mudvayne is a huge improvement over Iron Maiden.

    Rock is not capable of changing the world. That idea is bogus. All we can ask of it is that it sound great and be relevant to our lives. Which it was in the Nineties.

    Thank you. And God Bless You.

  • I think Mike makes a good point about fashion and one I hadn’t really thought through.
    But to claim that Green Day is better than real punk by bands like Minor Threat, the Circle Jerks, the Clash, etc. is crazy. Perhaps to some ears the music of the 90’s sounds better than that of the 80’s, but how much of that is a result of superior recording technology?
    And, I think you make a good point of bands on the radio being better, to some extent. But what irks me is their insistence that they’re somehow alternative! How alternative is it to play stadiums full of teenyboppers, be all over emptyvee, on a major label, etc.?

  • andy

    I would admitt that the music that’s on radio today is better produced and smother over all, but….I have 2 words for you

    Husker DU

  • mike

    Green Day is a “real” punk band. Their playing is tighter, their lyrics are sharper, and their sound is much more melodic and inspiring than anything put out by Minor Threat, etc.

    As for The Clash they, along with X, Husker Du, and a few others, were an exception to the drudge churned out by the Pistols, etc. And as you’ll recall, The Clash abandoned the punk sound for the funk and such on their later albums.

    Regarding current stuff being better because of superior technology, who cares? All rock music is based on electric guitars and other technological innovations. Technology allowed Nirvana to bury their melodies in the distortion, an effect that didn’t and couldn’t come out in their (otherwise great) concerts; listeners became hooked, so to speak, when the melodies slowly rose through repeated playing.

    As for the “alternative” label, most bands hate being called that. The name is a record industry/radio station invention. “modern” is less offensive, although still dopey.

  • I personally just can’t believe that all these years after the fact people are still kvetching that “their” little genre went mainstream in the early 90s.