Alternative Music

Written by Jeremy Horelick
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The very idea of alternative music has become paradoxical and, many would argue, has lost all meaning. In its heyday, this particular style (or collection of styles) was the "alternative" to mainstream or pop music. If the early '60s-era Beatles redefined popular music, it was the punk rebellion led by bands like The Sex Pistols and The Clash that represented its alternative.

When the punk apotheosis finally died in the late '70s and early '80s, it cleared the way for all manner of inoffensive pap churned out by overproduced divas and glam-metal bands of dubious musical merit. Again, the void was filled, this time by the Seattle-inspired "grunge" movement of the early '90s. Even though many of the tunes crafted by bands like Nirvana and Pearl Jam followed the same simple chord progressions to which mainstream music adhered, this new brand was once again dubbed alternative music.

Alternative Music Today

If bands such as The Cure, Joy Division, The Pixies, and Sonic Youth came to define alternative music in its most widely regarded incarnation, it's modern bands such as Modest Mouse and Radiohead that have inherited the mantle. Even though these bands are a far cry from the low-fi "indie" bands of a decade back (Olivia Tremor Control, Neutral Milk Hotel, Pavement), they have one thing in common, and that's an ever-changing set of stylistic conventions. Perhaps it's most accurate, then, to view alternative music as any form of music that rejects or rebels against Billboard's Top 40 or whatever else happens to be popular at the moment.

The trouble with defining pop music is that that standard keeps changing as well. Students coming out of music schools today are already producing music that will undoubtedly be stamped "alternative" in years to come. The cycle will then continue as those tunes are summarily replaced by an even more unconventional crop, until the very concepts of mainstream and alternative either merge or melt away altogether.


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