Alternative culture

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Alternative culture is a catch-all phrase used to describe a variety of separate loosely related or completely unrelated cultures and sub-cultures that are outside of the mainstream culture or are perceived as being such. Despite popular belief, there is no singular "Alternative Culture". While the media and popular belief have made the concept common, the differences between the various "sub-cultures" make many of them incompatible with each other or simply show no logical connection that gives reason to believe that there is a single culture using these aspects.

A true definition for an alternative culture is thus debatable, and sometimes a culture mistaken for an alternative culture may not truly be such. The interests and concepts used in defining them vary greatly. Still, concepts of being outside the mainstream and adventurousness tend to be the most common concepts used in defining it. For this reason, the following article should be viewed as a text about established media views and what truths went into them, how it effected the people involved in the culture and what became of the culture after the commercial success that was never necessarily intended or accepted. It should not be seen as a guide to or an attempt to define alternative culture.


Alternative rock enters the mainstream

The concept of an "alternative culture" became common in the mainstream media in the early 1990s. The 2 key events that are most often seen as the catalysts for "alternative culture" are firstly the music video for Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit", which was immediately picked up by MTV and put into heavy rotation, and the release of Nirvana's major label debut album Nevermind. Both events are culturally significant and undoubtably changed the path of rock and roll music in the same way that the release of "Anarchy in the UK" had 15 years previously.

The record was seen by fans and critics alike to be a return to a more primal, honest form of rock music that had been largely abscent from the mainstream since the first wave of British punk rock. Seemingly overnight, all of the rock clichés that had dominated hard rock throughout the '80s, the stadium sized venues as well as the druggy decadence, poodle hair and tight spandex that was associated with the hair metal bands was swept aside by the new music. Bands like Van Halen and Warrant found it difficult, if not impossible, to get their videos on MTV and Seattle replaced Los Angeles as the official centre of hard rock cool. For many people, it was the beginning of the end.

Alternative rock takes over

For the most part, alternative music had been ignored throughout the'80s. Few bands were signed to major labels and the few that were, like Hüsker Dü, were not given the sufficient support by management and record labels. What had started in the late '70s Hardcore punk movement as a lack of choice in the matter, record labels would simply not take a chance on the music, by the mid '80s had become an almost trenchant hatred towards the mainstream music industry, perhaps best epitomised by Steve Albini of Big Black fame

However, in 1991 the success of Nirvana and Nevermind sent a jolt through the recording industry. The major label bigwigs were confused: how could a band of scruffy punks from a working class logging town in the Pacific Northwest seemingly come out of nowhere and record an album that, with no hype or the attendant marketing, sell 9 million records in 6 months? In what had become for many a bland, predictable industry, nobody was certain what would sell any more.

In the rush to sign the "next Nirvana", major labels started poaching well established cult acts from indie labels, resulting in such unlikely major label signings as Royal Trux and Mudhoney, and the marketing departments at the majors now had an angle of sorts to promote their already signed alternative acts. Alternative records released following Nirvana's breakthrough by bands such as the Smashing Pumpkins and Pearl Jam went multiplatinum, a level of sales that may not have happened had there not been the interest from the mainstream media and music industrys that had not been there previously.

The Buying of Generation X

1991 saw the release of the debut novel by Canadian author Douglas Coupland. It was called Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture and told the story of 3 young people who leave their unfilling lives behind to avoid the commercialization of the modern world and find greater meaning in their lives. With its neologisms of McJobs and café minimalism, the novel portrayed a generation in crisis, seemingly without either purpose or hope. The mainstream media christened them Generation X.

Though Generation X technically means anyone born approxiametly between 1961 and 1981, it became a metaphor for something quite different. The mainstream media took the primal scream of Nirvana's Kurt Cobain as a sign that the generation of American youth were fed up with the way the world was going but had neither the means or drive to change it. Many of this new breed of rock bands were the products of broken homes and economic struggle, and in some cases even poverty. Many of the muscicians were the children of former hippies, and had adopted the desire for social change that their parents had but, due in part to the aforementioned societal problems, were much more hardbitten, cynical and far less naieve than the hippies were in the late 1960s.

Concept of a Culture

1991 also saw the very first outing of the travelling music festival Lollapalooza. The festival is often considered to be one of the catalysts of the idea that an entire culture exists around punk and other forms of alternative rock music. It contributed to the aggressively non-conformist, anti-star ethos of alternative rock and further reinforced the idea that the music was not for everybody. However, the 2003 festival alienated many fans with its heavy corporate sponsorship and high ticket prices to the point were the 2004 outing was cancelled due to lack of interest.

Several movies also contributed to the general idea of an alternative culture. Teen movies of the '80s had often dealt with the teenage outcast as a main character, a famous example being Ally Sheedy's character in The Breakfast club, but now there was supposedly a culture for it too. In 1991 the independent movie Slacker was released. In truth it was released too early to benefit from the explosion of Grunge and it became a low-budget cult favourite. Had it been released a few months later it may have gone on to be as commercially successful as Singles, a love story with the background of the Seattle scene as its context. Though it was not necessarily intended as a cash in, as it had been written before Nevermind was released, it came out at the right time to benefit from the breakthrough of alternative music.

The Selling of a "Culture"

By 1992, grunge music and fashion was everywhere and the mainstream media industries were willing to capitalize on it. Previously inexpensive items such as flannel shirts, Converse-style sneakers, jeans and corduroy jackets were being sold for relatively expensive prices by designer labels willing to capitalize on the new trend. Stereotypical Grunge characters were regularly showing up in TV shows, movies and even a car commercial. In 1996 "Alternative Culture", specifically Lollapalooza, was satirized in popular animated show The Simpsons.

Possibly the epitome of the mainstreams attempt to co-opt alternative rock was in 1994 when the song "Inside", written by producer Peter Lawlor, was used in a Levis commercial. In order to release the song as a single, a grunge band called Stiltskin were manufactured and the song went to number 1 on the UK singles chart. Alternative rock songs began turning up on the sountracks to major Hollywood blockbusters and teen-centric TV shows such as My So-called Life. It appeared that the "culture" had been bought and sold by the mass media and corporate America.

The Fallout of the Explosion

Following the breakthrough of grunge music, almost all of the bands involved in the Seattle scene rejected the success vehemently and made varyingly successful attempts to distance themselves from fame altogether. Arguably, Pearl Jam kicked at the establishment harder than any of their contemporaries and went from selling more copies of their debut than Nirvana to alienating a portion of their fan base with the experimental No Code and selling relatively few copies of each release from No Code onwards. In fact, the developing of both Indie Rock and Lo-Fi could be seen as a purely socio-political attempt to both reclaim alternative rock from the corporations and make it impossible to commercialise or capitalize on. This unwillingness to play along with the media industries is often cited as the main reason for both the so-called commercial death of alternative music and, by extension, the loss of media interest in "alternative culture".

However, this loss of interest would not come until the mid '90s. As long as it was a valuable commodity, nobody in the music industry seemed to care about the bands kicking out at the system and this display of rebellion and punk rock ethics was too good to resist for both the tabloids and music press. Many of the bands and musicians associated with the movement used their fame positively, playing benefits for various charities and taking lesser-known bands on tour and name checking them in interviews with major publications. Even comedian Bill Hicks was name checked, by both Tool first and again by Radiohead following his death from pancreatic cancer.

The Loss of a "Spokesman" and its Effects on a "Culture"

On April 8th 1994, the world heard that Kurt Cobain had taken his own life at the age of 27. In subsequent years the ruling of suicide would be debated but for now people were convinced that he had committed suicide. The music press discussed his creativity, his heroin addiction and inner pain and the letter pages of the NME were full of letters from upset fans for months on end. Cobain's life mirrored the lives of many other alternative musicians, from his broken home background to his addictions as well as his faith and love of music and anti-star attitude, and because of his similarity to other alternative musicians he never considered himself special. Attitudes would soon change.

Following the breakthrough of Seattle Grunge acts, many new bands were formed around the world. It was similar to what happened with The Sex Pistols in Britain, the only difference being that this time it was on a worldwide scale. Bands like Bush and Candlebox were formed and, not being too dissimilar to Nirvana or the other Grunge acts, they achieved almost immediate commercial success and press coverage but they were scrutinized mercilessly by alternative rock fans who believed them to be fakes. Were they authentic or not?

Art or Commerce and the Rise of Nu-Metal

During their career The Smashing Pumpkins were accused of careerism by the alternative rock audience. Following the success of both the Siamese Dream and Mellon Collie & the Infinite Sadness albums Billy Corgan put his career in jeopardy by famously claiming that "rock is dead" in a music press interview, to a certain degree silencing the claims of careerism he had put up with throughout his career.

However, some bands that either became well known or formed after the Grunge explosion did little to control their success. Trent Reznor shifted millions of albums with the gothic Industrial meets Heavy metal sound of his outfit Nine Inch Nails and eventually founded his own record company Nothing Records. Though the sound was still harsh and unwelcoming the message was clear: Writing and recording music does not have to be an end in itself?

Following the breakthrough of Nu-Metal in the mid/late 1990s, the bands did not seem to be as concerned about working with the record industry. They did as much promotional work as was required of them, did little to rock the boat and played few, if any, charity benefits. They also tended to avoid the self destructive behaviour of many of the original grunge bands. Some of them, such as Johnathan Davies of Korn, stated in interviews that they were sexually abused as children and their songs were frequently angry, shouty affairs that incorporated Hip Hop and [[Funk music|]] into a style resembling an alternative form of heavy metal.

The other strand of "alternative" rock in the late '90s was a lighter, more radio friendly take on Grunge played by bands like Nickleback and Puddle of Mudd. By reducing the rawness and dirty sound Grunge, they sold millions of records but once again were accused by many Alternative and Indie rock fans to be conformists and careerists. Among the most hated of this new breed was Limp Bizkit's Fred Durst, possibly because he was among the most high profile of Nu-metallers and seemed to epitomise the movement and what it stood for, blatant careeism and materialism. It could be said that the Nu-metal and Post Grunge movements were nothing more than a mutation on the Hair metal values of money and decadence with no thought of the consequences. Things appeared to have gone full circle again.


From the above article it would appear that the concept of an alternative culture was nothing more than a collection of clichés that were propagated by the media until they became excepted as the truth, similar in many ways to what happened with the counter culture of the 1960s. In part this cannot be denied, but it is import to remember that all of those clichés were at least based in some truth, and so that any analysis of Grunge music, Alternative music or culture has to take into consideration how it existed before, during and after its peak in the early 1990s.


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