Alternative Music

What Does It Mean for Music to Be Alternative?

Alternative Musician Wayne Kramer of MC5 at Rock For Recovery Benefit Concert At The Fonda Theatre With Kings Of Chaos
Musician Wayne Kramer of MC5. Scott Dudelson / Getty Images

Being defined as something "other" has always left alternative music with an essential identity crisis. Alternative to what, exactly?

Well, to orthodoxy. To the status quo. To playing it safe. To being in the music business for the business, not the music. To the man. To repressive politics. To racism, sexism, classism, etc. Music has always attracted the free-thinkers and the radicals, and underground music has been the place where the most radical of the radicals has been championed.

Does that answer your question? Well, no, not really. Let's just say that, if Alternative Music must be an alternative to something, the safe answer is this: to whatever your parents like.

When Did Alternative Music Begin?

Fittingly enough, right as rock'n'roll was becoming the dominant musical mode of the Western World. As soon as rock was king, there quickly grew an underground of acts providing, yes, an "alternative" voice.

If you're looking for a ground zero, well... let's say 1965. That was the year the Velvet Underground first got together in a New York loft, that MC5 first turned up their amps in a Detroit garage, and that a kooky Californian kid started calling himself Captain Beefheart.

If you're looking to go further underground (Note: doing this is the passion of any self-respective alt-music enthusiast), 1965 was also when a Texan teenager named Roky Erikson began pioneering psychedelic-rock with a crew called the 13th Floor Elevators. It was the year that a pair of New York poets formed a primitive, satirical rock-group named The Fugs. And, it was the year The Monks, a band of American GIs living in Germany, released the amelodic, highly-rhythmic, audience-baiting album Black Monk Time, possibly the first-ever underground rock album.

What Does Alternative Music Sound Like?

Existing as an "other," alternative music should, in theory, simply sound unlike whatever the prevailing popular-musical models of the day are. Meaning, if you don't know exactly what it is, at least you know what it's not.

Yet, from the mid-'80s through to the mid-'90s, the notion of what was safely "alternative" underwent a radical change. Nowhere more so than in America. After punk-rock marked a momentary blip on mainstream America's radar, the 1980s settled into a steady diet of big-name pop-stars and hair-metal peacocks, with hip-hop the nation's undeniable rising cultural force.

That left a massive chasm between the mainstream and the underground. Punk had mutated into hardcore, a form of music devoted wholly to grass-roots activity. And, hardcore or not, there were whole networks of bands doing things independently, completely off the commercial grid. For the best part of the '80s, there existed a happy divide —and a mutual disinterest— between these two worlds. Whilst the masses had their Madonna and Michael, the freaks had the Butthole Surfers and Black Flag. Things made sense.

But, inevitably, change came. First REM, old "college-rockers," cracked the mainstream. Former avant-garde noise outfit Sonic Youth signed with a major-label. And, then, Nirvana came out of nowhere to be the biggest band in the world. Grunge was a license to print money, sending major-label A&Rs into a frenzy. They ransacked once insular musical scenes of any barely-competent band. Failing that, they engineered their own. The whole thing became an exercise in profiteering that was satirized, for the ages, by The Simpsons' Hullabalooza festival.

This mainstream crossover (or, to use the language of the time, "sell out") lead to Alternative Music's crisis of identity: if what was once alternative was now the status quo, what did 'alternative' even mean? If Nirvana once could've defined alt music, where did that leave come-later corporate copycats? It left the alternative world in a confused state.

Which Genres Are Considered Alternative Music?

Genres attempt to tell us what music is, but often they don't.

Most genres that have strong, defined parameters are ones consigned to a specific point in time. When someone talks about shoegaze, krautrock, grunge, riot-grrrl, or post-rock, they're not just talking about a specific style and sound, but a place in time, in the past, we can view from the safety of hindsight.

To be honest, the notion of genre, as a straight-laced form of specific sound and accompanying identity, is dying. While we're not denying the rise of the emo cult, there's recently been a telling increase in outfits impossible to quantify. What does one make, for instance, of Animal Collective, or Gang Gang Dance, or Yeasayer; bands whose seamless fusing of many disparate genres leaves them sounding like none?

Are "Alternative" and "Indie" Essentially Interchangeable Terms?

Well, yes and no. Casually speaking, yes, ​indie and alternative can essentially mean the same thing. But if we want to get down to the semantics of it. That's a whole other story.

Is Alternative Music Always an Alternative?

Of course not. Look at it this way: in 1990, the Grammy Awards started giving out trophies for the Best Alternative Album. In the years since, winners have included such noticeably not-indie figures as Sinead O'Connor, U2, Coldplay, and Gnarls Barkley. So, no matter how hard you try and define "alternative music," people—especially Grammy voters—will make it mean whatever they want it to.