Sunday, January 13, 2008

Alternative to what...?

A few weeks ago, my friend Ben sent me a copy of Milk It!: Collected Musings on the Alternative Music Explosion of the 90’s by Chicago Sun-Times music critic Jim DeRogatis (DaCapo, 2003). I found the book to be very uneven – as “collected musings” tend to be – but I enjoyed it because it got me thinking about the music that defined my high school and college years.

The book begins with a lengthy section on Nirvana, the band that ignited the commercial explosion of “alternative” music. It ends with Britney Spears, the pop princess whose inevitable meltdown has reached a level of humiliation that even the notoriously harsh DeRogatis never dared to imagine. In between, there are articles on dozens of acts that seem to have hastened the death of rock as well as dozens that offer evidence of its timeless vitality. Any serious fan of music will find statements to agree and disagree with. But even when you think the author is full of shit, you can’t argue with his passion. He clearly lived the music, rather than simply intellectualizing it. Ultimately, it’s how the music makes him feel that determines whether or not he likes it.

As it should be.

I remember the day in April 1994 when MTV News announced that Kurt Cobain had killed himself. From day one, critics and veejays presented it as some kind of “statement” about the frustrations of Generation X. I can’t say whether Nirvana fans felt the same way, because I wasn’t really a Nirvana fan at the time. Unlike the band's most loyal followers, I hadn’t tracked them from their humble Seattle origins to iconic status. I was, if anything, a half-hearted hanger-on. I owned copies of the chart-busting albums “Nevermind” (1991) and “In Utero” (1993)… but I preferred Pearl Jam. This, I suppose, is the big debate for those who grew up with alternative music - Nirvana or Pearl Jam?

In his book, DeRogatis argues that Nirvana drew on the punk mentality while the Pearl Jam sound stemmed from classic rock acts like The Doors and The Who. The implication is that Nirvana is truer to what DeRogatis defines as the essence of rock n roll: youthful rebellion. I don’t disagree… but maybe I just wasn’t that rebellious. As individuals we’re drawn to what we’re drawn to. Our taste in music is an instinct, not a decision. Personally, I was a more captivated by Pearl Jam’s debut album “Ten” (1991), particularly the B-side, and the follow-up “Vs.” (1993).

I later discovered The Doors and The Who for myself… not to mention Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd, which became favorites. That said, I suppose it’s clear where my loyalties lie. I’m not coming from the same place that DeRogatis is coming from. I don’t have the same contempt for nostalgia that he has. According to the author, this distinguishes me as more of a Generation Y listener than a Generation X listener, though technically I’m right on the cusp between the two.

Still, I find myself in agreement with many of the author’s critical assessments – Courtney Love: clownish, Smashing Pumpkins: pretentious, The Stone Roses: unimaginative, Bjork: enchanting, A Tribe Called Quest: intriguing, Brian Eno: genius. While I may disagree with his take on the Stone Temple Pilots (“pathetic Pearl Jam wannabes” – which, admittedly, is not as offensive to a Pearl Jam fan as it is to DeRogatis), I can’t imagine anyone arguing with the author’s contempt for boring frat rockers like Hootie and the Blowfish or glorified hate-mongers like N.W.A.

What really strikes me about this book are the bands that DeRogatis neglects to mention – bands that define the 90s for me. Maybe these musicians were not as popular in Chicago (DeRogatis’s home)? Maybe he just wasn’t as interested in them? Whatever the case, it got me thinking about where I would have placed my own focus in such a retrospective…

DeRogatis devotes a chapter to rising female musicians like L7, Liz Phair and Tori Amos. In my corner of the world (Charlottesville, VA), Ani DiFranco was the reigning queen of the post-feminist girl bands. Several of the young women I knew in high school seemed to be forming their personal identities in the wake of DiFranco’s music. I absorbed the music in a desperate effort to understand the opposite sex. Women still remained a mystery to me… but I learned to appreciate DiFranco’s acoustic guitar work and the emotional honesty of her lyrics.

For all her rebelliousness, DiFranco was just a step away from the radio-friendly Alanis Morrisette, whose 1995 debut album (the best-selling debut album by a female artist in the U.S.) proved that legion of fans were ready for something like Sarah McLachlan’s Lilith Fair. Jim DeRogatis talks at length about the over-commercialized Lollapalooza and the under-commercialized Woodstock ‘94, but he says nothing about Lilith... which, as far as I could tell, was a commercial and artistic success.

Of course, the girl bands were never really my thing. I gravitated toward bands like Depeche Mode, Nine Inch Nails, Mazzy Star, and Led Zeppelin. I was a little behind the curve in discovering Depeche Mode, who had peaked with their 1990 album “Violator” – an ominous soundscape that would have worked perfectly as the soundtrack for a gothic horror film. Nine Inch Nails manipulated electronic sounds to similar, eerie effect – but while Depeche Mode remained mostly ominous, NIN escalated the music to full assault on “The Downward Spiral” (1995). Mazzy Star’s first album (“So Tonight That I Might See” – 1993) had more of a post-traumatic vibe. Led Zeppelin, in my estimation, ran the gamut. That was my window into the world of classic rock.

It was not until a few years later that I came to appreciate England’s contribution to the early 90s music scene – the dream-pop “shoegazer” bands. DeRogatis focuses on My Bloody Valentine and Ride; I preferred Slowdive (1991 – 1995), Lush (1992 – 1996), Portishead (1994 – 1997), and Massive Attack (who peaked with the album “Mezzanine” in 1998). My Bloody Valentine’s Bilinda Butcher offers an anecdote that helps explain the ethereal sound of these bands (usually soft vocals drenched in guitar feedback): “Often when we do vocals, it’s seven-thirty in the morning; I’ve usually just fallen asleep and have to be woken up to sing. I’m usually trying to remember what I’ve been dreaming about when I’m singing.” Like most people, I tended to be nocturnal when I was in college – so this music was a natural soundtrack for that particular place and time (1997 - 2000).

By 1997, as DeRogatis points out, all ears were focused on electronic music – predicted to be "the next big thing." Electronic music found its strongest current in England; its earliest success stories were extensions of the experimental art rock of musicians like Kraftwerk and Brian Eno. To DeRogatis, electronic music is little more than a footnote in 90s alternative music – he was fascinated by Aphex Twin and The Orb, but lost interest in the whole scene when bands like The Chemical Brothers and Prodigy rose to prominence. He never drank the kool-aid. But I did.

I vividly remember the experience of listening to a few breakthrough electronic albums for the first time: Orbital’s “brown album” (1993), Underworld’s debut “dubnobasswithmyheadman” (1993), Moby’s “Everything is Wrong” (1995), and DJ Shadow’s “Endroducing” (1996). The music on these albums was as much a part of my life as the people and places I saw everyday – the beats and rhythms were burned into my brain. By the time I actually went to England and discovered trance DJs like Paul Oakenfold, Ferry Corstein and Paul van Dyk, electronic music was running out of juice. Since then, I have found new popular music to be, for the most part, anti-climactic.

Milk It! ends with an essay entitled “What’s Up with Generation Y?”, written just two weeks after 9/11. In it, the author provides his own definition of Generation Y: “seventy million people born between 1980 and 1996” who, prior to 9/11, existed in “a period of unprecedented prosperity and a cocoon of creature comforts the likes of which we’ve never seen before.” He predicts that this generation will respond in one of three ways to 9/11: (1) They will realize that “their current opiates… (Britney Spears, the Backstreet Boys, Total Request Live, Limp Biskit, Survivor, Sony Playstation, etc.) were nothing but placebos,” and subsequently rebel against “the mega-corporations that are trying to spread consumerism to every corner of the globe, killing Western culture and turning us all into the equivalent of those cannibalistic zombies traipsing through the shopping mall in Dawn of the Dead”; (2) They will embrace the “ubiquitous television commentators’ jingoism, applaud the bloodlust of the hawks,” and continue to spend, spend, spend because it’s the patriotic thing to do; (3) They will slowly return to business as usual, without giving much serious thought to the first two alternatives.

I haven’t bought much music or attended many concerts since 9/11, but I’ve never really thought of 9/11 and my taste in music in terms of cause-and-effect. The truth is that I also haven’t bought a lot of fiction since 9/11. I haven’t gone to the movies much since 9/11. This is not because I decided to stop spending… but because, in 2001, I ceased to be a student with disposable income. Since 2001, I have not been in the target demographic for the music industry. They are now pursuing the younger members of Generation Y.

If I had to assess how the youth generation has responded to 9/11, I’d probably lean toward the third possibility that DeRogatis presents. Sure, the music industry has fallen on hard times in the last few years – but I think that has more to do with changes in technology as with a change in mindset. Although the youth of America is inheriting a massive national debt for a war that was deviously sold to us as a response to 9/11, it's still “business as usual.” While the national debt approaches the $500,000,000,000 mark with no end in sight, we remain reasonably calm. The potential rage – for the ruination of the economic welfare of our future, for the repetition of some of our country’s most embarrassing historical blunders, for the government’s shameless trampling of our nation’s founding principles – has been kept in check.

Or am I wrong? Am I simply missing the signs of a major awakening of social and political consciousness? I wonder what’s going on in high school and college classrooms these days… and if there is a significant “alternative” music scene brewing right now while the industry struggles to get back to business as usual…

DeRogatis characterizes great music as restless and rebellious in nature. I often make the same argument for great horror films. They question authority, break taboos, and offer alternatives to the status quo. They are agents of change.

Right now, we could use some great music.


  1. The post-Reagan era led to the rapid rise of alternative music as a viable mainstream genre. As you mentioned, DeRogatis said Gen-Y lived in "a period of unprecedented prosperity and a cocoon of creature comforts the likes of which we’ve never seen before." If we think of that as being the early 90s to 2001, the alternative movement was in full swing when there was very little to be upset about. Did that relative lack of economic/political turmoil make way for a genre of music that was able to focus on internal struggle and self-expression? Did the punk-inspired "alternative" music of the 1980s change as it hit the 90s? I'm inclined to think so: "alternative" became more of a sound and attitude than agent of social awareness.

    And here we are in the middle of a lot of economic and political strife and no "alternative" scene exists. Instead we have the "indie" and "alt-rock" genres at the forefront of rock music. Gen-Y lived at the height of the pop-music marketing craze when you could just manufacture music and know that it would sell because of the proliferations of disposable income in the middle and upper classes. I think that it's right to say that 9/11 really marked the turn in popular music as well as music dollars. Not just because of its political implications, but also what you said about changes in technology. Sure there was music-copying before the Internet, but never was it made so easy. Having the world at their fingertips, Gen-Y started reprioritizing. I think years of protests that have amounted to nothing has worn down this generation. I get the sense that though people care about politics, they don't feel their efficacy extends much further passed electing people to office.

    A lot of Gen-Y has given up and turned inward. I know I have. I was born in 1983, so I was a kid in the 80s, grew up in the 90s, and started my trip into adulthood as the 00s hit. I remember the tail end of 80s music, was an adolescent in the mainstream alternative era, suffered through the pop-factory of the late 90s, and hit the stride that was the post-pop rock revival. The problem with that pop-factory era of Britney Spears and Backstreet Boys was that we didn't really have an "alternative" like the late 80s early 90s. Most of our conduits were blocked and would only open thanks to the technologies of the Internet.

    I actually really enjoy today's rock music. There are a lot of people doing a lot of interesting things: you just have to know how to find them. It's difficult to gain access to the worthwhile music of the modern era without using the Internet as search, recommendation, and acquisition tool. I'd point you toward this blog's Top 100 albums of the year {} to see a big mix of all that was 2007. In some regards the music is escapist: a symptom of the decreased global efficacy. But a lot of it is interesting because of the cultural moment in which it's being produced. Some of it directly comments on society, some of it skirts around the issue, but a lot of it says so much by not seeming to comment at all. It kind of leaves it up to you. We now have access to more music than ever before. You can use services like Pandora or for recommendations. In Pandora, you just type in an artist you like and it starts feeding you other music you might enjoy. If you don't like it, just vote it down and send it on its way. If you do, it begins to further figure out your tastes. Also, if you'd like me to "send you some recommendations" of stuff I enjoy just send me an e-mail.

    Variety is the new alternative.

  2. Anonymous1/14/2008

    Considering music had such a big impact on my own socialization and identity construction as an adolescent, each semester I have my community college students participate in a media literacy project which has an emphasis on music’s socializing affects. They are to bring in a song for deconstruction that either reinforces or challenges the status quo in some way. It seems that every song brought in within the last 6 years dealing with political, economic, or social consciousness raising has been a song from that late 60’s and early 70’s or from the early 90’s <- (usually something like rage against the machine). The contemporary pop songs that are brought into class that deal with political or social themes are often interpreted through a very apathetic lens. For example, there was that John Mayer song a couple of years ago about “waiting for the world to change.” When I heard the song in class I thought it was obvious that the song was making fun of the apathy of young people. However, numerous students have interpreted the song as a legitimate response to the undesired status quo, with some actually quoting the song in places to justify and to solidify their own passivity. I have often wondered if the irony and cynicism espoused by generation X has created a current media culture in which much of generation Y is socialized to not even recognize irony. (not counting Bobby)But then I think well maybe this Mayer guy sincerely meant that young people can’t do anything about it right now and it is accepted by his listening audiences.

    Generation X was around when they were putting the finishing touches on the corporate matrix in which Americans live. We were around to see them shut the door on this simulation we call culture. We all saw the foundation of 1’s and 0’s and the underpinnings of what was to come. Those from generation Y were born directly into this simulation and the door was welded shut on 911. I agree with Bobby that if interesting and challenging music is going to emerge, it will have to emerge in cyberspace where battle lines are still being drawn and conflicts are still unresolved. Corporations are rapidly moving to colonize that space and establish its culture there before generation X hackers and contrarians can socialize the surfing youth with ideas like “open-source.” Young people need to understand that this frontier of cyberspace is still not fully cultivated and that they can still play a role in its formation and evolution. And, if ideas like open-source were to take off it has the potential to spill over into non-cyber culture, thus challenging an economic system that is very much taken for granted. Regardless of the content of Radioheads last album, the methodology has to be preserved, if for no other reason but to remind us that corporation’s hegemonic stranglehold has not yet suffocated cyberspace, and that - alternative paths can and should always be explored.

    rc the dp

  3. Bobby & Rick -

    Thanks for offering such intelligent & thoughtful responses! I've been listening to Pandora all morning - amazed at how much good music I've ignored in the past few years. A sign of my own apathy, perhaps...

    I finally saw "No Country for Old Men" over the weekend, and it has also played into my thoughts on this subject. More to come...


  4. Hey Joe -- A friend of mine brought your post on MILK IT! to my attention. Gotta say, it's one of my favorite pieces ever written on the book. I never expected anyone to agree with all of it, or praise its consistency; it's a collection, some pieces better than others, some of which I don't even agree with now (but which illuminate the time nonetheless) and some of which have proven sort of poignant or prophetic.

    Which is to say, yes, it seems as if Gen Y has followed the apathy route. But if 9/11 didn't wake a generation out of its cultural stupor, perhaps global warming will. Or, more likely, the looming recession. What good is a Wii console when you can't pay your electric bill?

    In any event, thanks for reading the book, and taking the time to write such a thoughtful critique.

    All the best --

    Jim DeRogatis