So, what, really, is alternative rock?

I have heard the term “alternative rock” used since my freshman year in high school, which is roughly when I started talking about music with other human beings. I’ve come to know that some bands definitely are alternative, like REM or Modest Mouse, and some definitely are not, like Nickelback or Matchbox 20. And I’ve learned that some people really like “Alternative Rock” and that some people don’t, and you can predict what bands they’ll listen to if they say they like Alt Rock.

But I still can’t exactly say what Alternative Rock is. I can’t think of anything that really, clearly distinguishes it from other rock music. So can someone explain to me exactly what makes Alternative Rock Alternative Rock?

Actually, Matchbox 20 is often classified as alternative rock.

Okay, my mistake.

then i want nothing to do with alternative rock

to me, alternative rock is by definition an alternative to the standard popular rock that you hear on the radio and see on MTV7 or whichever one they have that actually has videos. it is the local bands you see at dive bars, the CDs you have to go to a record store not in the mall or wal-mart to buy.

there is something about them that just doesn’t appeal to the masses. a break-out album sells 50,000 copies, not 1,000,000. sometimes an artist will hit at the right time and cross over just for a second like the grunge thing in the early 90’s but for the most part it stays low-key and underground.

This is my minimal understanding.

Back in the beginning of Rock’n’Roll. Rock was just called rock (with exceptions). Then when the 90’s rolled around what was considered rock was now called classic rock. There was no Rock in the same sense of the Rolling Stones. So basically anything else that couldn’t be niched (punk, grunge, heavy metal) was called alternative rock. Around the late 90’s early 00’s we also saw the title “indie rock” although technically it had nothing to do with an independent label. It was a sort of meaningless genre to stuff a very broad group of musicians in.

So alternative bands would be something like, Hoobastank, Matchbox 20 (yes), Nickleback (yes) — basically anything that plays on your “Lazer 99.3 ROCK!!!” radio station. Gets good airtime, they play big shows.

Indie bands would be like The Shins, Death Cab for Cutie, Iron & Wine. Minimal Airtime, smaller venue shows.

However a huge backlash came from this “Indie Band” genre name (you have Zach Braff to thank for the Garden State Soundtrack) so that most of these bands ended up becoming popular because a lot of the “Alternative Rock” just sucked at the time. Now the Indie bands I mentioned are pretty much fully known and on Major labels some playing huge shows.

As for what we call rock these days their are two camps.

  1. Identify my shit? Are you Crazy, this can’t be touched.

  2. Noise post-rock electro dancehall dubstep

In other words, screw labels or I’m so niche you can’t even fathom it.

In radio land however we still have “classic rock” (Rock), and “alternative rock” (IMO musical laziness for the most part, a hit is a hit though)

I would like to give a complete answer, but I really can’t do better than Wikipedia’s entry on alternative rock.

For me, alternative rock was most useful as a description in the mid-80s to early-90s, pre-grunge explosion. Alternative was, quite simply, non-Top 40 rock–an “alternative” to that. It was a catch-all term for post-punk bands and covered a lot of stylistic ground. It tended to be more experimental musically, lyrical content tended to be more serious (not as much about sex, drugs, and rock-and-roll as Top 40) and often impressionistic/non-literal, the production tended not to be as glossy, the bands tended to be on small, independent record labels, etc. When alternative became mainstream post-Nirvana, it just became a term to describe bands that came out of this tradition.

Nowadays, I don’t hear the term “alternative” at all. It seems that “indie” supplanted this, although Wikipedia maintains them as two distinct genres.

The way I heard it was that hair rock was so dominant in the late 80s - Motley Cru, Poison, Warrant, etc - that what became mainstream 90s rock - Nirvana, Alice in Chains, Soundgarden, Pearl Jam; basically the Seattle sound - started out as the “alternative.” That may not be the organic, grassroots etymology of the term, but that’s definitely how it was marketed.

Agreed. I always heard “rock” vs “alternative” described the same way. What’s funny is that mid-90s “alternative” has just become rock again (actually “modern rock” for Billboard purposes) and alternative is now used as an alternate label for “indie rock” or “college rock” (fuck Wikipedia saying they’re different, they’re not).

I thought it was “alternative to rock”? ie. Music that didn’t follow the classical rock traditions, even if the intent was the same.

Exactly. At the time (the late 80s/early 90s), “rock” was the hair metal shit that absolutely infected nearly every radio station in the country. So just plain old rock 'n roll became “the alternative”.

“Alternative rock” is a marketing term. It has nothing really to do with what the music sounds like, which is presumably what matters to people who really like music. Ignore the term; find more meaningful, evocative words for what you like.

Indeed: “alternative” has been an ironic label for at least 15 years now-so much so that we’ve been in bad need of an alternative to alternative since then. In one of my more naive moments, I had assumed that “indie” covered a wide range of styles, and hence was a possible savior of that sort, but some people at another board set me straight on that one too-it apparently describes a certain type of middle-of-the-road rock-not too hard so as to be metal, not too experimental so as to be post-rock.

Take all this with one big <shrug> from me.

I agree with this and think its as good a description as any. The last sentence explains why the term “alternative” shouldn’t be taken literally these days.

If you had asked me what “alternative rock” was back in the late 80s or early 90s, I would have said, “It’s the stuff MTV plays during 120 Minutes as opposed to what they play the rest of the time.”

To echo what others have said, in the early '90s “alternative rock” loosely meant “contemporary rock music that isn’t heavy metal”. In the '80s and very early '90s the term also suggested that the band maybe wasn’t on a major label, or got airplay on college radio stations but not the mainstream rock stations, but by about 1992 this was no longer the case.

I think a lot of people now remember '90s alt rock and being the same thing as grunge, but grunge was a subset of alt rock. Lots of non-grunge bands were also considered “alternative”, including many that predated the grunge scene like REM and Sonic Youth. Additionally, when the “Seattle sound” bands first started to achieve mainstream popularity, these acts were sometimes grouped in with heavy metal. I believe all the major grunge bands appeared on both MTV’s heavy metal program “Headbanger’s Ball” and their alt rock program “120 Minutes”.

Yeah in a lot of ways, grunge wasn’t that far from hair metal. It was like hair metal fans were taking baby steps away from the metal scene and toward alternative. :wink:

One of the distinguishing features of the Seattle sound, and now that I think of it probably one of the main reasons that whole scene exploded the way it did, was that these were rock bands that were influenced by both punk/post-punk alt rock AND heavy metal.

I was too young in the '80s to notice or care, but it’s my understanding that at the time many rock bands and their fans aligned themselves with either punk or metal – and that each camp thought the other generally sucked. But, based on interviews I’ve read/heard with some of the original grunge musicians, Seattle was at the time enough of a backwater that they didn’t even realize it wasn’t cool for someone who liked The Clash to also listen to Black Sabbath (or vice versa). So grunge wasn’t so much heavy metal moving towards alt rock as it was a sort of “you got chocolate in my peanut butter!” hybrid created by people who didn’t know or didn’t care that you weren’t “supposed” to mix the two.

See for instance this early Pearl Jam interview from MTV (about 1:20 to 2:15), where guitarist Stone Gossard lists Led Zeppelin and Elton John as some of his early musical influences, Eddie Vedder interjects that he was more into The Ramones (producing major eye rolls from his bandmate), and then they both talk about Gary Wright’s 1976 hit “Dreamweaver” for a while.

rock music i can fall asleep to