While alternative music has proven to be a wildly popular and enduring art form over the last 28 years, alternative bands who built their sound around challenging and experimental musical forms were once anything but mainstream success stories. Here are just a few ways that alternative music has changed the way that we listen to rock and pop, and why its influence will likely be felt for generations to come.
The 1980s and the Commercialization of Rock Music
Throughout the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s, rock music was synonymous with the ethos of countercultural ideology: From Elvis Presley to The Beatles to The Who, rock musicians rejected the values of previous generations in order to create new and exciting musical forms. By the 1980s, however, major labels became little more than risk-averse marketing arms of huge corporations, and in order to make label shareholders rich, popular rock music had to consistently appeal to huge marketing demographics.
The profit motive of major record labels slowly but surely changed the career arcs of many top musical acts: Bands who wanted to get ahead in the music industry no longer dressed or spoke like Frank Zappa or Jimmy Page; hoping that glamor and beauty would translate into profitability, major labels began insisting that musicians dress and behave like fashion models rather than bohemian artists. Bands desperate to build a career in the music industry were only too happy to acquiesce to demands made by their labels, and a once-vibrant art form quickly began to stagnate.
A Musical Revolution Forms in the Shadows
To reach the top of the charts, musicians in the 1980s had to create slick and stylish music videos for MTV, and the airwaves became saturated with musical acts who emphasized style and chart success over substance and experimentation. The age of concept albums like “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” and “The Dark Side of the Moon” was effectively over; labels wanted chart-friendly singles and snappy music videos rather than long-form artistic masterpieces, and bands who didn’t walk the corporate line soon found themselves without label support or financing.
In reaction to the slick, corporate sound of 1980s rock music, however, independent record labels became a driving force in providing “alternative” music to diehard music aficionados, many of whom grew up listening to the heady sounds of their baby boomer parents’ record collections. Instead of using MTV to reach their audiences, independent labels used college radio stations to introduce a new generation of listeners to acts like REM, Dinosaur Jr, and The Pixies. Through this “alternative” form of rock music, created in large part as a counterbalance to the shallow corporate rock and pop of its day, the early promise of rock music as a countercultural force had finally come full circle from its golden age in the 1960s and 1970s.
The 1990s: Alternative Rock Goes Mainstream
The sounds promulgated by college rock acts like REM and The Pixies were soon adopted by a young band from a rural Washington State called Nirvana, who would go on to redefine rock music as a cultural force in the 1990s. Backed by Geffen Records on their major label debut “Nevermind” in 1991, Nirvana stormed the charts by combining the raw and unfettered sound of Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin with the melodic sensibilities of The Beatles and The Beach Boys.
To a seasoned music fan who didn’t know any better, Nirvana would have appeared to be a band from the 1960s in all but age. Seemingly overnight, the band obliterated the viability of 1980s corporate rock as a chart-topping force; in the wake of Nirvana, bands stopped dressing like hair-sprayed mannequins and started running their guitars through distortion pedals and Marshall amplifier stacks. The music industry saw that rock was headed in a new direction, and bands like Pearl Jam and Stone Temple Pilots soon joined Nirvana as staples of MTV programming playlists the world over.
In a post-Nirvana world, rock music has been irrevocably changed as a popular art form. Indeed, if alternative musicians like Kurt Cobain had not upended notions about the commercial viability of unorthodox rock music in the 1990s, the musical landscape that we know today would likely be a vastly different and far less interesting place. For rock fans, Nirvana may just be the band who saved music from itself; for that, all music fans should be eternally grateful.