My Year in Lists: Interlude
Answers on Alternative Music

My Year in Lists chronicles one blogger's quest to understand why music matters to us and what makes it a lasting aspect of our existence. To facilitate this examination, three music fans have contributed a list of 52 essential albums. Each week this year, one album off of each list will be analyzed in an attempt to understand why some music sticks with us and what it means for our lives.

My Year in Lists: Interlude is an intermittent addendum to the feature that takes a step back from the quest to examine music from other perspectives

Before My Year in Lists began in January, I asked each of my three contributors to provide an introduction to their list, to explain how they went about selecting the 52 (or in Tab's case, many more than 52) albums they were telling me to listen to and to discuss their musical background as a way of providing context. This was before I had listened to a single track for the quest, and as such, my understanding of music and the potential controversies that could arise in the use of genre terms was minimal (or at least far less than it is now, and more on this on Friday when we reach Week Twenty Six).

In her introduction to her list, Ashley defined her criteria as such: "I settled on the loosely constructed theme of '20 Years of Alternative.' ["¦] I chose to exclude more mainstream rock (there's no Bowie or U2 here) since I wanted to focus on alternative as a loosely constructed movement." This seemed like a perfectly valid list construction strategy to me, but when I received Tab's introduction, it seemed a controversy of terms I had never been aware of existed. In it, he said, "I also don't like to use terms such as Alternative Music because to paraphrase Claude Bessey in The Decline of Western Civilization ["¦] Alternative Music doesn't mean shit. ["¦] I loathe the term Alternative Music because it implies that Classic Rock is still relevant and that modern music, or really any other music is still inferior to Classic Rock. It's a label created and used by Classic Rock Stakeholders, primarily consisting of the music industry and mass music media. Labels allow for categorization and are a great vehicle for controlling the music markets and artistic freedom."

As I read both of these introductions, I realized there was a paradox that I was not nearly ready to address. I saw both arguments as valid to a point; Ashley was looking at alternative as a loosely constructed movement, while Tab didn't like the term because it suggested that any music that wasn't mainstream was somehow inferior. I thought (and still think) those are both valid viewpoints, but I was in no way ready to stake out my territory in the debate. In fact, five minutes before I read their introductions, I hadn't even been aware that such a debate existed. My reticence to take sides while I was still relatively ignorant is palpable in the early weeks of this feature. I consciously put the term alternative in quotation marks or included a parenthetical aside (you may have noticed I like those a lot) about how I wasn't sure that the term was accurate or fair. I usually followed up that point by saying I would get to the debate and hash out my thoughts eventually, once I felt I had enough authority to comment on the issue without talking out of my ass. In a few days we will have reached the halfway point of this feature, so now seems like as good a time as ever.

That I'm tackling this question now by no means indicates that I feel I have the authority to answer the question, but I have enough confidence in my understanding of the points both sides make to at least enter the debate. The answer I will lay out is not a definitive one, nor is it final. This is just a picture of my feelings on the issue now, at the halfway point of the feature after having listened to 26 weeks of Ashley's "20 Years of Alternative" list and 26 weeks of Tab's list, and having thought about the issue for long enough to at least lay down my thoughts.

So here, in brief, is how I see it: The term Alternative Music is a valid one, at least to a point. I agree with Tab's implicit point that the term begs the question "alternative to what?" and that the answer to that should be troubling. If anything that isn't classic rock or mainstream pop is considered alternative, that infers that what the most people are listening to is the best just because they're listening to it, or that it is the primary choice and that everything else is somehow weird or inferior. And I don't like that.

But here's the thing: that's the way the music business, and more broadly, the world, works. What the most people like is bound to make the most money, is bound to have the most money put into it and is bound to be seen as the most important by a broad swath of our society. It's just a numbers game. And to an extent that's a persuasive argument. The culture that the most people experience has to gain at least some importance because of that, and has to have some effect on culture at large. This in no way means that the most popular art is the best art (in fact that is rarely, or at least not usually the case, and I tend to make a big deal about it when something great is incredibly popular, like I did last week when discussing Purple Rain), but it will have an effect on the culture at large, even if its only in reaction.

I have previously discussed the way that punk rock emerged as an alternative to the shitty rock and roll being produced at the time, like Boston and Fleetwood Mac, and this sentence in and of itself implies which I think is the better art. I think that punk rock is far superior creatively and artistically to late-"˜70s mainstream rock, but there's no question that it exists as an alternative to what was going on in the mainstream. In fact, that's the whole fucking point of punk rock. A bunch of people who hated the direction music was taking decided to make music that was antithetical to what was being done, and punk rock was formed.

It's strange, then, that punk rock has rarely been lumped into the "alternative rock" category, usually instead viewed on its own. I think this is because punk rock is so singular (and often similar), and so can easily be identified. Basically, I see punk rock as a subgenre of a larger "alternative rock" that is so clearly demarcated and easily defined it has graduated into a genre in and of itself.

Yet this is difficult to do with what followed. After the demise of punk, a schism occurred. At first, it was easy to delineate the movements. There was new wave and there was hardcore, and most bands outside the mainstream began to fit into one of those two categories whether or not they deserved the label. That system survived for a few years, but then bands came along that were harder to classify. What, for example, do you call REM? What about The Replacements after their nascent punk phase? How do you classify Tom Waits or Sonic Youth? There are genres that each of these bands fit into, but for the most part they are too small or specific to create a label for them that can be communicated to mass audiences (look at the genres Collin lists back in his introduction and you'll see what I mean. I have no doubt that the 36 genres he specifically cites all exist and can be defined and delineated, but when your average consumer walks into a music store, or searches on itunes, they are unlikely to know what "trance," "acid jazz" or "glitch-hop" are, or whether they want to listen to it). So the term "Alternative Music" was created, and everything that wasn't in the mainstream was thrown in there (I recognize that this is less helpful, but keep in mind it is more marketable, and that's a crucial detail).

I don't think the ghettoization of all music that deviates from the mainstream is fair, but I do see how it makes practical sense. There are more niches in music than in any other medium, or at least there are more claims to absurdly specific genres in music than in other mediums. Yet this problem crops up everywhere. Every show not on a major network is still referred to as a "cable television show," despite the fact that this encompasses literally hundreds of channels and thousands of shows as diverse as Top Chef, Archer, Mad Men and Burn Notice (which, beyond being defined as "Cable television shows" are also shoehorned into the broad yet restrictive genres of reality television, comedy, and drama respectively). If a movie isn't going to be released in every theater (or even if it won't be released in every theater at once) it is viewed as an "independent film" even though most films classified as such are actually produced by subdivisions of the big studios. And if a movie comes from another country (ANY OTHER COUNTRY) it is referred to as simply a "foreign film," despite the fact that there are over 200 countries this definition includes (and even if we sort more specifically than that, its usually only by country, not even by genres within that country).

None of this is particularly fair, but it's the classification system that we currently live in. As our culture schisms more and more, this will be less the case, and all of those absurdly specific subgenres may yet get their day in the sun. For now, though, only the most broadly applied (and, sadly, the most popular) genres can break out of the "alternative" mold. Punk rock is known, as is grunge, which we have been looking at for the past few weeks on Ashley's list. But grunge, in its prime, was popular music, and for a while there, Pearl Jam (who we'll be discussing Friday) was the biggest band in the world. Most of what is classified as "alternative," though, is catalogued that way because it truly is alternative to what most people are listening to. Even if we would like to see a more specific genre than that applied to a specific piece of music, it is hard to argue that the term, as its generally applied, is accurate.

And it shouldn't necessarily be seen as a term marking out the inferior or ghettoizing music that doesn't conform to norms. In fact, considering the terribly reviewed Cars 2 is the #1 movie in America (and next week it will almost certainly be the sure-to-be-dreadful Transformers: Dark of the Moon), Two and a Half Men has been the one of the most popular shows on television for a decade, and Lady Gaga's generally seen as inferior sophomore effort Born This Way has been the #1 album in America for two of the last four weeks, being labeled "alternative" can almost be seen as a badge of pride.

To return to the statement I made roughly 1,000 words ago (as usual, this is longer than I had intended) I think the term alternative is valid to a point. I think it helps us to put music in context, and it helps pop culture sheep to easily avoid anything that might challenge their preconceived notions or deviate from what they are used to. I wish that narrower terms to define music would become more mainstream, and I try when possible to indicate the subgenres of albums when I discuss them in the regular feature. For now though, I believe that Ashley's theme of "20 Years of Alternative" is not only valid, but an accurate portrayal of all of the albums on her list I have heard so far, even if a more specific term might occasionally be required. And I agree with Tab, in part, that the term is generally a marketing one that serves to control music markets and, in some cases, artistic freedom (though the existence of alternative music at all indicates that true artistic freedom is hard to squelch). But I have to part ways with him when he says, "alternative music doesn't mean shit." In fact, I think the term is incredibly important, both to contextualize music and to package it for sale to an audience that wouldn't even attempt to understand further subdivisions. Rather than hurting the artists in question, I think the label can help some bands get more mainstream recognition than they otherwise might. For some bands the term may be a limitation, but for others, it means literally everything.

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