By Jacob Katel
By Laurie Charles
By Nate "Igor" Smith
By Abel Folgar
By Kat Bein
By Jacob Katel
Neither group is what you'd consider a rock band, but maybe that doesn't matter. Like a rising tide, Nirvana didn't just carry Superchunk and Dinosaur Jr. over the ramparts, they cleared the way for acts like They Might Be Giants and the Dead Milkmen. While media could only really conceive of flannel and Seattle, the alt-rock underground was — like that of their early-'80s predecessors — broad and diverse.
Yet there is no denying that the ready availability of music has changed how people consume it.
"You're coming out of something that was a little more of a whisper on the wind, and now you can find out all the information on your favorite artist," says Craig Finn (the Hold Steady, Lifter Puller). "Now kids are, like, 'I'm getting into Dylan,' and suddenly they know it all in three weeks. It took me until I was 28 to get to The Band, because I started with punk and there just wasn't enough time in the day [to work my way back]."
The increasing irrelevance of radio among young people and the wide availability of music has sort of collapsed time. Established artists note how much young fans are as drawn to older songs and deep album cuts as they are to the artists' newest music. Thanks to the Internet, an artist's back catalog is nearly as relevant as the current release.
Some feel this smorgasbord complicates the emergence of another Nirvana. For a movement to gain steam, it needs to reach critical mass. People's tastes may just be too broad, and the available options too many for people to fully buy in.
"The way everything works today — media and instant everything — there are too many distractions for one thing to solidify. It's not out of the question, of course, but it's that people listen to one song and move on to something else," Wurster says. "Kids are bombarded with so much that it's hard for anything to really get entrenched enough to form a movement."
We've had plenty of trends. When will we have something that sticks, something transformative? The underground's ripe for it, like a Manhattan-size island of misfit toys. The Internet's cleared away the middle men, and the rigors of the road have hardened skins and sharpened wits. The success of Bon Iver, a Wisconsin-based band that sold 104,000 copies of its most recent album in its first week of release in the United States, shows that people will go for even relatively unknown acts without big-label budgets.
"I doubt, at least in the beginning, [Bon Iver] got a very different push from the label," Finn says. "What happened is people reacted. They heard that record, it made them feel something, and they sort of voted with their attention/dollars/whatever."
Given the viral intensity of mass communications these days, what's to prevent an even more virulent contagion than Bon Iver from cutting through the culture? Who wouldn't thrill to experience something like Elvis, the Beatles, or the Clash in real time, as opposed to reliving it on documentaries and YouTube videos?
We're just waiting on someone to lead the charge. Someone will take the reins. It's almost inevitable. Someone with enough charisma and savvy not to wilt beneath the hot media glare. Isn't that what part of what makes them Mick Jagger or David Bowie?
"It's the thing inside the people. It's the same thing as Elvis. It's want, drive, desire, and power. That's all it comes down to. The cream does rise to the top," says Greg Dulli (Afghan Whigs, Twilight Singers). "Phenomena happen. Look at Frank Ocean, a perfect example of someone who basically got dropped by his label, put out his own record. Gave it away for free on Tumblr, and next thing he knows, he's playing Coachella. There's always that dude who gets around it and redefines it thusly. That will never stop."
Nor will rock. It will forever be a place kids go to find identity, sow some rebellion, and just celebrate the fine art of living. Guitars and loud, boisterous music always will have a home in kids' hearts, even when the media and money men are indifferent.
"A lot of people say [guitar-based rock] sort of comes and goes, but for people like me and my friends, it never really went away," says Paul Saunier of noisy rock duo PS I Love You. "The mainstream notices it sometimes, and then they don't... For me, releasing albums was a fun thing I've always wanted to do, and now I do it. It's almost more about me."
These communities never truly disappear. As it does with any club, membership fluctuates. But underground rock persists because it offers something we will always crave: a sense of belonging. (Even/especially for the outcasts.) At a time when all of us are struggling financially, those uniting threads are stretched that much tighter. (Also like 20 years ago: Remember "it's the economy, stupid"?)