Defining Moments

Some of the local bands drawing raves and followings: Load, Jack Off Jill, Black Janet, Holy Terrors, Dore Soul, Collapsing Lungs, Snatch the Pebble, Drive Choir, Quit, Timescape Zero, and, of course, Marilyn Manson. You may have caught wind of a recent concert that drew 12,000 to Bayfront Park with the tease "MTV Alternative Nation Tour" (featuring Spin Doctors, Soul Asylum, and Screaming Trees). Seattle grunge (a cliche already), Georgia melodic, Tampa death metal -- name a place and you name an alternative. Fine.

But what about that term? Can we categorize a category? Should we break it down to subelements? The Lemonheads's Evan Dando recently explained his band's music to Details magazine: "I hope it appeals to people who wouldn't normally listen to whatever fuckin' alternative rock is."

Right, then. So what is it? We asked some people we thought might know.
Tom Bowker (Smoke Dog drummer and concert promoter): "It's become what it's supposed to be the opposite of: bad Seventies music. Alternative means bad Seventies rock regenerated by bands like Pearl Jam, Alice in Chains, and Stone Temple Pilots, and bad disco, like New Order."

Jim Wurster (of Black Janet): "It's a hard thing to describe. I don't even know what our band is. We're an alternative to Whitney Houston and Michael Bolton -- what's not in the Billboard Top 100."

Keith Schantz (band manager): "Alternative music is Elvis covered reggae style."

Glenn Richards (WSHE-FM DJ): "Whatever is not in the mainstream. It's a tough term to define because it's been so watered down over the past few years that it doesn't mean what it used to mean. Now it's just a blanket expression for 'progressive' or whatever you want to call it. Stuff that was deemed alternative wasn't in the mainstream. Now it is, so what do you do? 'Postmodern' was tried for a while, but it died out. Everybody seems to have settled on 'alternative.' Once alternative bands make it to the mainstream, they shouldn't be booted out of the club. Pearl Jam has four A.O.R. hits."

Jeff Sadowsky (record producer): "Good music that's not getting played in the mainstream."

Carey Peak (of Dore Soul): "While you're on the subject, what's 'progressive'? I've always told people that in my opinion, if you take the word 'music' off, then what does the word 'alternative' mean? It means something other than the usual. It's a funny way to think about it, but Poison would be alternative now, because you can't hear it now. That glam-pop-metal isn't around any more; it's become obscure, so it's alternative. Technically, during the Eighties, disco was an alternative music."

Rich Ulloa and Tracey Burger (of Yesterday & Today): "Alternative is supposed to mean cutting edge. At this stage of the technological, media-controlled world, cutting edge no longer exists. As soon as something is heard by the mainstream, it is synthesized and bastardized and ceases to be alternative, instead becoming pop. There is no alternative."

Todd Anthony (professional music critic): "The Cars. The Go-Gos. A Flock of Seagulls. Cutting edge stuff like that. I know it when I hear it. If the word ever had any meaning, it's gone now. Hell, Ron and Ron shill for the Genitorturers, American Music Club gets splashy write-ups in the mainstream rock press, and Scraping Teeth made it into Spin magazine. Still, there is hope. On a recent Monday night at Washington Square I watched a guy they call Seven create abstract art by dipping his head into buckets of paint and splashing the pigment onto a canvas with his beyond-shoulder-length hair. He was accompanied by Rat Bastard on guitar and Zac on tom-tom, both of whom were wrapped head-to-toe in white plastic splatter-protection gear. They looked like either giant condoms or actors in a cheap sci-fi movie. When Seven was satisfied with his painting (or too dizzy to continue), he sat on a stool and Diane Ward, also plastic-wrapped, walked up behind him, pulled his hair into a ponytail, and lopped it off. I would not consider that mainstream. Another Monday night a drag queen got on-stage in the middle of Rat's set and sang 'Brass in Pocket' over Rat's droning accompaniment, which sounded more like Ravi Shankar than the Pretenders. I could be persuaded to call that alternative."

Jason Gordon (program director for WVUM-FM): "I would think it is music that is outside the commercial realm A that you're not going to hear on a mainstream radio station. It's usually aimed at the 14-to-24 age group. Although some older people do enjoy alternative music, the number of alternative artists able to break through to older listeners is much lower than the number of commercial artists that can reach a younger group. Alternative? You'll find it on a college-radio station."

Rob Coe (of Cell 63): "It's kind of hard to explain because I always felt like there was no difference. Radio stopped looking for new artists somewhere in the Seventies. That's part of it."

Doc Wiley (music director for Washington Square): "I think it's any combination of pop music to form something not able to be categorized. That's the definition I usually go by. When I was in Watchdog with Dennis [Britt], we thought of it as whatever was a 'fuck-you' to the A&R people. If they can't say you sound like 'blank,' then it's usually alternative."

Bob Slade (band manager and WLRN-FM DJ): "Alternative music is the mainstream. It's just a catch-all phrase that's pure business -- it's money. Look at Soul Asylum/Screaming Trees/Spin Doctors at Bayfront. It was sponsored by MTV and the turnout for that was tremendous. Just like the Seventies when we had the term 'progressive' and Yes was considered progressive even though they had stacks of gold records. Alternative is a cash cow and the term 'alternative' is just a catch-all for the new pop. It's an industry term. Period."

Mike Eiseman (band manager): "These days it could give someone an involuntary lobotomy, because 'alternative' used to be understood as music other than mainstream. Now, with the suck-cess of bands like Pearl Jam, Nirvana, the Chili Peppers, et cetera, alternative music has become the mainstream. It's an obsolete term, ancient and choking on its own bile. Maybe we should look in the thesaurus for a new term, like 'selective music' or 'replacement music' (well, that also would be great if all music was by the Replacements, but they broke up). I say, 'Hey, you trendy alternative fuck with your plaid shirt and army boots, I listen to selective music, not that alternative crap.' We all want to be the first on the block to be different."

Ben Greenman (professional music critic): "As long as bands keep making new sounds from old scraps, these categories are just false teeth. You say the Chills, the Sugarcubes, and Fishbone, I say the Buck Pets, A.R. Kane, and Kinky Friedman. Can't we all just get along?"

Mia Johnson (assistant music director of "Alternative Tuesdays" at the Stephen Talkhouse): "I guess I would define it as music that defies classification. It's what you can't categorize."

Clearly, then, what we need is an alternative to "alternative." Any suggestions?

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Greg Baker