I Am My Own Scene
Individualism in the Alternative Nation
On a warm spring night in May 1996, Gwen Stefani was driving toward her home in Orange County from a meeting in Los Angeles. She’d drunk a cup of coffee to keep herself awake, which had given her a pressing need to use the bathroom by the time she reached Artesia. Stefani pulled into a gas station, ran in, relieved herself, and made to get back in her car when she was stopped by a guy in a Metallica T-shirt. ‘Hey,’ he said. ‘Aren’t you that chick ... ?’ Stefani, whose band No Doubt had an album in the Billboard Top Ten and two videos in high rotation on MTV, was getting used to this kind of thing. She acknowledged that she was, indeed, that chick. ‘You know,’ said the man, as she signed an autograph for him, ‘I don’t really like that “Spiderwebs” song. But I really like that other one, the one that’s in the Top 20.’
‘Spiderwebs’ was No Doubt’s new single — an up-tempo pop song that, like much of the band’s material, showed the influence of the British ska groups Stefani had loved as a teenager. The other song, the one the guy liked, was ‘Don’t Speak’, a magnificent ballad written about the end of Stefani’s relationship with No Doubt bassist Tony Kanal, which had already spent six weeks at number one in the US charts. ‘Wow, thanks!’ said Stefani, as she hopped back in her car and continued her journey home. The next day, she talked to her manager, who told her that a friend of his had called him that morning and asked if she might really have seen Gwen Stefani running into a gas station in Artesia at ten o’clock at night. ‘You know,’ she exclaimed, telling the story a week later, ‘like someone knew that I went to the bathroom at some gas station!’ Stefani laughed, and hung her head slightly. ‘That’s when I realised,’ she said, ‘that I was really famous.’
￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼No Doubt had formed in 1987, when Stefani and her brother Eric had met Kanal — a soul and funk fan — and introduced him to UK bands like Madness, the Specials and the Selecter. The group fused these formative influences with the sound of new bands they all liked, including Fishbone and the Red Hot Chili Peppers. They made contact with Flea, who helped them record a demo (which Stefani later described as ‘terrible’), and eventually signed to Interscope, which released the band’s self-titled debut in 1991. Unfortunately, No Doubt was buried under the avalanche of grunge, and the band had to wait another five years for the music world to come around to its particular way of thinking. When it did, it was with no small amount of relief. ‘I forgot — and after the onslaught of rock’s funereal last five years, who could blame me? — that groups could be fun,’ wrote Spin’s Jonathan Bernstein, ‘and if they were fun, that didn’t automatically make them pariahs or confidence tricksters.’ No Doubt’s 1995 single, ‘Just a Girl’, effected a perfect transition from the old alt rock to the new. The theme (women’s oppression at the hands of men) and the guitars (loud) would not be out of place on a Hole album. But the lilting ska beat was quite new, as was the band’s bright, cartoonish image.
Stefani’s distinctive look was an important part of the band’s appeal — and another case of No Doubt having waited five years to be in exactly the right place at the right time. Grunge fashion, like grunge music, had become a bore by 1995. Its palette was too limited, and its overall look too drab. In April 1994, Kim Gordon and stylist Daisy von Furth minted a fresh nineties look when they launched their fashion label X-Girl with a guerrilla-style catwalk show on the streets of New York’s Soho. X-Girl combined elements of preppy sportswear — polo shirts and tennis shoes — with a dash of hip-hop style to effect what Nathaniel Wice described at the time as ‘a stylistic clearing-of- the-decks after the mess of grunge’. Stefani, with her preference for tiny midriff tops worn with track pants and fur-lined parkas, had managed a similar turnabout from slack to sporty. Like Gordon, she wasn’t so much a designer as a thrift-store aficionado who’d got in the habit of mending and adjusting her clothes to suit her own particular tastes, and to avoid the possibility of another disaster like the one that took place at a 1995 show, when Stefani looked out into the crowd and ￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼discovered, to her horror, that there was a girl in the front row wearing the same off-the-rack dress as she was. ‘Fashion is an extension of your personality,’ she told Access Hollywood, ‘and I’ve always been crazy about having things no-one else has.’ Stefani caught herself slightly as she said this, screwing up her nose. ‘I don’t know why I think that’s so important. I guess being an individual is what fashion’s all about,’ she added, as she showed off the bright-green fur-lined bomber jacket she’d found on a recent trip to Japan. ‘You know, being an individual and trying not to be like everyone else.’
The alternative nation had, as Donita Sparks predicted in 1992, made being unique and individual popular — and more importantly, practical. To be a punk in a small town in the American south in 1985 was literally to put one’s life at risk. Ten years later, the same crazy hair dyes and piercings that the Butthole Surfers used to get beaten up for wearing were available at the shopping mall. For kids who felt different, and wanted to express their individuality, it was now as simple — as Ben Folds Five put it — as clicking one’s heels. Folds’ 1995 hit, ‘Underground’, was a joyous, piano-driven romp through this new alternative wonderland, a mini-musical that reminded the lunchroom loners of America that ‘there’s a place to go’. ‘Show me the mosh pit,’ sang Folds. ‘Hand me my nose-ring!’
But some worried that the point had been lost — that in their rush to express their difference from mainstream society, alternative music fans had ended up looking exactly like one another. ‘My name is Chip, and I’m different,’ sang Frank Black in 1995’s Teenager of the Year. ‘I don’t conform, I wear a different uniform.’ As he gazed out at the Lollapalooza-goers of 1995, Beck saw a homogenous sea of flannel, dotted with spots of colour chosen from the new range of Manic Panic hair dyes, available at all good drugstores. ‘It was inverted hegemony,’ he complained. ‘Everyone was trying so hard to be different, but they all ended up looking the same.’ Artists like Beck and Frank Black asserted a genuine non-conformism against the mass non-conformity of the alternative nation. ‘How has the scene changed since you were playing with the Pixies?’ asked a TV interviewer. ‘Well,’ replied Black, idly strumming his guitar and staring into the distance behind his beatnik shades, ‘I am my own scene — so it’s basically just me and ￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼my guitar.’ Beck, too, rejected the idea that he was part of any kind of alternative trend. ‘Labels? Slap, ’em on,’ he said. ‘They’ll fall off if the breeze is blowin’ hard enough.’
‘I used to at least feel comfortable with my place as an outsider,’ mused the grouchy protagonist of Daniel Clowes’s comic book series Eightball. ‘But now everybody seems to be an outsider. How can I like something when creeps like this also like it?’ To place oneself outside of these bogus outsiders, to be truly unique, free of labels, in a scene of one’s own — this became the new ideal in 1995, and advertisers quickly caught on. To the girl who complained, in a letter to Spin, that ‘alternativeness being a fashion show’ was the ‘trend that should die in 1996’, the makers of Simple shoes could offer a simple solution, ‘a clean, trendless alternative, without all the usual fashion problems’. ‘If you’re searching for meaning or just avoiding fashion trends,’ read the company’s press ads, ‘you need to: 1. Avoid the common path; 2. Counter peer pressure; 3. Project classic design sense.’ Advertising to a jaded demographic, eternally suspicious of trends and hypes, involved new challenges for marketers. Gen X consumers, as one exec put it, ‘have a much more cynical outlook — you got to hit them with a little more irreverence for the system’.
In an essay on Gen-X philosophy published in an online bulletin board, Mark Saltveit claimed that ‘boomers always look to their peer groups for identity and direction. When faced with a trend, slackers are more likely to shrug and dismiss it with one word: “whatever”.’ But the needs of the alternative nation were, fundamentally, not so different from those of their parents. In reality, X-ers combined a desire to express their individuality in a homogenised world with a longing to belong. Individuality was important enough to Gwen Stefani for her to have devoted an entire song to it on Tragic Kingdom. In ‘Different People’ Stefani reflected that the only way for her to cope with the sheer size of the planet and the number of people on it was to remind herself that no two of those people were alike, that they all had different thoughts and different ways of expressing them — herself included. ‘Look at me,’ she sang, ‘I’m my own person.’But the happy chorus of Ben Folds’ ‘Underground’ spoke of the secret wish at the heart of alternative music and fashion, that the lonely and disaffected ￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼might find salvation in community, a community defined by shared tastes. This wish was all the more powerful for the fact that it could not be admitted, as MTV’s marketing strategists knew all too well. The network flattered its viewers by telling them that they were all very special individuals, but its trade advertising told a different story. ‘Buy this 24-year-old and get all his friends absolutely free,’ read the copy of an ad the network placed in Advertising Age in 1993. ‘He heads up a pack. What he eats, his friends eat. What he wears, they wear. And he’s never heard of ... well, you get the idea.’