Culture Club 5
An Alternative History of Alternative Rock, 1990-1999.
The Future's Mine
In 1991, most people believed that music was in decline, youth culture was dead, and that rock's glory days were long gone. But Jesus Jones singer Mike Edwards hated sixties nostalgia the way the Sex Pistols hated the Queen. "Right here, right now", he sang, "there is no other place I'd rather be".
The good thing about signing to a major record label was that you got paid - you could finally fix the tour van and buy yourself some socks. The worst thing about it was having the indie crowd look down their noses at you. "So we sold out" said Sonic Youth's Thurston Moore in 1990. "Big deal!"
The Taboo on the Tattooed
1990: the American top 40 is crammed with talentless pop puppets and lousy corporate rock clones, while great alternative bands like The Pixies, Hole, L7, Nine Inch Nails and The Butthole Surfers languish in obscurity. "Can anything be done about it?" asked MTV's Kurt Loder. "Yeah" replied Janes Addiction singer Perry Farrell, "I'm doin' something."
The Distribution Thing
The world of corporate rock held considerable shocks in store for alternative bands in the 90s. "It's a little bit of a slap in the face", explained Faith no More's Mike Patton in 1992, "we're supposed to be creating, and here we were playing songs over and over." Who would have thought playing rock and roll could be so boring?
Britain Coming Back
"Does it annoy you that you're a heartthrob?" This was a Grunge question in a Britpop world, a question that assumed rock singers were lonely outsiders whose precious solitude was threatened by the brutality of the mass-market. Blur singer Damon Albarn wasn't having it. "It's not the sort of thing you get annoyed about really, is it?" he said, with a cheeky smile.
The Future of Rock and Roll
In the eighties, people started rock bands because they wanted to be rich and famous. In the nineties, they did it because they had been disenfranchised by mainstream media and male, white, corporate oppression. "Get some guitars!" Courtney Love told the women of the world in 1994. "Empower yourselves!"
A Fresh Smell
For Kurt Cobain, 'Teen Spirit' had been code for revolution — it stood for idealism undefiled by adult compromise. For Blink 182, it meant fun uncomplicated by ideals. Bands with 'messages and purposes', said the band's Mark Hoppus, 'just get too preachy and they don't concentrate on writing good songs'.
None of Our Business
When Alternative bands dreamed of reaching a 'wider audience', they usually imagined stadiums full of people like the ones who come to their shows in clubs and bars. But this, as Nirvana discovered in 1992, is not exactly how it works.
Room to be Real
"We're just going to be ourselves" said the Smashing Pumpkins Billy Corgan. Well, being yourself for a job sounds alright. You can play long guitar solos, write poems and express your feelings and nobody can tell you to stop. But what happens on those days when you don't feel like expressing your feelings?
Modern Life is Rubbish
In 1993, it seemed there was no way to talk about new music without talking about old music. Green Day were the new Buzzcocks, Janes Addiction was Led Zeppelin, Elastica was Wire, and when Suede's Brett Anderson wasn't being compared to Morrissey or Bowie, he was being asked how it felt to always be compared to Morrissey or Bowie. Anderson accepted all this as the price to be paid for playing rock and roll in a postmodern world. "It's very much a symptom of the 1990s" he explained. "Everything is very reflective".
Unique and Indvidual
Back in the 1940s, intellectuals used to grumble about how popular culture was a form of fascism because it destroyed people's critical awareness and turned them all into mindless consumer robots. But those old German guys never got to hear No Doubt, Beck or L7, who seemed to have pulled off the neat trick of using mass culture to destroy mass thinking. "I think the trend right now is to be unique and individual", explained Jennifer Finch.
For years, bands and fans alike dreamed of a perfect union of rap and heavy metal. But early pioneers like Run DMC, Faith No More and Rage Against the Machine made the mistake of assuming all you had to do was add metal guitars to hip hop beats. It took late-90s bands like Limp Bizkit and Korn to add the missing third ingredient: therapy culture. "Every human being has problems" explained Jonathan Davis. "I just choose to deal with the dark things in my life in music".
Alternative music was over once everyone started to like it, but in 1992, only Courtney Love had seen it coming. "If the charts were just and fair and The Pixies and Hole were the most popular bands, I'd probably start listening to Poison!" Sure enough, in 1999, she played Guns n Roses 'Sweet Child of Mine' during a co-host segment on triple j, and admitted that she regretted the disappearance of hair metal. "There's something about it that we're missing."
The alternative history of the alternative history.