What is Alternative?

What is ‘Alternative Music’?

At the suggestion of my bandmate Tony, I’ve decided to discuss just how it is that we’ve come to a point in the musical landscape where someone can win Grammys for both ‘Best Alternative Music Album’ and ‘Best Pop Duo/Group Performance’ for the same record.

Yes, I’m talking about Gotye.


I’ll admit to not being a fan of his work. ‘Somebody That I Used To Know’ is bland background music indebted to bad 80’s pop. Right, glad we got that out of the way.

So how do we define ‘alternative’ and ‘pop’?

In the truest and original senses of the words, ‘pop’ is short for ‘popular’. Popular Music, what the kids like, because they’ve been the biggest consumers of music since the advent of rock & roll in the 50’s.

‘Alternative’ is, well, an alternative to what is popular. In the early 90’s, the lines started to become blurred because bands that had been ‘alternative’ didn’t want to lose their ‘indie cred’ when they became popular, so they were marketed by their record labels as ‘alternative’ bands. Let’s face it, from the time ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ took off Nirvana were essentially a pop band. Cobain himself even admitted that. The style of music they played didn’t matter. What we called ‘alternative rock’ in the 90’s was actually just a subset of pop.

While the definition of “alternative” has been debated, the award was first presented in 1991 to recognize non-mainstream rock albums “heavily played on college radio stations”. According to the category description guide for the 52nd Grammy Awards, the award is presented to “vocal or instrumental alternative music albums containing at least 51% playing time of newly recorded music”, defining “alternative” as a “non-traditional” genre that exists “outside of the mainstream music consciousness”.

Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/ – Grammy_Award_for_Best_Alternative_Music_Album

“Heavily played on college radio stations”. Stations that cater to what the kids want to hear. The Grammys define ‘alternative’ completely differently to the truest sense of the word. If you want to think about this in an Australian context, college radio is most similar to community radio. Presenters choose their own content. It’s music played for mostly young people, by mostly young people. Forget Triple J, where the presenters have almost no say over the music that gets played.

So given the context that college radio in the States is similar to say, 4ZZZ, how is it that Gotye can win both ‘Best Alternative Music Album’ and ‘Best Pop Duo / Group Performance’ for the same record? A non-mainstream rock album heavily played on college radio, and a mainstream pop record? ‘Somebody That I Used To Know’ was actually number 1 in the 4ZZZ Hot 100 in 2011, nearly 2 years before it won a Grammy for ‘Best Pop Duo/Group Performance’, and as part of the album that won ‘Best Alternative Music Album’.

For argument’s sake, let’s assume (given that I can’t be bothered researching exact figures and dates) that ‘Somebody That I Used To Know’ was also played heavily on US college radio before it got picked up by mainstream radio in the states. The song starts out as an ‘alternative’ hit, and is then picked up by mainstream radio, propelling it into almost every home in the States. By the time the Grammy’s roll around, EVERYONE loves the song, and it’s now essentially eligible for both the ‘alternative’ and ‘pop’ categories.

Let’s look at the list of acts who have won the ‘Best Alternative Music Album’ category since its inception in 1991:

1991:  Sinead O’Connor
1992:  R.E.M.
1993:  Tom Waits
1994:  U2
1995:  Green Day
1996:  Nirvana
1997:  Beck
1998:  Radiohead
1999:  Beastie Boys
2000:  Beck
2001:  Radiohead
2002:  Coldplay
2003:  Coldplay
2004:  The White Stripes
2005:  Wilco
2006:  The White Stripes
2007:  Gnarls Barkley
2008:  The White Stripes
2009:  Radiohead
2010:  Phoenix
2011:  The Black Keys
2012:  Bon Iver
2013:  Gotye

With the exception of Phoenix, who I’m not familiar with (sorry Phoenix), I couldn’t class any of these bands as ‘alternative’ in the true sense of the word. All have been incredibly popular throughout the course of their careers, and most have enjoyed a large amount of airplay on mainstream radio. Granted, most of these acts have slogged it out early in their careers. I certainly don’t begrudge Gotye the success he’s seeing now, he’s paid his dues. Once upon a time his music could have been classed as ‘alternative’, since it wasn’t widely played, but once millions of people start buying your records, I’m sorry, you’re now a pop act. Most of these bands won ‘Best Alternative Music Album’ for their mainstream breakthrough records. Obvious exceptions are U2, R.E.M., Tom Waits, Nirvana and anyone who’s won it more than once.

So, what does the Grammy for ‘Best Alternative Music Album’ really mean? Maybe it should be renamed ‘Best Music Album By Formerly Alternative Act’? But where does U2 fit into that? They were huge already.
If you look at the list of winners of the ‘Best Alternative Music Album’ Grammy, ‘Alternative’ essentially means ‘hip’ (yes, even U2 were hip in their ‘Achtung Baby/Zooropa’ phase). Most of these artists could have been in the ‘pop’ category as well, since being nominated for a major awards ceremony by default means you’re popular enough to be well known, or mainstream. So ‘pop’ is what the kids like, and ‘alternative’ is what the hip kids like.
‘Best Popular Music Album That Has Indie Cred’ sounds like the most appropriate title for the award to me.

So kudos to Gotye for being a mainstream success and maintaining his indie cred.

That song’s still shit.

By Clint Morrow


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