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Alternative rock just isn't so alternative anymore

<h6>“Concert” by Desi Mendoza / <a href="https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Concert(byDesiMendoza).JPG" target="_self">CC0 1.0</a></h6>
“Concert” by Desi Mendoza / CC0 1.0

I know I sound like your grouchy, out-of-touch dad when I say this, but I swear that music just isn’t that good these days. That’s not to say that today’s music is bad, but that it’s just nothing special — at least, in the world of alternative rock, where I generally reside.

Unfortunately, the ‘alternative’ rock of today’s top artists is just not particularly alternative. The idea of alt-rock is to generate a sound that is different to other mainstream artists. That is the opposite of the case in today’s music. In the ’60s and ’70s, alt-rock was an entirely experimental genre, with artists like David Bowie, Pink Floyd, and the Velvet Underground. Bowie became a cultural icon for his wildly bold androgynous style, Pink Floyd essentially created the genre of prog rock, and the Velvet Underground were so ahead of their age that they were unpopular at the time but became the favorite band of every ’90s artist. 

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The genre only expanded from there, becoming an amorphous blob that spread from the edges of electronic dance music to heavy grunge. On one end of the spectrum, Talking Heads and other new-wave ’80s bands introduced a new techno sound that utilized synthesizers and keyboards on top of the usual electric guitar focus. On the other hand, alt-rock spread in a more metal-influenced direction to create the fuzzy, angsty grunge sound of, most popularly, Nirvana. Later artists like Beck and the Gorillaz took influence from both of those sides of alt-rock and even dipped into funk, Latin music, and rap to form some of the most experimental, diverse discographies in music history. 

The experimentation of these bands embodied the spirit of alt-rock by generally using a rock beat for songs, but reaching as far away from traditional rock ‘n’ roll as possible. They didn’t care about selling albums or becoming famous, but rather about making the weirdest, most interesting tunes they could. Gorillaz even created an animated visual band to creatively distance the artist from the music. 

But now, moving into the 2020s, that range of alternative classification has dissipated, transitioning the genre from highly experimental to strictly bounded and aurally homogenous. The creativity of the genre has largely disappeared, and my interest in it has as well.

While writing this article, I am listening to Spotify’s “Alt NOW” playlist, meant to contain the most popular alt-rock songs at the moment. Number one is Portugal. The Man’s “What, Me Worry?” In this song, synth runs the show and other instruments are so produced that they sound electronic. The bass is heavy enough that the song could be played at a club and the unique vocals, though autotuned, add a flare to the basic instrumentation. The song walks a fine line between rock and electronic dance music. 

Did that description narrow it down for you? It shouldn’t have, because that exact line could describe almost every other song on the “Alt NOW” playlist, as well as most of the songs I have heard at parties or on the radio lately. I could have used that description to describe “Heat Waves,” by Glass Animals, a song that swept the alt-rock scene throughout the country in 2020, or many of the songs on Tame Impala’s 2020 album “The Slow Rush.” 

Even bands like Tame Impala, Twenty One Pilots, and the Gorillaz, who were known for their genre-transcending experimentation in the 2000s and 2010s, have been coerced into producing this sound, which is largely the effect of record labels having a tighter grip on the bands’ sounds. Tame released jams with edgy guitar, impressive drum beats, and a psychedelic synthesizer to complement Kevin Parker’s beautiful vocals in their first albums and EPs. Songs like “Half-Full Glass of Wine” (2008) and “Elephant” (2012) pushed the boundaries of alternative rock. Then, in 2013, the band signed with Interscope Records, a subset of Universal Music Group — the label for Justin Bieber, Taylor Swift, Billie Eilish, Drake, and almost every other popular artist of the 2020s. Consequently, their newest album, “The Slow Rush,” debuted at number three on the Billboard charts and is certainly one of the best albums in the new wave of alt-rock, but the instrumentation and production sounded largely like countless other songs on the current Alt NOW playlist. 

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If you need further evidence of increasing homogeneity in the genre, listen to “Half-Full Glass of Wine” by Tame Impala, “Dirty Harry” by the Gorillaz, and “Stressed Out” by Twenty One Pilots. These three songs from the 2000s could hardly be more different, stretching from hard rock to funkadelic rap.

Compare those to Tame’s “Lost In Yesterday,” Twenty One Pilots’ “Shy Away,” and Gorillaz’s “The Pink Phantom.” These three songs, released in the past two years, are still certainly unique in certain aspects like vocals, but you can’t tell me that they don’t all fit the description which I gave to “What, Me Worry?” and the Alt NOW playlist. There isn’t a shredding guitar solo or a funk-type beat anywhere in earshot. 

The shift has been unfortunate for fans of the alt-rock classics like myself. The world’s tastes have simply evolved from the raw instrumentation of the 20th century, substituting it for a more electronic sound in a more technologically advanced age. Computers and synthesizers now headline alternative music where electric and bass guitars used to reign supreme. In my personal opinion, the electronic sound distances the artist and their emotions from their music. A beat created mostly on a computer, no matter how emotionally charged and skillful, seems simply less personal than a guitar tone or bass lick created by mastery of the instrument. That personality of a song is what makes it unique. Yet folk fans had the same criticism for Bob Dylan, one of my favorite artists, when he switched to electric guitar and a full band, claiming that rock does not reflect peoples’ emotions as folk does, so I guess that could just be the natural progression of music. 

The sonic change also comes from a shift towards solo musicianship as opposed to a traditional band of four or five members like, say, the Beatles or Pink Floyd. As reported by Study Breaks, Maroon 5’s Adam Levine states that “It’s funny, when the first Maroon 5 album came out there were still other bands. I feel like there aren’t any bands anymore, you know? That’s the thing that makes me kind of sad.” I echo this sentiment from Levine, especially because it is much more difficult for a solo artist to master every instrument themselves than it is for a group, with one person specializing on each instrument. Solo artists, though extremely talented in most cases, often produce slightly less creative and proficient instrumentation than a full band would because it is just impossible for one person to play bass like Paul, guitar like George, drums like Ringo, and write lyrics like John.

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If you’re a fan of current rock or alternative music, you’re probably tired of my rant at this point, but just bear with me for one last take. The Grammy Awards show happened last weekend, in which the top albums from the rock and alternative genres were showcased, with no category for the subgenre of alt-rock. The alarming fact of the show was that old artists dominated the alternative and rock categories. The popular ’90s band Foo Fighters’ “Medicine at Midnight” won best rock album, with three-quarters of the other nominated albums produced by artists who started making music before 1990. Paul McCartney turns 80 in June and, according to the Academy, is still more of a rockstar than any new rock musician, with his album “McCartney III” getting a nomination. The only new band in the sea of old-heads is the psychedelic, soul based rock band Black Pumas, whose album “Capitol Cuts (Live from Capitol Studio A)” was the only one on the list by a contemporary rock band, the group having released their first album in 2019. In the alternative genre, St. Vincent’s album “Daddy’s Home” was awarded the golden gramophone. St. Vincent started creating music in 2000, and though other more contemporary artists were nominated, I find it ironic that a 39-year-old produced the best album in a genre traditionally dominated by young, experimental artists.

I consider myself a huge alt-rock fan, as one of the self-proclaimed largest fans of Pink Floyd and Gorillaz around the Princeton campus. But the alt-rock I have heard in the 2020s has just not struck me like those artists do, or struck any emotional chord in my chest like I get from, say, David Gilmour’s angelic guitar solo in “Dogs.” I just can’t really get behind the current sound, and it seems like very few artists in the alt-rock scene are branching out from it. 

Eric Fenno is a Contributing Writer for The Prospect and Sports at the ‘Prince.’ He can be reached at ef4960@princeton.edu and on Instagram or Twitter at @lil_e_rok.

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