Did Alternative Music Die in 1996?

There was a period from about 1990 through to 1995 where it seemed that every week brought a new song, a new band, a new sound and a new scene that demanded attention. If that was your coming-of-age period (GenX and to a lesser extent, GenY, I’m looking at you), you’ll know exactly what I’m talking about.

It was a full-scale sea change: out with hair metal and dinosaur and in with the hitherto unknown tribe of alternative and indie acts. Thanks to bands like Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Nine Inch Nails, the Red Hot Chili Peppers and hundreds of others, the Lollpalooza Generation–the Alternative Nation–took over. And it was great.

The party lasted a solid four years, not turning sour until Kurt Cobain announced his intentions not to participate any further with his suicide April 1994. You had the sense that something was ending, but so much momentum had built up that it was going to take a while for things to wind down.

On January 2, 1996, I was at the first show on the Smashing Pumpkins world tour for Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness. I couldn’t put my finger on it, but something was definitely off. Yeah, we were all suffering from the gloom that follows Christmas, but I couldn’t shake the sense that there was change in the air–and it wasn’t good.

By the middle of the year, things had swung from angry and intense alt-rock to pop. The Spice Girls were suddenly the biggest thing in the world. Alt-rock was old, yesterday’s music, watered down into a form that was barely recognizable to the people who bought tickets for Lollapalooza ’92. When it was announced that Metallica would headline that year’s tour, alt-rockers knew it was over.

This article from AV Club picks it up from there.

In the fall of 1996, Tom Hanks, hot off Forrest Gump and Apollo 13, cemented his role as America’s rose-colored glasses with That Thing You Do!, a directorial debut that looked at the music of the 1960s through the sanitized filter of a fictional pop band called The Wonders. Like the group’s titular hit single, That Thing You Do!floats in a strange, alternate version of the decade completely unmoored from the actual culture that defined it. It’s a world where seemingly no one’s worried about trying to compete with The Beatles, even though everyone’s trying very hard to sound like them.

That Thing You Do! takes place in 1964, but it just as easily could have been about the year it was released—a year similarly crowded with fun, forgettable music that may as well have been made by fictional characters, so fleeting was its impact. It’s a year when the biggest song in the world was Los Del Rio’s “Macarena,” proclaimed this century by VH1 to be the “greatest one-hit wonder of all time,” which dominated Billboard charts, FM radio, and the teachers’ portion of school talent shows for 14 straight, interminable weeks. In everywhere but America, its reign was challenged only by the Spice Girls’ “Wannabe,” a hit that heralded reclamation of the proudly commercial, pre-packaged pop that the rise of “alternative rock” had so briefly seemed to snuff out.

But 1996 was also the year that this so-called “alternative” music began to produce plenty of its own versions of The Wonders, playing equally disposable songs that sounded like facsimiles bleeding in from some alternate universe. The faux-graffitied writing had been on the wall for alternative rock’s attenuation into corporate-engineered dross since approximately two weeks after Kurt Cobain’s suicide, right around the time Live’s Throwing Copper was released. But as much fun as it would be to lasso the corpse to Ed Kowalczyk’s dumb ponytail braid, the truth is it was making its guttural death rattle for many months before Live’s album of melodramatic, faux-introspective anthems for the arena of one’s own ass. And 1996 was the year it finally growled its last.

In fact, you could fill an entire series of columns about the myriad post-grunge/ bubble-grunge/scrunge outliers who traded trying to sound like Aerosmith and U2 for mimicking Nirvana and Pearl Jam, and you’d still barely scratch the surface of just how watered down the genre had become in such a short time through the collective yarls of Collective Soul, Candlebox, Sponge, Silverchair, Better Than Ezra, et al. As 1996 kicked off with the release of Seven Mary Three’s “Cumbersome”—a song that sounds like something ad execs who couldn’t actually afford Pearl Jam might commission for a beer commercial—and concluded with Bush’s Steve Albini-produced Razorblade Suitcase—an album received about as well as a piss on Kurt Cobain’s nonexistent grave—it was pretty clear that year that the self-pity party was over.

Keep reading. Thanks to Brad for the link.

Alan Cross

is an internationally known broadcaster, interviewer, writer, consultant, blogger and speaker. In his 40+ years in the music business, Alan has interviewed the biggest names in rock, from David Bowie and U2 to Pearl Jam and the Foo Fighters. He’s also known as a musicologist and documentarian through programs like The Ongoing History of New Music.

3 thoughts on “Did Alternative Music Die in 1996?

  • August 9, 2016 at 9:24 pm

    James Iha was a prophet.


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