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Explaining Why Alt-Rock is Finally Turning Harder with the Return of the 90s

In case you haven’t noticed, the 90s are back. Blink-182, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Weezer, Green Day and Prophets of Rage (which might as well be Rage Against the Machine) all have new albums, are on tour or both. Playlists of alt-rock radio stations are slowly moving away from the downtempo, introspective woe-is-me, banjo-and-ukulele-and-electropop material that’s been in vogue for the last decade.

A couple of questions: Why now? And why are older bands back in vogue–even with the demo who wasn’t even born when Kurt Cobain checked out?

This was the topic of this week’s Sands Report, an industry newsletter for alt-rock radio programmers. Here are some explanations:

  • It’s cyclical. The industry rode a wave of new music and new bands, but that party’s over. When ratings began to slump, it was time to go back to a more familiar alt-rock attitude.
  • People are tiring of faceless one-hit-wonders who struggle to put together a half-hour set of decent material. Would you recognize Hozier if you bumped into him on the street? Name me one member of the Lumineers. Whatever happened to Gotye? People are cycling back to wanting real rock stars.
  • Today’s alt-rock audience is discovering the incredible amount of quality music that came out of the 90s. One programmer notes that this even extends to festival fashion: “Look at the festival wear— chokers, baby doll dresses and flannels around waists—the ‘90s are alive and well with ‘the kids,’ so it’s the perfect opportunity for those ‘90s bands to strike while the iron’s hot.”
  • Helicopter parents. Here’s a quote from another programmer : “Can I tell you how much I believe in the helicopter parent theory as to why kids today seem to glom onto and approve the music, books, and movies their parents liked rather than finding their own?” Dad music may be cool after all.
  • YouTube: Discovering older bands from other eras is now just a click or two away.

I’ll add one other factor: the current US election campaign. Many 18-34s in America were solidly behind Bernie Sanders and his left-wing (well, for America) policies. But now that he’s out, they’re faced with the horrible choices of Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. Whenever young people turn sour on politics, alt-rock tends to get harder and angrier. And with a new Green Day record coming out (it’ll be very politic and pissed off) and Prophets of Rage attracting tens of thousands to their gigs, you can feel attitudes shifting.

And the music industry is watching. If it sees a trend/sound developing, they’ll be all over it. A reunion of the classic Smashing Pumpkins lineup? I’d almost say that’s a sure thing for 2017. An Oasis reunion? The pressure is on. More Nine Inch Nails? Don’t count it out. I’ll say this: Coachella 2017 will be interesting.

I for one welcome back our new/old alt-rock overlords.

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.

Alan Cross has 38410 posts and counting. See all posts by Alan Cross

3 thoughts on “Explaining Why Alt-Rock is Finally Turning Harder with the Return of the 90s

  • Just heard this on the edge. Thank goodness. I grew up through the 90’s. I used to love the edge. I don’t anymore. I still listen on occasion and still prob more then any other radio station. I have long complained to friends that the edge lost its edge. It turned into playing what I call pussy rock, lame softer music that would never have been played in past years. If harder music is making a comeback I welcome it with open arms. I hope it becomes more prominent again on what was once the best rock station around.

    • I agree Bruce, grew up through the 90’s as well and can barely stand listening to the Edge anymore, you’ve never seen a person change a station faster than when that alessia cara song comes on the Edge (or one of those goddamn Spence Diamond commercials). Love listening to Alan’s show but don’t even listen to the morning show anymore with Fearless Fred because they talk for like 2 minutes and then its 15 minutes of music and commercials (mostly commercials) and then 2 mins of talking and repeat. Check out Biggs & Barr morning show on 97.7 – way better morning show and you’ll probably like the music better as well, none of the soft stuff the Edge mostly plays now.

      Happy to see the Edge playing Bang Bang by Green Day though, figured it wouldn’t fit with the slow stuff they normally play now, hopefully things are changing.

  • Speaking of Green Day. If this album is a hit record anywhere near American Idiot, they could be one a few bands to have big albums in 3 different decades. That would be a huge deal.


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