(This article was originally published in "Tracks of Creation" in 1995.)
In this examination, I will use the term "alternative" to refer to those
genres of hard music that emphasize rhythm and tone, eschewing melody and
musicianship, and the term "progressive" to refer to those genres of hard
music that emphasize melody and musicianship in addition to rhythm and
tone. I will use the term "mainstream" or "crossover" to refer to those
styles of hard music that are in-between or incorporate elements of both
alternative and progressive music.
The "alternative" genres of hard music include the following: grunge (e.g.,
Nirvana), hard alternative (e.g., Primus), punk (e.g., Rancid), hardcore
(e.g., Fugazi, Korn), "rap-metal" (e.g., Rage against the Machine), and
grindcore (e.g., Mortification), to name a few. The "progressive" genres
of hard music include the following: progressive hard rock and metal
(e.g., Queensryche, Dream Theater), most heavy metal and doom metal
(e.g., Iron Maiden, Candlemass), speed (or power) metal (e.g., older
Metallica, Gamma Ray), and some death and black metal (e.g., Death,
Cradle of Filth), as well as others. Mainstream or "crossover" genres
include: pop or blues-based hard rock (e.g., Guns 'n' Roses), commercial
metal (e.g., Quiet Riot), thrash (e.g., Slayer), and most death and
black metal (e.g., Napalm Death, Mayhem).
I contend that alternative music is not wholly music at all.
Alternative music is not music because it does not emphasize melody and
musicianship. What makes a given collection of sounds music? There must
be melody, and there must be some sort of distinguishing musicianship, as
well as tone and rhythm. Poetry can and usually does have both rhythm
and tone: what distinguishes it from music properly called is that it
lacks melody and instrumental musicianship. Rap "music," for example, is
really just poetry. Rap is the quintessential "alternative music," in
that it emphasizes beat and vocal delivery but generally disregards all
organized melody or instrumentalism.
Indeed, who ever heard of an alternative instrumental? It does not, and
cannot exist. An alternative instrumental would be extremely boring.
Imagine Green Day or Nirvana with no lyrics. The reason an alternative
instrumental would be so pointless is that alternative music has little
to no melody, and instrumentals, as the pure form of music, require melody.
Alternative music also disregards talented musicianship. Punk is the most
blatant example of this trend. Punk bands mingle with their fans at
shows and purposely attempt to look as if they cannot play their
instruments well. This is supposed to be a "political" statement that
everyone is really equal in everything. Heavy metal bands, meanwhile,
are ridiculed as "out-of-touch" and "elitist," because they actually
emphasize talent and musicianship. Gone from pop radio are the days of
the intricate guitar solo and the clear, strong voice of the lead
singer. Now, in the midst of the alternative craze, we are subjected
to whiny or bored vocals and the same three guitar chords rehashed.
Stemming from the problem that alternative music falsely sets itself up
as music is the increasingly obvious fact that alternative music really
is no alternative at all. First of all, alternative music is saturating
the airwaves: it is the new pop music, it is no longer alternative to
anything mainstream. Second, alternative music is the medium of boredom
and lethargy. Alternative bands implicitly recognize this fact when they
pump out songs about masturbation, sitting around and doing nothing, and
everyday mundane life. Frankly, this kind of music is not inspiring. It
is not a refreshing alternative, as the name falsely implies. But this
tendency toward boredom and nihilism within alternative music is only
natural given the fact that alternative music lacks the diversity it
could otherwise obtain by using the tools of melody and musicianship.
This is not to say that alternative music does not have its redeeming
characteristics. I sometimes thrash around to hardcore and a little
grindcore, and I enjoy a handful of grunge and punk songs. But I enjoy
alternative music for what it is: poetry. I like a couple of Offspring
songs because I find the "angst" or whatever that they express to be
rather apt. I like some hardcore because it is defiant and
anti-establishment. But there is no real musical value, strictly
defined, in alternative music.
I conclude that only in the progressive genres can we find whole and
complete music. Only there can we find the whole gamut of human emotion
powerfully expressed, instruments played as well as they can be, and
melody both subtle and strong. Of course, not all progressive music is
good. Progressive music is subject to the same copycatting and rehashing
that occur in other genres. But taken as a whole, progressive music is
more fully musical than alternative music.