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Why "Alternative Music" Is Neither

(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.

August 16, 2000
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