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What is Alternative Music? Alternative Music, Explained

You're in her DMs, she's sending me Radiohead lyrics. We are not the same.

Early Radiohead, when Thom was blonde

So you went on a date with this cute girl last weekend. Everything went great, but something kept puzzling you. When you asked her what kind of music she listened to, she just shrugged and said she likes alt. Alt what? What does this mean? You hear this term all the time, but nobody’s ever explained it to you. Is it a fashion? Is it a lifestyle? Didn’t someone once call you alt in high school, and all you could do was stare back dumbly, because you couldn’t tell if they were making a dig or not?

Well, today, I’m here to help you get a further grasp on what “alternative rock” is, so you can finally put that silly little mystery to rest. The most basic way of defining what “alt rock” really is just any form of rock that doesn’t rely on “traditional” models of the genre. It kind of goes hand-in-hand with indie, although alt tends to be more broadly defined than indie. Ultimately, an alt-rock band is alt-rock because it’s literally an alternative from traditional rock.

For instance, bands that could be considered “cock rock” or “dad rock” are more traditional in nature, since their sounds or ideals don’t deviate from mainstream norms. Bands like Bon Jovi, for instance, could be categorized under these labels (which isn’t a dig!). Such bands upheld various societal expectations while leaning into societally popular trends (at the time). By contrast, the term “alternative rock” grew out of the phrase “college rock” in the 80s, to give you a sense of its audience. It described everything from R.E.M. to Sonic Youth.

Alt-rock bands deliberately went against the grain, both in sound and theme. Nirvana is a great example of a band that’s “technically” alt, yet gained a lot of mainstream attention all the same. They sang songs about assault, abortion, and rampant violence, and their musicality was harsh and darker than the norm. Compare, for instance, our aforementioned friend Bon Jovi to “Negative Creep”:

Not a stretch to call this an alternative from traditional rock.

And the thing is, because alternative is such a broad label, it is fairly hard to pin down and strictly define. Some alt rock bands are also indie, in that they’re signed to independent labels or engage in a DIY (“do it yourself”) approach. Others are actually signed to commercial labels, but the music they produce is less “I’ll never be your beast of burden,” and more, “You’ll go to hell for what your dirty mind is thinking.” You know what I’m saying?

In any case, some examples I’ll leave you with are My Bloody Valentine, which helped define the “shoegaze” subgenre through their guitar experimentations; Gorillaz, who made experimentation from the norm their whole shebang; and of course, my dear, sweet Butthole Surfers.

(Featured Image: Parlophone)

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Madeline (she/her) is a writer, dog mom, and casual insomniac. Her prior experiences with media have taken her down many different roads, from local history podcasts to music coverage & production. Niche interests include folk music, elves/wizards, and why horses are cool actually.