A Brief History of Alternative Music

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Photo by Miguel Á. Padriñán on Pexels.com. Used with Creative Commons.

by Israel Solis Jr.

Music has always been a refuge. It’s a safe space; a place to cry; a place to shout with anger, with love, or hate, or happiness. It’s the kind of place where you can go to find others like you.

Call it a bridge. Some bridges are better known than others. Alternative is a bridge to music your parents, your pastors, your principals, and even your boss doesn’t want you to hear. It’s the music that pumps you up. It’s the music that can take you around the world in three minutes and 454 seconds. It’s the kind of music that opens your eyes.  

So when did this kind of music all come together? The whispering voice in the crowd? The mysterious figure in the back of the club?

After rock ‘n roll took its place dominating music, the alternative voice appeared, beginning in the mid 1960s. One of the best know groups was The Velvet Underground. After that, more and more names began to sprout up: MC5, Captain Beefheart, 13th Floor Elevators, The Monks, The Fugs, and so many more. 

There are so many names, but according to many music historians, 1965 was “ground zero.” With so many new sounds and names appearing now, you’re probably wondering what this kind of music sounds like.

In the 1960s, there quickly grew an underground scene of acts providing, yes, an “alternative” voice. Existing as an “other,” alternative music should, in theory, simply sound unlike whatever the existing popular-musical models of the day were. If you don’t know exactly what it is, at least you know what it’s not.

In the 1980s and 1990s, alternative music saw a radical change. After punk-rock left a mark on mainstream America’s radar, the 1980s settled into a steady diet of big name pop stars. Suddenly, hip-hop was becoming the nation’s rising cultural force.

That left a massive chasm between the mainstream and the underground. Punk had mutated into hardcore and, hardcore or not, there were whole networks of bands doing things independently, completely off the commercial grid.

But, inevitably, change came.

First REM, a band of self-described “college-rockers,” cracked the mainstream. Sonic Youth signed with a major-label. Then, Nirvana came out of nowhere to be the biggest band in the world. This mainstream crossover or “sell out” lead to Alternative Music’s crisis of identity: if what was once alternative was now the status quo, what did “alternative” even mean? It left the alternative world in a confused state.

Alternative Music isn’t always an alternative. In 1990, the Grammy Awards started giving out trophies for the Best Alternative Album. In the years since, winners have included such noticeably not-indie figures as Sinead O’Connor, U2, Coldplay, and Gnarls Barkley. So, no matter how hard you try and define “alternative music,” people — especially Grammy voters — will make it mean whatever they want it to.

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