There are many adages about history and its repetition. Edmund Burke said that those who do not know history are destined to repeat it. Statements by George Santayana and Winston Churchill echoed the same sentiment. However, some historians, such as Neil Howe, argue that it takes four generations for history to come full circle and give indications of mirroring previous occurrences.
With rock ‘n’ roll, it seems that it only took four decades for history to repeat itself.
The renegade sounds and attitudes which launched a new genre in the early 1950s, complete with a new demographic audience, new counter-culture, new set of lyrics, and new hybrid of sounds, only took forty years to reemerge in a reincarnated form that was dubbed “alternative.”
“Alternative” (with its seemingly interchangeable terms “underground” and “indie”) could originally be defined as “going against the commercial or corporate trend.” In the rock ‘n’ roll of the 1990s, those commercial or corporate products were the highly manufactured sounds handed down by artists of the 1980s such as Michael Jackson, Madonna, and Prince. Though the roots of “alternative” began as a reaction to the pop-rock sound of the ‘80s, many variations of the “alt” movement reached new levels of maturity in the ‘90s.
However, the “alternative/alt” genre prefix of the 1990s also was applied freely (and sometimes enigmatically) to other genres. The decade saw the appearance of “alt-pop,” “alt-metal,” “alt-rock,” “alt-country,” “alt-Christian,” “alt-dance,” and “alt-rap,” among others. It seemed as if every musician was searching for a unique musical expression that both connected and simultaneously disconnected them from the past.
In the 1950s, the rise of popularity of the early rock artists was due in large part to the small, independent record labels like Sun in Memphis and Chess in Chicago. They were willing to take a chance on unknown artists with a new, commercially unproven sound. Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry, and others merged the sound of rhythm & blues and country & western and were given a platform on the 45 r.p.m. records created at Sun and Chess.
Similarly, in the 1990s, the new, innovative, and independent sounds, built from the punk, metal, and rock of the ‘70s and ‘80s, were created by local musicians of Generation X and recorded by “indie” labels such as Seattle’s Sub Pop Records. These indie labels also recorded early alt-rock and alt-grunge bands such as Soundgarden, Pearl Jam, Smashing Pumpkins, and the quintessential grunge band of the 1990s, Nirvana.
Further parallels in rock music history also exist. In the 1950s, unknown artists and groups began exploring new musical territories in garages and local venues compared to the corporate/commercial music factories such as Columbia and Capitol Records. In the 1990s, undiscovered “indie” artists forged a punk-metal-rock hybrid on local college campuses and radio stations.
While early rockabilly was crafted to appeal to a new demographic in America: the “teenager,” the alternative-rock sound was created for “Generation X” – often characterized as a cynical and essentially nihilistic leaning demographic group – less interested in the polish of ‘80s pop and more in the counter-cultural voices eager to face the stark and jarring realities of life at the end of the 20th century.
However, the major record labels simultaneously marketed a secondary, somewhat sanitized version of “indie.” In a move reminiscent of the mainstreaming of rock at the end of the 1950s (see Fabian, Paul Anka, Bobby Darin, Frankie Avalon, and others), the established music industry promoted their group of “indie” artists, cultivated from within the corporate structure, and designed to compete with the truly independent artists and labels.
While some companies created in-house “faux indie” labels and artists, other record labels co-operated with the small independent record companies like Sub Pop Records, treating them almost as preparatory schools or lower-division baseball farm-clubs, pulling the most talented and promising from the minor leagues to the major leagues when the possibility of commercial success matched the independent spirit of the artist. For many corporations, the commercial success of the artist was more important than their ideology. As long as the former was not affected by the latter, they were happy.
Many of the artists began the decade with a renegade, independent spirit. By the mid-90s, they had found their niche within the alt-rock, alt-metal, alt-pop, or grunge movements.