Alternative Rock in the 21st Century
by Pete Crigler
Here we are in 2020 and what is currently known as 'alternative music' couldn't be further from what it originated as. I feel like a curmudgeonly old man sitting here talking about the good old days of alternative rock when everything that surrounds me is mumbled vocals and over energetic keyboards. If you're a 'rock' band and you don't have eight outside songwriters ready on standby to help you create your next masterpiece then you may not be doing things right. How did we get here?
By the mid 2010's, rock music had become overamped and sounded like it was done by a bunch of guys on steroids, like Five Finger Death Punch and the like. Alternative rock was struggling to find itself. Classic combos like Green Day, Red Hot Chili Peppers and even Pearl Jam were struggling to find themselves and stay relevant in a world that was being overtaken by the likes of Paramore, Panic at the Disco and Fall Out Boy. Guitars were falling out of vogue and suddenly, any song that had Casio keyboards and sounded like overenergetic EDM was classified as 'alternative.'
By the end of the 2010's, alternative rock had become more like alternative pop. Twenty One Pilots, Panic at the Disco, Fall Out Boy and a few others had all gone totally pop and shifted their sound and focus away from their original emo roots. For example, on Billboard's 'Hot Rock Songs,' a chart which didn't exist until a few years ago, Panic at the Disco's "High Hopes," a three-and-a-half-minute pop song written by no less than nine people, has been number one on the chart for a mind-numbing 56+ weeks. That's over one year- how is that possible? Who is still streaming this like it's a new song? It's just ridiculous.
At the same time, new groups like Shaed, Tones & I, Absofacto and others are making dance songs while radio programmers and label reps are masquerading these groups as 'alternative' in order to get them more airplay. One of the more recent #1 songs on the alternative charts is a brilliant cover of Kate Bush's "Running Up that Hill" by Meg Myers, a singer/songwriter who upped the drums from the original, put her powerful voice over the music and turned out one of the genuinely great songs of the last couple of years. Then there's Beach Bunny, an impressive new band that have broken through the airwaves with "Dream Boy," a perfectly sunny, infectious track that has plenty of guitars and attitude to make it jump out of the speakers. But these types of songs have been few and far between and it's very disheartening otherwise. Other artists are still producing catchy material such as Matt Maeson, Dominic Fike and Grouplove but if you're not trying to pedal to the EDM crowd with the likes of Marshmello or folkies like Dermot Kennedy, then the chances of having a huge hit are very slim indeed. You have to take the success you can get and embrace it because you could wind up like Fitz and the Tantrums: here today, gone tomorrow.
Things have become so bad in fact that over the last two, years give or take, I've switched over to listening to audiobooks because they've been more interesting to hear than the insipidness heard on the radio. To be truthful, I still have my six presets in the car, but one is an oldies station, another is those 'we play anything,' free-form stations and one is the station for William & Mary College because they play a lot of great indie rock and folk. Of the three rock stations, one is a corporate station owned by iHeartRadio that plays everything you think you're gonna hear on rock radio, no real surprises. I keep it because I still love hearing "Running Up That Hill." XL102 is a Richmond, VA mainstay since at least the '70's. They'll play a bit of everything but give away concert tickets for artists they never play which has always boggled my mind. The other station, FM99, used to be strictly hard rock/metal but they seemed to have chucked that to the side and will now play Blink 182, Green Day and Pearl Jam right up alongside Five Finger Death Punch, Disturbed and Three Days Grace. FM99 is the type of station that plays Metallica until you get sick of them; there's no real diversity there, it's just the same bludgeoning rock that I've grown tired of. Occasionally, they will surprise me and play some Faith No More other than "Epic," but that isn't very often. So as a result, I stick to audiobooks because they're more interesting and they don't make my ears hurt unless they're too boring.
Diving back into 'alternative,' the simple fact that bands like Imagine Dragons, The Lumineers and Lovelytheband are classified as such and get massive loads of airplay on these stations is something that will forever boggle my mind. Hell, even pop songs by the likes of Post Malone are getting alternative airplay. Wtrange isn't it? This is the point where I start to sound like a bitter old man. "Back in my day, we use to hear nothing but heavy guitars and distortion and melodic lyrics that made sense and were written by either the singer or the whole band. And that's the way it was and we liked it!"
These days, lyrics like "High Hopes" by Panic at the Disco or "Thunder" by Imagine Dragons are written by at least half a dozen or more people and the songs are no longer than three minutes and they have the feel of 6th grade poetry. This is what speaks to music consumers these days? Ridiculous. I will say that lyrics found in stuff by Twenty One Pilots and bands like Young the Giant and even Hayley Williams from Paramore's solo material are notable, powerful and sometimes can even make you think. A lot of these bands should think about what type of song they want to write: do they want to write something like "Superposition" by Young the Giant or "Northern Lights" by Death Cab for Cutie or something else like "Dear Future Self (Hands Up)" by Fall Out Boy and Wyclef Jean or "Dance Monkey" by Tones and I?
When it comes to the classics, it feels like every band is now defined by five songs or less. Bands like the Chili Peppers, you hear the same 10 songs, Foo Fighters, the same thing. Pearl Jam's catalogue seems to stop after 1994, the Smashing Pumpkins drop out after 1995. It's always interesting when you hear these bands on these different stations; it's as if whoever programs everything can't or won't play some different material, something older or more exciting than hearing "Alive" or the insipid "Californication" again. It's gotten to the point that I can't even stand to hear "Californication" anymore as it has been as overplayed as much as recent material by Imagine Dragons. Overall, that appears to be the problem with commercial radio; you hear a song that appears to be popular and then you'll just hear it for the rest of your life, regardless of whether the artist releases other material that isn't as successful. You'll probably never hear it on the same station because it doesn't fit their format or some shit like that. So until corporate radio can figure out how to regain a footing like they had in the days before satellite, I don't see the tide changing anytime soon, unfortunately.
I've already stated that I feel really old when it comes to listening to the radio but I yearn for simpler times. I'm tired of almost every 'alternative' song sounding like a thumping EDM dance track that's designed to win appeal with pop audiences and getting asses shaking when they play live. I want to hear guitars and actual instrumentation again and I don't mean folky B's like the Lumineers. 'Make Alternative Rock Again' would be an apt description of what I'm looking for. True, there are still good bands out there like Young the Giant, Death Cab, White Reaper and notable others that actually play their guitars and know how to make great melodic rock music. But I will forever yearn for a time when all these keyboards will be destroyed and set alight and real rock music will make a real, definitive comeback and whip these poseurs into shape.
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