In order to determine whether someone is worthy of my friendship, the make-it-or-break-it question is: “What kind of music do you listen to?”
You’ll answer, listing band names and song titles as I nod and assess the possible concerts, potential hangout playlists and future conflicts of musical interest.
And, inevitably, you’ll search for some reciprocation. “And what about you?”
Throughout middle school and early high school, my answer was simple. One word, uncomplicated and clean: “Alternative.”
I was the quintessential “scene” kid. I wore yellow skinny jeans, shopped at Hot Topic, made my parents drive me to questionable concerts (where they reluctantly sat in the back) and owned hundreds of band T-shirts. I dressed as Panic! at the Disco’s lead singer one Halloween, wore out every pair of Vans I could find and foamed at the mouth at the announcement of each new “Punk Goes Pop” compilation. And to me, that was alternative.
But now, when someone says they listen to “alternative,” they mean Vampire Weekend, Lana Del Rey, Haim, CHVRCHES — you can essentially throw a blind dart at the Coachella lineup and deem the artist you hit as “alternative.”
This complicates things. Now, when people ask the inevitable “And what about you?,” I take a deep breath and say: “Posthardcore, pop-punk, sometimes punk-rock, metalcore or screamo. Occasionally folk rock, but mostly derivatives of ‘scene’ and some offshoots of grunge and early emo.”
I can no longer say “alternative,” because “alternative” now doesn’t mean the same thing it did a few years ago. The artists currently deemed “alternative” were the ones once known as “indie,” releasing music independent of a record label.
But recently, these alternative-indie artists have gained immense popularity. Artists such as Lorde and the Arctic Monkeys are dominating the top-40 charts and headlining festivals alongside Kanye and Macklemore. And as their popularity grows, it causes you to wonder: What exactly defines alternative music? To what is it “alternative”?
Pop music, an abbreviation for “popular music,” was originally derived from rock and roll. Now, the term “pop” refers to top-40 chart-toppers and radio-play regulars. If the music we currently deem “alternative” becomes popular, and the original definition of “alternative” is in reference to being alternative to popular music, is “alternative” music slowly transforming into pop?
I am 18 years old, and I am having an existential crisis — all thanks to genre proliferation.
In a recent interview with Noisey, VICE Magazine’s online music channel, Mike Shinoda of Linkin Park expressed his distaste with the current state of rock music. “If you’d asked me (about the current state of rock music) five years ago, I was obsessed with indie rock,” Shinoda said. “A lot of the artists were coming from a place that was, ‘This is my scene, and this is my sh*t, and that’s why I’m making it.’ But now it’s become pop. It’s not indie, it’s major label.”
And I agree. Defining a type of music as “indie” when it is under a major label becomes more about an aesthetic and less about the way the music was created and distributed. There is a new band out of Martinez, Calif., called Vitaform that creates and releases its own music independent of a record label. If you take one listen to their songs, however — gritty, intrusive and hardcore — you definitely would not consider them an “indie” band. Yes, they are independent, but the term “indie” has evolved to hold a completely different meaning.
The same goes for “alternative.” The definition of “alternative” changes when that which was unpopular becomes popular. The lines between popularity and unpopularity are extremely blurred, and I believe we are in the midst of yet another “alternative” transition.
In a few years, the kids who currently identify as “alternative” will have to say, “I listen to chilling-on-my-front-porch-drinking-a-PBR, Coachella-festival rock.” We’ll be drowning in a sea of hyphenated madness.
And to this I say: Why do we need the restrictive titles of genres to pigeonhole our tastes into specific categories? I like the music I like. There are far too many offshoots, far too many subgenres to keep track of.
So next time you ask me, “And what about you?” I’ll say, “I like my music completely unhyphenated.”