As the latest Lollapalooza tour makes its way across America (and on to Charles Town, W.Va., this Thursday), two points keep recurring: First, that alternative music is now the mainstream, and second, that the punk revolution has finally ended in victory.
As for the first, there's little room for debate. Such second-generation rockers as Bob Dylan, Van Morrison and Pink Floyd are being shouldered aside on radio and TV to make room for next-generation stars like U2, the Cranberries and R.E.M. Look at the charts, and you'll see Live, White Zombie and Soul Asylum outselling Rod Stewart, Elton John and Stevie Wonder. Turn on the radio, and you'll find surprisingly little difference between the bands played on conservative album-oriented rock stations and those preferred by modern-rock outlets.
Bob Seger to the contrary, it seems as if fewer and fewer Americans want "that old-time rock and roll."
But being the new mainstream isn't quite the same as being the music's salvation. Nor is alternarock's success proof that the punk revolution -- if, indeed, it was a revolution -- necessarily ended in victory. In fact, given the amount of argument and anger that has been generated within the alternarock community over issues like "authenticity" and "indie credibility," there's reason to worry that this new aesthetic may be the death of rock and roll.
Start with the way success is seen as a stigma in some circles. It used to be that every rock star hopeful lusted after hit records and packed houses. Some even wrote songs about it -- remember "So You Wanna Be a Rock 'n' Roll Star" by the Byrds? "Ziggy Stardust" by David Bowie? "Juke Box Hero" by Foreigner?
Forget it. Scroll through the alternative music newsgroup on the internet (alt.music.alternative) and you'll find dozens of postings griping that this band or that is too popular or "too MTV" to be alternative. Flip through the pages of music 'zines like Maximum Rock & Roll, and you'll see letters arguing that even attempting to reach a mass audience invalidates the music. Things have gotten to such a state that it wouldn't be surprising to see some cred-conscious band actually go out and urge people not to buy their albums, the way Courtney Love urges Lollapalooza fans to shout obscenities.
What happened? Critic Dave Marsh, in a recent essay, argued that this unease over success stems from the folk music movement and its notion of "authenticity." As he points out, "Folk music scholars . . . insisted that Tin Pan Alley songwriters who used folk elements created 'inauthentic' songs; [real] folk music arose and was passed along anonymously and orally."
Normally, we don't think of folk music scholars as having had much sway with the rock generation, but as Marsh points out, their odd sense of authenticity echoes through the rock era. Authenticity was the issue in 1965, when fans at the Newport Folk Festival booed Bob Dylan for going electric; it was the issue in 1977, when punk rockers snarled that others were just "poseurs"; and it was the issue in 1994, when Kurt Cobain wrote in his suicide note that "The worst crime I could think of would be to pull people off by faking it, pretending as if I'm having 100% fun."
Why did Cobain think that pretending to have fun was such a vile misdeed? Because it was spelled out in what he referred to as "the Punk Rock 101 courses over the years." These weren't actual college classes, of course; it was just an ironic way of describing the ongoing dialog within the alternative music world over just what concepts like authenticity, independence, community and punk rock meant. But the conclusion Cobain reached from those "lessons" speaks to how dangerously skewed the alternarock catechism has become.
Today's alternarockers see the punk explosion of the late '70s as the beginning of modern music history. In their view, punk was a revolution, in which the evil forces of corporate rock -- acts like Pink Floyd, Fleetwood Mac, the Eagles -- were overthrown by the fans, and a new order was established. In the post-punk world, community was valued over commodity, real emotion over calculated spectacle, and do-it-yourself ingenuity over starmaking machinery. This was what bands like the Sex Pistols and the Ramones struggled to establish, and what acts like the Rollins Band and Fugazi strive to maintain.
A neat theory, except for one thing: If punk was such a successful revolution, how come Pink Floyd, Fleetwood Mac and the Eagles still sell albums? It's as if the leaders of the French Revolution had failed to take the Bastille, then announced, "We really won. We're just letting the Bourbons stay on the throne because we don't care about that stuff."
Perhaps a better way of looking at the punk movement would be to see it as a reformation, rather than a rebellion. In this view, punk stands as a schism within the rock-and-roll community, a rejection of the false idols and corrupted ritual of corporate rock, and a move back to the roots that made the music so vital in the first place.
It's easy enough to find parallels with the Protestant Reformation of the 16th century. Punk rockers objected to the idea that rock stars were superior to their audience. They wanted a community where those onstage were the same as those in the crowd, just as the Protestant anti-clerical movement wanted to put the congregation on an equal footing with the church.
Punks objected to the flash-and-dazzle of arena shows as needless and artificial, just as many Protestant sects rejected the ritual and trappings of the Catholic Mass. And punks generally preferred the simple intensity of self-taught musicians to the fleet-fingered proficiency of schooled musicians, just as many Protestants felt it was better to learn the Bible directly than have your faith filtered through centuries of interpretation.
But just as the best efforts of Luther, Calvin and Wesley couldn't create a wholly Protestant world, the prophets of punk were equally unable to convert the music world to their one true version of rock and roll. So as the '80s rolled into the '90s, and punk became alternative music, the community went through the musical equivalent of a fundamentalist revival, and the original precepts of the punk movement hardened into dogma.
Early suspicions about pseudo-punk acts cobbled together to cash-in on the movement -- what the Clash called "turning rebellion into money" -- became an absolute rejection of corporate culture. No longer was mere fakery an offense; being signed to a major label was tantamount to heresy, while having album sales above the mid-six figures was considered a hanging crime.
Where first-generation punk rockers sneered at the supposed superiority of the limo-riding, model-dating Rod Stewarts of the world, contemporary alternarockers despise stardom itself. The alternarock independent scene, home to tiny labels like Kill Rock Stars, are particularly stringent on this point. There's no greater insult in the indie world than to say that so-and-so is "acting like a rock star," and that curse has been hurled at everyone from Henry Rollins to Eddie Vedder.
Then there's the whole do-it-yourself credo. Originally, punk took DIY to mean you didn't have to be as accomplished as Eric Clapton to slap on a guitar and play. But over time, that celebration of amateurish enthusiasm has become an outright rejection of vocal and instrumental competence. It isn't just that today's alternarockers aren't interested in vocal virtuosity or fretboard razzle-dazzle; they've equated polish with artificiality to such an extent that being able to play properly is seen almost as an impediment to honest expression.
That's one of the reasons the lo-fi theory -- in which cheap equipment and minimal overdubs were deemed aesthetically superior to state-of-the-art studio techniques -- had so many adherents. Even musicians as otherwise worldly as Liz Phair have been sucked in by lo-fi's cult of semi-competence. Trouble is, Phair's interest in being "humbled before the gods" by bum notes seems to be leading to a wholesale rejection of musical craft. After all, if hearing a band make mistakes made them seem more human, not hearing any mistakes was assumed to mean the group was bogus.
That's the double-bind facing Lollapalooza acts like Pavement. As Sonic Youth's Lee Ranaldo explains, Pavement is "in this really hard position where they could consciously try and put out more for the audience, and yet it would bring on a whole host of other questions. Like, 'Are we being fake? Are we selling out? Are we trying too hard to go over with a crowd that's never going to get it to begin with?' So I think there's a conscious effort on their part, in some way, to resist the temptation to try and be better for the audience. It's one of those weird, perverse, Catch-22 things."
It doesn't have to be a Catch-22, though. As another Lollapaloser has shown, it is possible to stay true to principles while accommodating the gaping maw of the pop mainstream. When Beck wound up with an out-of-left-field smash in "Loser," he knew that much would be made of the song's alleged slacker attitude and "I'm a loser baby, so why don't you kill me?" chorus.
But the one-name singer refused to get tripped up by the politics of pop culture. "Anything gets fuzzy when it's in the
mainstream," he said at the time. "It suddenly becomes not what it is, you know?"
So to ensure that he stayed true to what he was, Beck made sure that his contract with Geffen -- the major label that carried "Loser" into the Top-10 -- left him able to take his nonmainstream projects to indie labels. That way, he could do what he wanted and have an appropriate outlet regardless of whether the music was arcane or accessible.
In other words, he's not trying to change the world, or constrict his artistic expression. He's trying to accommodate the world without, while remaining true to the soul within.
Why can't more alternarockers preach that gospel?