So… What is “Alternative” Anyway???

close-up of CD case spines

A podcast I enjoy listening to called The Mix Tape Podcast (check them out!) was recently doing a series of episodes about “alternative” music. They did three episodes, one on 80s alternative, one on 90s alternative, and one on early 2000s alternative. Throughout the course of those episodes, it was questioned several times whether a particular song was actually “alternative”. There seemed to be some difference of opinion on what it meant for a song to be considered “alternative”. You can listen to those episodes (and you should) to hear what each of those guys thought it meant to be “alternative”, but I have some thoughts on the subject. And I figured since ALT_ESC Radio plays “classic alternative”, I might share what I think it means.

First, a little history. Where the heck did the term “alternative rock” start and why is it called that in the first place? The term gained mainstream recognition around 1990, but prior to that, the word “alternative” to describe certain music was being used in magazine articles and radio shows in the early to mid-80s. The term was basically used to describe music that was outside the mainstream… bands that weren’t signed to the major record labels and couldn’t be easily found in the national record store chains. Another common term was “college rock”, because the college radio stations were the ones playing these bands most frequently. Other terms used were “new music” and “postmodern”. It was basically a term to refer to any rock music that didn’t fit in with the hard rock and hair metal that was on mainstream commercial radio at the time. Because chances are the people that were into Poison and Warrant in the 80s, didn’t want to hear R.E.M. and Depeche Mode.

In the radio industry the format that featured this music was originally referred to as “Modern Rock”, and played a wide variety of genres, including new wave, punk, pop-rock, goth, and later, grunge and post-punk. Over time, the term “alternative rock” became an umbrella term that covered all these sub-genres and the radio format adopted that term, which is still used today.

That’s basically how I define what songs are “alternative”. In terms of ALT_ESC Radio, what we play is mainly based on what were the hit songs on those early “modern rock” stations in the 80s and early 90s, and later the “alternative” stations of the 90s. And then I pepper in some 70s artists that were majorly influential on the genres and that many future “alternative” bands were classified as. After all, “new wave” probably wouldn’t exist without David Bowie or Talking Heads. And “punk rock” might not exist without Iggy Pop or Ramones.

In the end, “alternative rock” is a pretty nebulous term without an exact definition and is open to a certain amount of interpretation. But if it was played on college radio or “modern rock” radio stations in the 80s, or on mainstream “alternative rock” radio stations in the 90s, that’s how we define “alternative” rock at ALT_ESC Radio.