Alternative Rock determines your taste, not the other way round. It’s about listening to the edge.
Once upon a time, there was just the term rock’n’roll. Essentially, this was a term to denote music that had a boogie woogie blues rhythm (think Roll Over Beethoven, Blue Suede Shoes, Papa Kehte Hein...) with an accentuated backbeat. Chuck Berry, Elvis, Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis started the business. Then, somewhere down the line, it got a different kind of rhythm injected into it with the melody opening up. Think the Beatles, the Stones...pretty much what we as well as ex-hippies call Classic Rock (a whole page is to be devoted to that in a couple of days).
As happens in that yawning divide called the Generation Gap, Classic Rock (or just plain ‘rock’, as it was called back then) sounded old and stodgy to new ears and they wanted something that would overturn the old sound altogether. Thus anti-Rock Music happened.
Bands like the Ramones, the New York Dolls, MC5 and Iggy Pop and the Stooges played loud, raw and full speed ahead — quite opposite of the rock music that found itself in the late 1960s-1970s getting entangled in longer and longer guitar solos, sophisticated stage shows and pretentious lyrics. This new garage sound from the US influenced musicians across the pond in the UK, where it became the punk movement, led by the inimitable Sex Pistols.
Alongside punk flowed other mutants of rock — the New Wave, for instance, elements of punk with David Bowie-style glam rock; metal, that took Classic heavy metal down a darker alley....
...until in due time (read: the late 1980s-early 1990s), with the supremacy of the likes of Michael Jackson and Bon Jovi and Van Halen — and a whole range of hair-guitar bands — it was time for another mop-down.
Against the grain
Which is when alternative rock aka alt rock, as a term was born. This was really a conglomeration of multiple strands reacting to the Billboard Top 20. The music scene that developed from Seattle, for instance, the loud, punk rock-drenched sound of bands like Sonic Youth, the Pixies and, of course, Nirvana was loosely termed grunge. But any moron with one ear would have realised how this penetrating, raw music straight from the boiler was different from the heavy R&B-laced sounds of Pearl Jam, Alice in Chains, Soundgarden and the more eclectic Smashing Pumpkins. And yet, both were lumped under the sign ‘grunge’ music.
The deceptively ‘low frequency’ brilliance of people like Beck and R.E.M. and on the other side of the Atlantic fence, Brit Poppers Pulp, Blur and Oasis, saw Alt Rock turn into a gigantic proposition that sat side by side with its nemesis, Classic Rock.
So, the truth is that alt rock stays ‘alternative’ in the against-the-grain way only for a while, until it becomes the establishment itself. But at its extreme essence what marks alt rock out from the bubbling masses of musical genres is its sheer standing-outness. Thus, while David Bowie’s album The Rise and Fall of Ziggie Stardust and Nirvana’s Nevermind was separated by two decades, they both have that something that make them subversive and enter the mainstream at the same time.
So while ‘sensitive’ bands like Coldplay and U2 may be monarchs of rock, those gravity-defying bands like the White Stripes, Green Day, Arctic Monkeys, Arcade Fire, the Strokes.... are the ‘Alternative’. It’s got little to do with how many albums they sell, whether they’re still underground or on VH1. They just have a different philosophy to sound. In other words, they are the cooler, edgier lot, no matter how they may one day f-f-f-fade away.