Not so Alternative, Alternative Music
I thought I had it easy when I chose alternative music for a mini-expert topic. Music has always been a passion of mine and I was one of those ‘new music freaks’ in high school. Not only did I live in Seattle in the early 90’s, but I also had an ex who was an “Indie Buyer” for a local record store and took me to a plethora of alternative shows. These days in London I still venture out regularly to see little known or up and coming bands. All this experience makes me a mini expert on this subject already, doesn’t it? Hardly. Being an avid consumer of a genre does not an expert make. After researching alternative music, I’ve come to the conclusion that it is a genre that has grown and morphed so much it hardly seems alternative any more. Understanding the appeal it has for young adults can make it a remarkable tool in the classroom.
The term alternative music, also known as alternative rock, modern rock, new music or indie music, was used in the 80’s to place a label on those bands that weren’t on Casey Kasem’s Top 40, bucked the commercialism of pop music, but were still drawing decent sized audiences and selling records independent of major labels (Aksa 2008). However, alternative music really began long before the 80’s. According to Piro Scaruffi in A History of Rock Music: 1951-2000 in the early 60’s rock music became an outlet whereby dissent with the establishment was expressed (Scaruffi 2003). Even music that didn’t overtly have a political overtone became counterculture in nature and was forced underground due to discrimination that had previously occurred against rock-n-roll and protest folk singers. The fans of this new underground music did not prefer what was popular and easy to find. “They developed an alternative system of communication, “alternative” to the system of mass media, alternative in the sense that it dealt with and promoted those phenomena that were ignored by the mass media” (p. 32). Thus the counterculture of the 60’s paved the way for independent media and opened the umbrella under which a large variety of musical groups could stand.
Stemming from the counterculture of the 60’s, bands like the Velvet Underground and The New York Dolls emerged in the early 70’s (Taylor 2006). Punk and new wave materialised in the late 70’s and from here comes the birth of alternative music genre, which had followings in both the US and UK. However, the alternative music story is slightly different in the two countries. During the 80’s in the US, small independent labels took the place of major labels in producing alternative music albums. Most alternative groups performed primarily at smaller clubs and were publicised in fanzines, word-of-mouth or aired on college radio (“American alternative rock/post punk,” Earlwine, n.d.,). A few groups, like REM, received critical acclaim and were written about in mainstream music magazines such as Rolling Stone, yet most bands remained in underground cult status and out view of the popular music eye. It wasn’t until Nirvana’s “Nevermind” hit number one on the Billboard music chart in 1992 (“Nevermind,” n.d. para 2) that alternative music gained mainstream popularity not only in the US but also throughout the world (Taylor 2006).
While Nirvana may have gained popularity in the UK, the grunge aspect of alternative music as a whole never reached the pique of popularity it had in the US (“American alternative rock/post punk,” Earlwine, n.d.,). Much of this had to do with onset of rave culture. Guitar music had taken a bit of a back seat to the electronic grooves, which attracted thousands of young adults (Taylor 2006). Thus, dance and club culture is more widely accepted as being part of the alternative music genre in the UK than it is in the US. (“British alternative rock”, Earlwine, n.d.,). Additionally, guitar bands like The Stone Roses had an understated dance beat which made it a bit more poppy sounding than the heavy American grunge movement. British bands also seemed to be more pop oriented and focused on releasing singles; a practice that had almost ceased to exist in the album oriented US. Finally, British bands seemed to write lyrics that focussed primarily on distinctively British concerns. This isn’t to say that British bands weren’t successful in the new alternative music mainstream in the US. Blur, Oasis and Elastica all had hits and lucrative tours during that time in both the US and the UK.
Now that alternative music has developed such a global following, what’s really alternative about it? How can Cold Play, REM, Kings of Leon, Fanfarlo, PJ Harvey and Muse all be filed under the same genre on iTunes? Steve Taylor (2006) clarifies that conundrum in his book A to X of Alternative Music. “Alternative isn’t something fixed, it is constantly changing. We can’t know what alternative is until we know what it is an alternative to, and we can’t know what that is until the alternative shows us.” (p. 2-3) Overall the artists Mr. Taylor selected for his A to X guide met three criteria. They retained their voice and sense of purpose without influence of commercial or market demands, “consistently challenged the basic set-up of sounds, structure, textures and rhythms in their work” often using lyrics from a unique perspective about infrequently dealt with topics and finally “will have connected with the alternative sensibility of their own era.” (p. 3) Under this umbrella, today’s popular along with little known alternative music fits.
Today’s young adults seem to eat alternative music for breakfast. Those who are old enough go through a rite of passage where they clamour into vehicles and head to festivals for two to three days to see both popular and less known alternative music. They download music from the Internet, listen to it for free with advertised supported, downloadable programs like Spotify or LastFM and follow their favorite bands on sites like MySpace and Facebook. They become interested in the political stances and movements their favorite bands support and often become politically active themselves as a result. Using this enthusiasm for music, an educator can enhance a student’s desire to learn.
Teens tend to groan when it comes to studying poetry until they realize that they listen to it every day. Alternative music with its less dealt with topics is ideal to illustrate the power of poetry. Printing off the lyrics of a song from an alternative band most students know like Nirvana or Kings of Leon but removing the name of the band before having students read it can be a evocative anticipatory set to a poetry lesson particularly when studying Yeats or Browning.
ReadWriteThink.org has many lesson plans that incorporate music into literacy lessons. There was one particularly brilliant plan that I intend on trying in my classroom. Essentially after reading a novel and making notes throughout it, the students create a soundtrack for that novel and go so far as to create an album cover for the soundtrack. They must select their songs following a process and demonstrate in-depth analysis and make insightful connections. This activity has students visualizing, predicting and responding to the chosen piece of literature. This lesson in its entirety can be found at http://www.readwritethink.org/lessons/lesson_view.asp?id=861
As for actual pieces of young adult literature involving alternative music, there aren’t many. Many biographies about artists in this genre are primarily geared towards adults and contain content that would be frowned upon if the books were used in the classroom setting. However, there are a few. The previously mentioned A to X of Alternative Music is a fantastic book to use for reference and for younger adults there are also The Alternative Rock Scene: The Stars, the Fans, the Music by Wendy S. Mead and The History of Indie Rock by Jennifer Skancke. A good indie music biography to suggest to students around the age of 12 is "Green Day": Keeping Their Edge by Matt Doeden. Finally, to inspire students to create their own individual work, direct them to an article about the band Evan Brightly on azTeen.com. This alternative band comprised of young adults, some of who refer to themselves as “English nerds” are creating a piece that combines music, art and literature. Read more about them at http://www.azteenmagazine.com/band-reviews.php?article=324 and listen to their music on MySpace at http://www.myspace.com/evanbrightly.
Alternative music is not going anywhere and will continue to change and evolve as surely as the audience it attracts does. It is no longer solely an underground phenomenon and often times it attracts large groups of young people seeking some originality and identity of their own. Understanding alternative music and using it to augment literacy lessons and spark creativity engages students and makes the learning experience more enjoyable.
BibliographyAksa, S. (2008) Alternative music - history and facts revealed. Retrieved October 3, 2009, from Articles Base Web Site: http://www.articlesbase.com/music-
Erlewine, S. T. (n.d.) British alternative rock. Retrieved October 2, 2009 from Allmusic Web
Erlewine, S. T. (n.d.) American alternative rock/post punk. Retrieved October 2, 2009
from Allmusic Web Site http://www.allmusic.com/cg/amg.dll?p=amg&sql=19:T579
Nevermind. (n.d.) Retrieved October 2, 2009 from Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/
Scaruffi, P. (2003) A History of Rock Music: 1951-2000. Lincoln, NE: iUniverse, Inc.
Taylor, S. (2006) A to X of Alternative Music. London, UK: Continuum International
Publishing Group Ltd.