The Rise of Alternative Music in Today’s Mainstream

As the music blared in her bedroom, the 17-year-old merely lay on her bed, unconcerned about the rest of the world. She internalized the melancholy lyrics related to her livelihood while listening to Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” She felt seen as the music poured out her emotions for the first time. She never could relate to the current popular music style as it was hollow with lyrics that had no meaning.

Music styles have evolved and diversified in response to the ever-changing and growing environment people live in, paving the path for new artists that challenge fundamentals and take on different, unexpected genres. As a result, numerous music genres, such as Disco, Hip Hop, and Indie, have experienced their rise and fall. However, Indie music had come a long way since the days when angsty teenagers expressed their feelings through Evanescence, Paramore, and Avril Lavigne. Now, amid a global pandemic and political turmoil, the genre has experienced a comeback and is connecting strongly with Generation Z.

Alternative music often defines artists who did not fit into mainstream trends or styles because they did things uniquely. However, alternative music got its beginnings earlier than most people believe, with musicians concentrating on breaking away from conventional pop tunes to create their distinctive music. According to “What does it mean for music to be Alternative,” written by LiveAbout in 2018, alternative music emerged in the 1960s, with bands such as Iggy and the Stooges and The Velvet Underground. It flourished in the 1970s with the names of David Bowie, T-Rex, and Kraftwerk. These artists significantly affected what we now call “Punk Rock.” Punk gave rise to alternative since it was created by independent musicians who wanted to produce something different and unique for their audience.

College students, in particular, became addicted to the prospect of listening to something unique, and in the 1980s, alternative artists like REM were played all over college radio stations. The attraction from college students toward alternative music can be scientifically proven through the psychological effects of music. According to Weisskirch, R. & Murphy L. in 2004, younger people tend to relate their types of music to sensation seeking, which is defined as a personality trait where a person seeks out new and novel sensations that they usually don’t experience.

Major radio stations quickly took upon the wave, and Indie record firms identified a slew of artists amid this alternative, underground music revolution. “Listening to alternative music felt like I discovered something secret,” said Parkview teacher David Reynolds. “Back in the day, I used to go to a lot of Indie events near my college, it was something different to appreciate.”

Nirvana and Pearl Jam became the faces of grunge and the alternative rock movement in 1991 and 1992. According to Billboard, “Nirvana’s Nevermind dethroned Michael Jackson on the album chart in early 1992.” It was evident that the “alternative” label was becoming obsolete. A once-niche market had transformed into the market.

Throughout three albums in the 1980s, the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ fusion of funk, metal, and rap garnered a modest but devoted fan base via EMI America. However, whether it’s the Red Hot Chili Peppers or Nirvana, the presence of ’90s legends in today’s musical environment proves that the decade was more than grunge.

This boom of alternative music seemed to presage all kinds of transformative opportunities before eventually panning out in complex and disappointing ways, as it does in most transitioning situations. Like so many others this decade, the story of independent music becoming pop is equal parts mainstream media centralization and real grassroots artistic shift. By the end of the decade, a select few were thriving, while the majority of the others were struggling to earn a living on tight budgets. The industry crisis of the ’00s, triggered by a disastrous shift to digital, laid the ground for Indie’s advance toward the mainstream. At the start of the new decade, that decline had begun to resemble a freefall. The Guardian reported in 2011 that album sales were so low that albums were consistently breaking records for reaching the top of the charts with the fewest copies sold.

However, alternative music has become more relevant for the younger generations in recent years. Many teenagers resonate with this different style of music and enjoy expressing their feelings through the music’s lyricism. The social media app TikTok has been a massive part of the rise in the popularity of alternative music. “I learned about a lot of new artists through TikTok,” Parkview senior Khushi Panjwani stated. “I listen to Lana Del Ray, The Neighborhood, and Maneskin.”

During the COVID-19 pandemic, it was noted that many individuals from generation Z began to prefer alternative music over pop music. Parkview senior Jazmin Leon remarked, “I feel like I became more in tune with my feelings during quarantine. I enjoyed the angst and the beautiful lyricism that alternative music brought me.”

TikTok discovered many underground artists, which made them more popular. These artists began opening for well-known artists and having their own tours. Alternative music has become popular due to the inclusivity it expresses. The audience has become more widely diverse with more minorities, as the music can give them an outlet to express their struggles.

Alternative music’s versatility also contributed to its enormous success. It is commonly recognized in the music industry that to be a successful performer, one must be comfortable in various genres. This applies to any musician, alternative or not. As a result, because alternative music is inherently varied, it nearly guarantees success. People think of the most current alternative bands when they hear “alternative music.” Arctic Monkeys, Lana Del Rey, Marina, and the Diamonds have contributed to today’s popular perceptions of alternative music. These songs are often slower in tempo, with strong bases and plenty of pianos, classical, and electronic elements. These bands eventually merged with the newest alternative music, such as Cage the Elephant and Tame Impala. This genre employs vocal distortion and electronic instruments to recreate the traditional alternative sound. Even if individuals primarily listen to rap music, they will likely have some type of alternative music lurking inside their library. Its adaptability will ensure that this type of music survives for many years to come.

In its purest form, alternative music is the polar opposite of pop music — yet because popular music is what most people are familiar with today, the term “alternative” is used loosely. It also includes various styles and genres, ranging from Indie Rock to Punk, and even Gothic music. In addition, independent labels are no longer seen as “strange” in the way they formerly were. Although these labels fit under the banner of alternative music, underground music lives on, not just in mainstream music, but via loyal, committed followers worldwide. Panjwani stated, “I used to enjoy pop music when I was little but now I can’t ever listen to pop music again when I have alternative music in my playlists.”

Numerous musicians have adapted to working independently and building a name for themselves in the alternative genre. As a result, alternative music surpassed mainstream music in popularity and significantly influenced the music business. In some ways, alternative music has evolved into pop music.