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Is “Mainstream Alternative” an Oxymoron?

A discussion about what makes alternative music “alternative”

Jimi Hendrix performing a rendition of the Star Spangled banner in the height of the counterculture movement


Let’s start with a couple questions. Is the demographic that listens to alternative music too big for it to be alternative? Is ‘alt’ dress style a derivative of alternative music, and what does it mean that it’s the latest and greatest style trend?

And the big question: is alternative music defined by the musical characteristics it employs or by its contrast to mainstream culture?

Alternative music as a genre was coined in the late 1970s and early 1980s to label punk-rock music that had been signed at independent record labels; key word independent. Around this time was the rise of corporate consolidation, where record labels were encouraged to merge into a national chain rather than exist as a stand alone label. At the time, the idea of an independent record label countered the mainstream and even rejected capitalistic norms.

And the 60’s had their own version of alternative, which floated under the name of counterculture, an idea tied to the distrust of government, the green movement, feminism, opposing the Vietnam War, or really anything against the status quo. And as a musical style, this era of counterculture relied on guitar distortion, power chords and lyrical passion for change-unlike the peppy hits from the decade before.

But as rock became popular and mainstream, alternative rock and punk rock emerged, highlighting alternative artists like Green Day, Paramore, Blink-182, Modest Mouse, The Strokes, and later on, Panic! At The Disco.

If we take a look at the top alternative hits for 2020, groups like Weezer, Mumford and Sons, Meg Myers, Bastille, Vampire Weekend, The Lumineers, The 1975 and Foster the People pepper the list. But Billie Eilish is there too. And when you look up the style of the album “Folklore” by Taylor Swift, or new hits “Blouse” and “Solar Power” by Clairo and Lorde respectively, their music is explicitly alternative. But is Swift an alternative artist? Or Billie Eilish, whose unique whispery and hollow style continues to succeed on the pop charts? Is she an alternative artist for going against the grain even though it worked out in her favor?

Is there a threshold in an artist’s popularity wherein they cannot be considered an underground or alternative artist? Does it then become pop?

Maybe there’s an easy answer. Alternative as a style can be described as having unusual vocals, longer run times, instruments and sounds not easily identified and having a rhythm or melody that doesn’t follow the beat. The melodies are a little distorted, the lyrical content is a bit heavier in meaning and the music appeals to people who consider themselves as outcasts.

So alternative is an umbrella term, but it’s raining outside, and suddenly everyone wants to have a unique music taste, so everything under the sun (er, rain cloud) is squeezed in.

Or alternative is a quantifiable ghost of the past, as platforms like Spotify and Apple Music allow for complete access to new artists and genres and leave trace amounts of people looking to the radio for their music.

Or maybe alternative music is completely subjective to the person listening.

Or simply, alternative music is a fluid term everchanging to the generation and audience that consumes it.

I might be leaving with more questions than answers. But who cares about labels anyway?


Lily Olsthoorn is an online writer for the super cool, super lovely Rowdy Mag. If you’re wondering what she’s up to at this exact moment, she might be rollerskating, drinking tea, thinking about jazz piano solos, or petting a cat. Or all four. See her on Insta at lily.ols if you’re feeling yourself!


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