October 29, 2008
Kids these days and their music -- what's it called?
The graph above plots the trend in NYT coverage for two main types of rock music over the past 20 years: alternative and indie. * These terms may appear similar to outsiders, but they are deployed very differently in elite people's status competition. Just look -- alternative, and the closely related term grunge, peaked around 1994; while indie, and the closely related term post-punk, took off in popularity around 2003 and remain fashionable. (The similarity can be seen in how closely one line follows another over time.)
So, whatever you do, never use the term "alternative" around young people, unless you feel your skill at ironic delivery is irreproachable and you don't actually look like you're 35 years old. And still, 15 years is a little too soon to try to ironically resurrect a dead buzzword.
There are two more patterns worth noting in the graph. First, even after grunge / alternative had died out in popularity, it still gets mentioned at a fairly steady rate. Just because you're dead doesn't mean people will stop talking about you. However, they will probably have no reason to talk about grunge more in one year than another once it's dead, so the line hovers around a steady value. Presumably the same will happen 15 years after indie rock enters the "of historical interest" stage. Unless, that is, there's a grunge revival -- just like there was a "post-punk revival" in 2002.
Second, there's a period from 1995 to 2001 when the grunge / alternative lines are declining rapidly, and before indie / post-punk starts to take off. This part of the graph reflects how awful pop music was during the time. The kingdom of pop was then ruled by boy bands, girl groups, Ricky Martin, J-Lo, Sugar Ray, and Blink 182. I mean, just gay.
While grunge wasn't that great, the period when it was popular also saw a lot of other great rock music that shared the raw sound with it: that's when pop-punk bands Green Day and The Offspring became popular, when the Red Hot Chili Peppers released Blood Sugar Sex Magik and Lenny Kravitz put out Are You Gonna Go My Way?, when Aerosmith really came back to life, and a lot more. None of that was overly moody and depressing like grunge, and you could even bounce around to it.
I'm sure in the future there will be a '90s night craze in dance clubs, and the above music should supply them with plenty to play. Just as I rarely hear The Smiths or Motley Crue at '80s night, I hopefully won't hear much Nirvana or Dave Matthews Band at '90s night.
* Exact search terms: "alternative rock," "indie rock," "grunge," and "post-punk." All are standardized by dividing by the total number of articles appearing in the NYT for a given year. The 2008 points are estimates based on the results so far.