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.


  1. Enlighten me here. Post-punk? WTF? Does that mean anything after '76-78 first wave punk? Or is what you're really try to say is: "New Wave"? And how are you using the term indie? As a genre "unsigned" or self-contained D.I.Y.?

    And what sort of bizzaro dance clubs are you frequenting with '80s & '90s nights? Go to a rock show, find a girl and get bloody, bruised and sweaty to some real music that leaves you unable to do anything afterward. Except huddle for warmth, hold hands, and exchange some thoughts with Ms. Right-now

    Oh, FYI: The word we used back in the late eighties for alternative was "underground".

  2. You won't hear any DMB at 90s night. They were a jam band during that entire decade (with a few exceptions like What Would You Say? and Stay). You can't dance to Lie in Our Graves or Crush. It wasn't until Steve Lilywhite left that they launched into mainstream pop under Glen Ballard (who's done Aerosmith, Christina Aguilera, Shakira, and other pop majors) with the Everyday album. So you'll have another decade--that should be enough time for you to settle down and retire from the dance scene!

  3. Music was actually a "part" of my life in the eighties (Robert Plant, Tom Petty, The Church, early Van Halen, Def Leppard, those-one-hit-wonder-bands-who-lucked-up-and-got-a-good-keyboard-line-or-guitar-riff, Fleetwood Mac, The Eagles, Quarterflash, Billy Idol, The Motels, Lone Justice, Asia, Duran Duran (yes, they had good songs no matter what you think of them), Squeeze, Roxy Music, early Melissa Ethridge, Don Henley, Sade, tons of stuff from the late seventies like The Eagles, Zeppelin, Thin Lizzie, Boston, Deep Purple, ELP, and the like), but man...............I just can't listen to much of what is made now or has been made since the early nineties. Its just not
    ---MELODIC-- to my ears at all.

    The acts I liked in the nineties included Alice in Chains, and a few of the "hit" songs that bands got lucky with like the occasional Chris Cornell-song or Stone Temple Pilots song, and very little else. Lenny Kravitz and Prince had some good, likeable, accessible songs, although Prince's were mostly 80's fare. Radiohead had two good albums in the nineties---one was OK Computer and the one before that. Then they went off the deep end and made wierdo stuff with no musical structure at all.

    I notice that white rock bands turned into what I call "whiner" bands at some point and sang constantly about feeling bad and depressed. They oft had scraggly wimpy-looking lead singers with hair in their faces and ugly clothing draping over their emaciated bodies and kvetched in song.

    I despise heavy metal and rap.

    One of the great sadnesses musically Ive endured is the devolution of black music. In the seventies there were black artists (they really were artists back then) that I really liked......Earth, Wind, and Fire, ....Kool and the Gang, Brothers Johnson, Bobby Caldwell (he's white, but sounds black), Teddy Pendergrass, Marvin Gaye, etc. There are a few really good black acts that value melody and even some "hip hop" acts that have interesting stuff occasionally, but for the most part MELODY is missing, and its so vital to music.

    Ive bought very little music in this decade, and its almost over. Its a shame, because I'd buy good music if it was made, and with the technology now available, interesting grooves and rythyms could be conceptualized in the mind and put to music more easily than in the past with all the electronics now available.

  4. BP -- Post-punk apparently referred to New Wave at first, and then around 2003 when similar sounding music came out, it was called "post-punk revival." Franz Ferdinand is an example of the recent, though now dead, revival.

    But I'm not interested in debating what terms mean. I'm just showing when people used them, and by extension, when the music they were talking about was popular.

    Actually, '80s night leaves me pretty exhausted. They play mostly New Wave, synth-pop, and dance-pop mostly from 1982 to 1984. I probably lose 5 pounds in water weight just from sweating.

    AE -- I actually haven't listened to Dave Matthews since the '90s, so I didn't know they changed from jam to pop.

    And retire from the dance scene, I don't think I'll ever do. My mother has dancer blood, and at 53 she still dances several nights a week in class, and competes now and then as well.

    Right now, I have more energy than the teenagers and college kids I dance with, so I figure I'm still good for another 30 or 40 years.

  5. Pretty young things are really ignorant of music, even current music.

    Having music chit chat with a girl at a club:
    ME: I'm really excited. The Killers have a new album coming out.
    19 year old club girl: Who?
    ME: You know, The Killers. (pause) Brandon Flowers, cute singer, lots of make up. "When You Were Young." Their new song is called "Human."
    19YOCG (looking at me like I'm from Mars): Uh, no.

    I went home and frantically googled Flowers just to make sure he wasn't already in his thirties, but no he's only 27.

    Partially, I think this is because the music scene is just really fragmented. It used to be everybody watched the same videos on MTV (or MuchMusic here in Canada). No more.

  6. I just saw an ad for a '90s retro night at a club here in northern Germany. I threw up a little in my mouth. Then I remembered that the young'uns were born in 1989 or so.

  7. I think you just found a weirdo -- I searched MySpace.com (using google) for +"the killers" +female +19, and got 26,000 results.

    Young people watch music videos and listen to the radio more than a little bit ago, though probably not as much as before... I dunno, 1996 or whenever.

    The internet does make it easier for people to sort themselves into narrow hardcore groups, though. Plus the status competition churns a lot faster -- remember way back when you had to have that one friend who knew everything about obscure bands because he was a total loser and did nothing else?

    It took awhile for unknown bands to fan out from these losers. But now these losers have websites like musicforants.com where anyone with an internet connection learns about the hot new thing at the same time, gets bored within 2 weeks, and moves on to another hot new thing.

  8. Grunge (which I'll keep distinct from post-grunge crap like Creed/Nickelback) was great. Pop-punk sucks. Retch. A better variety of punk that maintains a sense of fun is Oi. A band that manages to combine the ass-kicking of the often annoying tough-guy hardcore prevalent today with the fun and unseriousness of Oi is the Slumlords.

    Jerry Cantrell gave a pretty good explanation (that I can't find right now) why they didn't write happier songs. If you're in a good mood there are plenty of better things to do than write songs. You go and enjoy life.

    I've got a post that could use your improving. I remember you writing about verbal vs visuspatial music with jazz and polyphony as examples. I can't find it now.

    Post-punk, like it's poppier sibling new wave, is a bastard offspring of punk that isn't punk at all (the older conformist child is of course hardcore). Public Image Ltd and Wire were post-punk, Duran Duran and Flock of Seagulls were new wave (the most flagrantly horrible part of 80s music). I have to admit this though, which I've heard described as new wave revival.

  9. Nevermind, I found the old post I was looking for. It was on this blog and I had been searching GNXP.

  10. Jerry Cantrell gave a pretty good explanation (that I can't find right now) why they didn't write happier songs. If you're in a good mood there are plenty of better things to do than write songs. You go and enjoy life.

    Oh baloney. No one was complaining about not having super-peppy bubblegum -- just that it was too mopey and depressing, which it was.

    That's the quintessential whiny teenager response: everyone who isn't as exhibitionistically mopey as I am must be living a perfectly perky life, free of major problems.

    Dude, that sounded stupid when people said it in 8th grade, and it sounds downright pathetic when people say it as adults.

  11. It used to be everybody watched the same videos on MTV (or MuchMusic here in Canada).

    name drop alert:
    i was at a video launch party and chatted a bit with muchmusic vj sarah taylor and her bf. she has an interesting backstory.

  12. Jeez, I made up the term "post-punk" to describe The Clash's second album in my review for my college newspaper in 1978. So, that's the hip new term three decades later?

    You young people need to put down their video games and invent some new musical styles.


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