The Myth of the ‘Alternative Nation’

Posted: April 10, 2013 in Trends - Hip Hop, Grunge and Alternative

One of the tragic findings of market research firms and sociologists is that when enough people are lined up under an overall guidance, personality makes surprisingly little difference. Individual morality and beliefs fade, not because the group imposes will on the individual, but because the individual and the group work together to find the point of agreement at which they can coexist while the central decision of the group remains unchanged. It’s simply a case that there are significant boundaries to how exceptional an individual can be – on multiple levels the choices available are constrained by social norms, educational structures, physical requirements, the need to exchange/interact. We’re only exceptional by comparison to a norm, the depth of our exceptionalism relies on what the norm is and can stretch to. It’s why a modern western society can be so accepting of a diversity of life choices and still pull toward an imaginary centre, even without laws mandating a set social reality, and simultaneously why most “alternative lifestyles” aren’t more than a few steps from the norm, they’re expressions of an accepted consensus. That doesn’t mean individuals disappear, it just means the overall movement continues regardless.

That’s where the purveyors of the idea of an ‘alternative nation’ and Kurt Cobain, with his oft-expressed annoyance at the nature of his audiences, both proved tragically deceived. What they were, in fact, doing was observing an overall cultural moment then trying to claim that the music should mean the audience was a specific and unified phenomenon. This meant attempting to place a box round an amorphous and ill-defined component of the whole of late Eighties-early Nineties youth then painting music over the top of them as if music was so clearly decisive in defining social values. Too much energy was invested in setting up an imaginary conflict between those listening to heavy metal, who as a consequence were supposedly macho and sexist; versus those who listened to the next fashion trend in music who were apparently purveyors of enlightenment. Essentially distinguishing aspects of the front-men, characteristics of the band identities, were observed and then assigned uncritically to the audience as if one was a simple reflection of the other. It produced a simplistic vision in which you, individual music consumer, were not simply listening to Axl Rose or Kurt Cobain, you were merely a blank template through which the media-distorted and accentuated aspects of their personas were projected.

As an aside, the false nature of the ‘alternative nation’ hypothesis set up a moment in which Axl Rose, as a huge fan of Nirvana’s music and of up-and-coming currents of alternative music such as industrial, was fundamentally precisely the alternative consumer being tagged as the ‘alternative nation’ at the same time as being held up as the pantomime villain the ‘alternative nation’ was attempting to topple. The ‘alternative nation’ was a ragged tarpaulin hung over a very broad tent of people and saying nothing about those within its confines. Instead of seeing the gap with reality and then reacting by halting the lazy attempt to read the characteristics of the audience from the item hung over their heads, the challenge was resolved by an appeal to invisible enemies; the claim that some parts of the audience were illegitimate, unworthy, untrue. Of course, as usual with these kinds of witch-hunts, no one actually believed that they could possibly be the person being targeted. It would have been a lot more true to simply recognise that whatever comments could be made about the actions and beliefs of Kurt Cobain or Axl Rose, those actions and beliefs belonged to those individuals and were true or untrue of most of either audience because those two individuals were inherently just part of the generation making up the audience rather than superior to it.

The idea of an ‘alternative nation’ fundamentally undervalued the audiences. The bands tagged as the representative voices of a new generation didn’t arise and then create the audience; those bands arose because that audience was already in existence – the fact it took the means of music production, distribution and promotion time to recognise that there was a music consuming audience, with liberal social values, that would be interested in listening to something more than Genesis, is the crux of the issue. The audience itself was already there and consisted, like any audience, of those who can critically listen and distinguish between fact and fiction and who do think about the perspectives the bands are relaying; plus those who critically listen but primarily to the music rather than the lyrical philosophies and intent; plus those who could give a darn either way. The idea of ‘alternative nation’ was essentially an elitist view in which the masses slavishly follow the ‘great men of history’ and therefore are defined as a single bloc, with a single intent – rather than a temporary accretion of range of individuals with a range of reasons for listening. It suggested that you, as a member of that audience, regardless of whether you were in a music venue or listening in a public or private location, were indistinguishable from someone in a completely different location.

To reemphasise, it relied on overrating the unified nature of music audiences; a few thousand people in a room pledged to deliver a particular social/political change is a movement, a few thousand people with nothing else to do on a Saturday night and a desire to pump fist/head is just a crowd. Consequently, whether that audience listened to Guns n’ Roses or to Nirvana was a foolish distinction to make; the audience listening to either band didn’t base their views on gender, race or sexual orientation wholesale on the politics of the band they were observing.

The belief that there was ever one single audience for grunge, or more specifically for the music of Nirvana/Pearl Jam/Alice in Chains et al., and that it wasn’t, at least from 1991 onward, primarily a mainstream rock audience, relied on an overestimation of the difference between rock music and this particular sub-category. The music had fed – just as Guns n’ Roses, Poison, Whitesnake did – on Led Zeppelin, on the Beatles, on Black Sabbath, on punk and emerged with a different sound but a vast range of shared characteristics that made them close brethren. If you wanted to state that those specifically pledged to the K Records DIY scene, or those ascribing to Riot Grrl, or a living within one of the small local scenes of any music subgenre that defined itself not be sound but by a particular methodology or philosophy, therefore derived actions or behaviour or opinions from the music – you’d have a case. But within the melting pot of the mainstream, a non-‘scene’ with no core pledge or commitment, trying to distinguish the fans was ridiculous…

…Except it did serve a purpose. Kurt Cobain felt at times he had been rejected and spurned as a sell-out by those who remained in the K Records circle; to what extent this was true versus being representative of his own inner conflicts is hard to say but I’ve yet to see any comments attributed to any of the key figures in the underground scene doing anything other than celebrating Nirvana. From mid-1992 Nirvana’s sound was refocused, attempting to push away from the mainstream tone into which the band had dived. In the background, launching attacks on both Guns n’ Roses and Pearl Jam simultaneously set up a distinction between a supposed ‘past’ generation, represented by Guns n’ Roses who were busy selling seven million of each volume of Use Your Illusion at precisely the same time Nirvana was declaring them irrelevant, and a ‘false’ generation of fans who preferred Pearl Jam and therefore weren’t real fans. The fact that Nevermind (and In Utero) were selling to precisely the same hard rock audience as Use Your Illusion I and II or Ten or Vs was the background reality; the fact that listening to a record isn’t the same as endorsing all its views was reality; the fact that Kurt Cobain despised the sexist, homophobic, racist and macho element of his audience; none of these made the existence of a cohesive or coherent ‘alternative nation’ a reality.

Instead, that idea rests in the realms of utopia, like the Leninist idea that a bourgeois vanguard could spark the ‘natural proletariat’ to rise up and take over the revolution; or that anyone and everyone will become an entrepreneur if they’re simply encouraged by changes to the tax system; or that creating a monotone nation with a unifying strand of race, religion or creed will miraculously remove all social tension. Kurt Cobain’s demand in the original liner notes for fans to “leave us the fuck alone!” was always a hopeless request for people to deselect themselves and felt more like a sop to the conscience of the writer than a genuine avenue of progress. The myth of the ‘alternative nation’, unlocatable, hidden, impossible to distinguish from simply ‘the young’ laid a heavy burden on Kurt’s shoulders at the same time as fuelling a good many playground battles but it was always destined for disappointment as reality warmed the Earth and the idea evaporated.

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