Parker Burwell Toop credit Jak Kilby


The ‘Alternative’/’Mainstream’ Trope

Whilst perusing the Trash Theory vids posted on YouTube, I’ve been struck by the prevalence of one particular archetype (to use a different conceit to the usual trope/meme reductions), that of ‘alternative movements’ (one needs to use the inverted comma button so frequently in this sort of discussion) ‘versus’ (see what I mean?) the ‘mainstream’. I’m certainly aware that this supposed dichotomy has been around as long as I’ve been following ‘popular’ (aargh!) music, from around 1968.

So, we have, in these videos, the following sub-genres posited as alternatives’ to the ‘straights’: Punk Rock/Post-Punk/Pop-Punk/Skate-Punk/Folk-Punk/Ska-Punk/Dance-Punk/Hardcore/Post-Hardcore/EMO/Garage Rock. All of ‘em chasing the elusive cachet of, a variously credible ‘progressive’/ ’underground’/ ’alternative alternative’ to a purportedly less challenging Other. As Frank Zappa sardonically described a ‘difficult’ number during a 1968 concert at Boston’s Ark, it will “be better for you, in the long run”, indicating the Protestant work ethic that underlying much of America’ and Europe’s listening habits. Following Trash Theory’s series of videos, one can track particular generations’ notions of ‘Progressive Sounds’, from American 1950′s ‘Race Music’. i.e. black R & B, through to the ‘Blues and Folk Boom’ in the UK in the 1960s. The advent of ‘college radio’ and the university circuit, established by the late 1960s/early 1970s, potentiated both progressive rock (as described in Mike Barnes’s recent book) and, lest we forget, English free improvisation.

Trash Theory covers ‘Husker Du and the Birth of Alternative Rock’, citing the band as a precursor to Nirvana (never mind The Pixies or The Minutemen). Other videos cover The Smiths and British ‘Indie Rock’ in the 1980s, and The Buzzcocks’ influence on 1977′s DIY culture in the UK. Another decade, another ‘revolutionary’ act of independence. There is the ‘New York Revolution’ of the 1960s (The Velvet Underground, etc.) and again in the early 2000s (The Yeah, Yeah, Yeahs, The Strokes, The White Stripes, LCD Sound System, Liars, and associated UK bands such as Franz Ferdinand and The Libertines), and how ‘Maps’ transcended the Post-Punk Revival (I wasn’t sure which revival this referenced, by this point). The Foals’s 1975 apparently represented ‘the 30-year retrospective cycle’, whatever that is, presumably another form of Simon Reynolds’ Retromania? 

We are truly down the rabbit hole here, with pop eating itself with an increasingly ravenous appetite. I haven’t heard much of Trash Theory’s later bands, but it’s clear that dance music isn’t the only musical genre that has split itself into a myriad of competing subdivisions.

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Banner and book cover photo credit: Jak Kilby