As the latest Lollapalooza tour makes its way across America (and on to Charles Town, W.Va., this Thursday), two points keep recurring: First, that alternative music is now the mainstream, and second, that the punk revolution has finally ended in victory.
As for the first, there's little room for debate. Such second-generation rockers as Bob Dylan, Van Morrison and Pink Floyd are being shouldered aside on radio and TV to make room for next-generation stars like U2, the Cranberries and R.E.M. Look at the charts, and you'll see Live, White Zombie and Soul Asylum outselling Rod Stewart, Elton John and Stevie Wonder. Turn on the radio, and you'll find surprisingly little difference between the bands played on conservative album-oriented rock stations and those preferred by modern-rock outlets.
Bob Seger to the contrary, it seems as if fewer and fewer Americans want "that old-time rock and roll."
But being the new mainstream isn't quite the same as being the music's salvation. Nor is alternarock's success proof that the punk revolution -- if, indeed, it was a revolution -- necessarily ended in victory. In fact, given the amount of argument and anger that has been generated within the alternarock community over issues like "authenticity" and "indie credibility," there's reason to worry that this new aesthetic may be the death of rock and roll.
Start with the way success is seen as a stigma in some circles. It used to be that every rock star hopeful lusted after hit records and packed houses. Some even wrote songs about it -- remember "So You Wanna Be a Rock 'n' Roll Star" by the Byrds? "Ziggy Stardust" by David Bowie? "Juke Box Hero" by Foreigner?
Forget it. Scroll through the alternative music newsgroup on the internet (alt.music.alternative) and you'll find dozens of postings griping that this band or that is too popular or "too MTV" to be alternative. Flip through the pages of music 'zines like Maximum Rock & Roll, and you'll see letters arguing that even attempting to reach a mass audience invalidates the music. Things have gotten to such a state that it wouldn't be surprising to see some cred-conscious band actually go out and urge people not to buy their albums, the way Courtney Love urges Lollapalooza fans to shout obscenities.
What happened? Critic Dave Marsh, in a recent essay, argued that this unease over success stems from the folk music movement and its notion of "authenticity." As he points out, "Folk music scholars . . . insisted that Tin Pan Alley songwriters who used folk elements created 'inauthentic' songs; [real] folk music arose and was passed along anonymously and orally."
Normally, we don't think of folk music scholars as having had much sway with the rock generation, but as Marsh points out, their odd sense of authenticity echoes through the rock era. Authenticity was the issue in 1965, when fans at the Newport Folk Festival booed Bob Dylan for going electric; it was the issue in 1977, when punk rockers snarled that others were just "poseurs"; and it was the issue in 1994, when Kurt Cobain wrote in his suicide note that "The worst crime I could think of would be to pull people off by faking it, pretending as if I'm having 100% fun."
Why did Cobain think that pretending to have fun was such a vile misdeed? Because it was spelled out in what he referred to as "the Punk Rock 101 courses over the years." These weren't actual college classes, of course; it was just an ironic way of describing the ongoing dialog within the alternative music world over just what concepts like authenticity, independence, community and punk rock meant. But the conclusion Cobain reached from those "lessons" speaks to how dangerously skewed the alternarock catechism has become.
Today's alternarockers see the punk explosion of the late '70s as the beginning of modern music history. In their view, punk was a revolution, in which the evil forces of corporate rock -- acts like Pink Floyd, Fleetwood Mac, the Eagles -- were overthrown by the fans, and a new order was established. In the post-punk world, community was valued over commodity, real emotion over calculated spectacle, and do-it-yourself ingenuity over starmaking machinery. This was what bands like the Sex Pistols and the Ramones struggled to establish, and what acts like the Rollins Band and Fugazi strive to maintain.
A neat theory, except for one thing: If punk was such a successful revolution, how come Pink Floyd, Fleetwood Mac and the Eagles still sell albums? It's as if the leaders of the French Revolution had failed to take the Bastille, then announced, "We really won. We're just letting the Bourbons stay on the throne because we don't care about that stuff."