The '90s don't suck, they rock

SALLY PRYOR
Last updated 14:46 07/02/2013
Nirvana

Nirvana's Nevermind kicked off a decade of great music.

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Optimistic about the past, and nostalgic for the future? Searching for an alternative to anything "alternative", that's preferably indie but only if it's actually indie and not non-alternative "indie", which is all "mainstream" anyway?

Man, the '90s were complicated, especially if you lived through them. Craig Schuftan, Australian author and broadcaster, remembers the '90s fondly and it's not just because he's spent the past two years immersed in them.

His resulting book, Entertain Us! The Rise and Fall of Alternative Rock in the Nineties, charts the evolution of the alternative music scene from underground to MTV, from Nevermind to Odelay, from Sonic Youth to Kid A.

If these words mean little to you and you wish that weren't so, Schuftan's book is good place to start. But if Beck and Nirvana and Thurston Moore and Thom Yorke were all constant companions as you came of age, the book could well be a revelation.

We are, after all, talking about a time two decades ago, a time you might remember as a dead zone in revolutionary terms. But, as he set about reacquainting himself with some of these familiar sounds and stories 20 years on, Schuftan was pleasantly surprised to find not only that most '90s music has stood the test of time but that it's a time that young people today (Schuftan is 38) think of as the last word in "wish I'd been there".

End of history

"One of the things that surprises me is when I talk to people who are a little or a lot younger than me, they talk about the '90s in a really romantic way - 'such an awesome time, I wish I could have been around then' - basically the way that me and my friends used to talk about the '70s or the '60s. And that really shocked me, partly because it's weird to think you lived through something that people are nostalgic about," he says.

"The weird thing, though, is what I mostly remember about the '90s is the feeling of nothing happening. I remember me and my friends complaining endlessly... there was this constant complaint about how we're living in the end of history, there're no new ideas, there's no authenticity, nothing seems real any more. It was like the idea that people would one day be nostalgic for all of that would have seemed insane."

But that was now - count them - more than 20 years ago, enough time and distance to be able to pinpoint, with relative precision, the rise and fall of musical movement. But first things first: what does "alternative" really mean?

"The meaning of that word has kind of become slippery," Schuftan says.

"That term got some currency, especially in America, during the 1980s because there was a feeling that MTV and commercial radio and the charts were so wrapped up in pop, in pop process, and were so ruled by major record companies and their agendas for promoting artists that there was no room for anything else. So if you played music that was a little bit unusual, if you played punk or folk even... you had to form, literally, an alternative reality, an alternative world where you could make music, you could find audiences and you could play gigs often under the radar of the mainstream entertainment industry."

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Alternative became mainstream

So, in the '80s, "alternative" actually meant something. But with the advent of the '90s, something happened. "That music became, briefly, the most popular music in the world, after Nirvana had a hit with Smells Like Teen Spirit and major labels started to take an interest in the network of regional indie bands that had grown up around America," he says.

"That music became popular, it was played on commercial radio and it was shown on MTV. So very quickly it became a description for a style of music and ... already, by the end of 1991 and certainly through 1992, there were people grumbling in the music press that 'alternative' doesn't mean anything any more. How is this alternative when it's the most popular music in the world?"

It would be easy, for a music journalist such as Schuftan, to just give up on trying to define something so seemingly contradictory. But for anyone who can remember heading to the "alternative" section of the record store to find music that you actually liked, the word still resonates.

"I think the conclusion I came to was that 'alternative' is still meaningful as long as there's a kind of ethos attached to it," he says.

"I think for a lot of these bands and the people who loved them, the point, in a way, was to have that music replace Motley Crue and Madonna and Michael Jackson and all that kind of thing, which meant that its job was not to stay alternative. Its job was to provide an alternative, and then for the alternative to get voted in, as it were, to become the power and the dominant force in music."

And when you think back to that time, it was pretty exciting, he says. You could turn on the radio anywhere and more often than not, it would be playing something you actually liked - Sonic Youth or Dinosaur Junior. But the novelty soon wore off.

Dream went sour

"It was a pretty exciting time but it went sour very quickly and there are a few reasons for that. I think at the time there was a sort of fatalism that took over people, especially as 1993 turned into 1994, and people started to wonder whether the whole project of indie rock was kind of hopeless," he says. "Does it always just get co-opted and sold out, is it always destined to bland out and become boring and mainstream? And of course there were people who blamed money and blamed capitalism, a greedy industry which set out to exploit the stuff, which certainly happened."

Audiences, too, had a lot to answer for. Fans of a particular indie band can get very narky if said band suddenly becomes mainstream. Some might call that snobbery but, says Schuftan, what it really means is that audiences can turn and become unpredictable.

"If something goes from selling a thousand copies to selling a million copies, the nature of its relationship with the audience and the world changes really dramatically and really unpredictably. It's a bit scary, and people will interpret things in all kinds of wilful and weird ways," he says.

"If we're going to talk about decline and why it happens, I tend to agree with Naomi Klein, who wrote a book that a lot of people will be familiar with at the end of the '90s called No Logo. She talked about the commercialisation of indie scenes and the underground and alternative culture in general, and she made a good point, which is that if your movement or your protest really has something to say, if it has a tangible, useful message that people can take home and do something with, then really, the entertainment industry can never destroy it."

Revolutionary idea

But alternative music, for all its promise, its tantalising taste of something different, something bigger, could never really work out what it was about.

"It felt like a revolution, it felt like it stood for something, but no one really knew what it was for," Schuftan says.

"Some people had some idea but it was very different to other people's ideas, and it was hard to build a consensus around it. In fact, the only consensus that anyone really came up with was that alternative rock was about being yourself, and being authentic, which, as a revolutionary idea is basically useless."

That said, he admits that one of the best things about the current wave of nostalgia for the '90s is the chance to reacquaint ourselves with that time and to realise that many of the artists were politically committed, even if they didn't have a cohesive message.

And today, of course, defining "alternative" music is even trickier.

"I notice that, in a way, weirdly, it's come to mean '90s music, because after a while, people who were disappointed by the move of alternative rock into the mainstream decided to go back underground again," he says.

"But when that happened, they had to choose a new word, because 'alternative' no longer meant that. Which is why after that, everything is called 'indie', and 'indie' is still the word, really. It's become just as meaningless, in a sense, as 'alternative' did, because it doesn't necessarily mean that the label is indie or the band has an independent ethos, but it describes a certain kind of attitude or a certain kind of noise."

Noise, indeed. See how complicated things were? Mired as he was in all the different mini-waves of musical styles, genres and anecdotes, he decided the best way would be to tell it straight, and start from the beginning.

Disparate times

"It begins right at the start of the decade with the moment immediately after the Berlin Wall has come down and there was a huge wave of optimism in pop culture and youth culture generally, especially in Britain where they were still kind of experiencing what I think is called the third summer of love, when ecstasy has transformed club culture and indie rock," he says.

"There was this fantastically joyous dance music on the radio and on TV, so it begins with that, Stone Roses and Happy Mondays and Primal Scream, and then it moves over to America for the sudden explosion of grunge, of Nirvana and everything that happened in the wake of that."

Then came Britpop, the UK's reaction to grunge, and the crucial arsenal in what many perceived to be a culture war waged by some bands and the music press on airwaves saturated with American bands. "And then through the very weird and very disparate times of the last half of the decade, where alternative rock starts to get mixed up with all kinds of other things, hip hop starts to be heard a little bit more, there's a sense of people going through different fields, different musical traditions to try and expand and make alternative rock a bit more interesting, which is why Radiohead became an important band later in the decade," he says.

The book ends with Woodstock 99, and Radiohead's album Kid A. It was, he says, no easy task to decide on the book's scope and stick to his theme, knowing how passionate and possessive people can get about their favourite bands. Nor does he delve into the Australian music scene, not because it wasn't worth scrutiny, but because Australia held a unique kind of vantage point during the '90s that tells a different story.

"I guess I just realised that what I was particularly interested in was the relationship between British and American bands, and the British and American music scenes during that decade, because I felt like that wasn't story that had been told," he says.

"What I will say about it that I think of it as a very Australian book in the sense that it has what I think of as a triangular perspective of British and American music of that decade which I find most British and Americans don't have. They think of the decade as being either dominated by Britpop or dominated by grunge, depending on which side of the Atlantic they live on. People who grew up in Australia listening to Triple J through that decade have a wonderfully eclectic view of that decade. It's actually quite unique in the world."

- Sydney Morning Herald

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