1991: Nirvana Kills Alternative Rock

April 19, 2009



Nirvana releases Nevermindand singlehandedly destroys the futures of Warrant, Ratt, Poison, Dokken, and perhaps even Stryper. These hair metal bands are the known, mostly unmourned victims of the grunge revolution.

But what about alternative rock?

Before the grunge-fueled major label spending spree, there was a version of rock known as alternative rock (sometimes college rock) that encompassed a wide variety of bands including Love & Rockets, Jesus & Mary Chain, Echo & the Bunnymen, My Bloody Valentine, Happy Mondays, James, the Stone Roses and the Pixies, just to name some of the major players. This loose confederation of bands and radio stations operated outside the mainstream (except in Britain where it was the mainstream).

Then Nevermind happened.

Major labels went on a shopping spree, selling hair and buying flannel. The most unlikely of bands suddenly saw A&R men waving blank checks in their general direction. Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, Alice in Chains, Stone Temple Pilots, Smashing Pumpkins were some of the more standard signees.

But the labels went further, seeking to wring the last dollar out of anyone they’d never heard of before. Uncomfortable execs found themselves flattened against the wall of the local dive, staring down the business end of the Butthole Surfers or asking the barkeep if they sold earplugs while getting to the bottom of this whole “Melvins thing.”

Case in point: Royal Trux. Fished off the Drag City roster by Virgin, Royal Trux gave thir soon-to-be-jobless A&R person the unenviable task of trying to market Sweet Sixteen, an album whose production values frequently slipped below lo-fi into no-fi and whose cover featured an overflowing, feces laden… fuck it. See the photo below.

Giving your artists creative control... it's a career-killer.

Giving your artists creative control... it's a career-killer.

Rock radio stations (who exist to push major label music and sell advertising) hastily revamped playlists and rechristened themselves “alternative.” Alternative rock stations, who had spearheaded the grunge attack, suddenly found themselves in the company of bigger, more well paid competition.

Major labels shoved everybody and anybody into the studio, grabbing them a Butch Vig or closest non-union equivalent. Turds were polished. Soul-patches were immaculately groomed. Studios turned into methadone clinics only without all that morphine or rehabilitation.

Kurt sticks it to the man. Via the man.

Kurt sticks it to the man. Via the man.

The former indie bands rebelled, often in t-shirt form. They started fires, used massive amounts of drugs, got hospitalized, broke up and refused to shower. Once Kurt took himself out of circulation, the majors were freed of their Jiminy Cricket. More cooperative and manipulated bands were signed. Candlebox, Bush, Seven Mary Three, Better Than Ezra, etc. Weak, watery shit, cloaked in the “alternative” whitewash, rinsed and sanitized for the masses.

The old altrock, with its variety and imagination, was replaced with wall-to-wall guitars, hoarse bellowing and ritualistic abuse of the loud-quiet-loud dynamic. An occasional jangle-pop band was thrown in to sucker in the ladies (Toad the Wet Sprocket, Live, etc.) The underground went deeper as the labels reps roamed the landscape hoping for the last great white hope.

Exhibit A – 1991 (the Victims):
the Pixies release their last album
My Bloody Valentine release their last album
the Jesus and Mary Chain enter the studio for their last good album, Honey’s Dead
the Happy Mondays enter the studio for their ill-fated last album, Yes Please! which bankrupts Creation Records
Ministry release their last good album, Psalm 69
Skinny Puppy enters the studio for their last good album, Last Rights

Alternative rock radio was now a loud, tuneless blare. Flannel was the new black. Grunge was the new metal. Alternative rock is dead. Long live alternative rock. 

Coming up: FNM, RHCP and RATM – Acronyms of doom. Nu-rock gang-rapes alternative rock’s cooling corpse. Meanwhile, major labels execs find Korn in their shit, feed it to the public.

Bonus download:
Solvent – My Radio.mp3
Electro artist sings nostalgically about how the radio used to be cool, man, but now it’s changed.



  1. I think the fact that the Pixies hated each other in the end had more to do with their down fall than Nirvana. I still blame MTV for the death of alternative rock music.

    • Yeah, the whole victim list is pretty facetious.

      MBV – Kevin Shield disappears up his own ass with $500k of his label’s money.
      JAMC – Jim Reid starts dating Hope Sandoval and the result is “Stoned & Dethroned”
      Mondays – Shaun Ryder disappears up his own crack pipe with several hundred thousand of his label’s money
      Ministry – ran out of good ideas?
      Skinny Puppy – take your pick: drug od death, multiple producers, major label pressure, band hates each other…

      But “Nirvana kills rock” grabs a lot more attention than the assumed “corporate rock kills rock.”

  2. I think Kurt Cobain’s death and the reaction to it, might have had a role in it. Right afterwards it seemed like the wind was taken out of Rock’s sails so to speak. A lot of the mainstream rock music that followed at least in the US around 94-96, was subpar. It just seems that in the late 90’s record companies were looking more for the quick fix as opposed to taking the time to develop an artist.

    Nirvana could have been hit or miss but I think it helped that they came at just the right time. I think “Nevermind” is a great record but their have been plenty of great releases that were released at the wrong time that didn’t sell or just plain failed to capture an audience.

    Have you ever seen the Documentary “Dig” about the Dandy Warhols and the Brian Johnstown Massacre. Its interesting look inside two bands that were thought to have mass potential by the record companies but didn’t mainly because the record companies grew impatient. I think serves as an example for alot of artist on why it is good idea to go it independent or DIY. I thought it was a good story too.

  3. Yeah, if I have to hear that Bohemian Like You song again it will be too soon. They diffinitely sold out hard. Interesting doc though.

  4. I don’t know if Nirvana killed alternative music, but Nirvana’s popularity was definitely a double edged sword, I will admit. I miss the days when “alternative” wasn’t a positive signifier denoting a sound or look but just a catch-all phrase for music that no one really knew how to label at all, so it got tossed in the “alternative” bin at the local music shop. Yes, when Nirvana hit it big the copycats, who obviously overlooked Nirvana’s catchy melodies and really great musical skills, got snagged by greedy record companies, and as a result “alternative” became a brand name for bad, sullen, and unimaginative music. On the other hand it also allowed for bands that would not have gotten so much as a second look a chance at getting wider exposure. However, greed always kills great art.

    Also, I agree with you on those albums of ’91 being something of a swan song for true alt rock. I have them all and they’re all high points of alt music of the 90’s, ironically. Loveless by My Bloody Valentine I still listen to to this day.

    • Excellent comment, ZIRGAR.

      That whole corporate collection of tuneless grunge had me labelling every new shitty single on the radio with, “Is this Candlebox?”

      That question has since been replaced with, “Is this Nickelback?”

    • Hey, Zirgar!

      Shouldn’t you be writing for your own under-utilized website instead of stealing what I was going to post here almost word for word?

      Now I have to come up with something different; an alternative you might say. Bastard!

    • Oops. Didn’t realize this was another re-run.

  5. Well there are a ton of alternative rock bands out there now, including my own band 3rd Take. I think the thing that is important now is that alternative now is a bit different than it was in the early 90s. The bands today are utilizing influences from the past 20 years instead of actually creating the genre.

    • What I hear hitting the radio under the “rock/altrock” label these days seems to still be pulling from the same set of grunge influences, rather than actually pulling from the wider spectrum of nineties’ music.

      There was a ton of other “alternative” rock being made, but all the labels and radio execs wanted was the next Nirvana.

      Things are much, much different away from the mainstream, which is why I spend as little time as possible splashing around in it.

      Good luck with the band, aaron. Thanks for the comment.

  6. Other than their lead singer, Nirvana didn’t kill anything.

    Once upon a time, there used to be music that was an alternative to the kind of vastly over-hyped mainstream dreck that was rammed into our ears. Some of it was rock, but it spanned a wide spectrum from rap, to country, to outright random noise. Perhaps the biggest distinguishing feature was that alternative artists achieved minimal commercial success and weren’t that obsessed with it…provided they were still successful enough to get as much drugs and tail as they wanted.

    Such music was generally played on college radio stations. My local university station was playing Nirvana, The Smashing Pumpkins, Red Hot Chili Peppers, The Barenaked Ladies, Jane’s Addiction and many other unknowns when they were still busking, handing out demo tapes and looking for record deals. At the same time, they also played cassette tapes by a guy working at the local A&P supermarket who got high on LSD, recorded his random thoughts and set them to music. If not always enjoyable, alternative music was at least refreshing.

    Nirvana didn’t kill alternative music, the music industry killed alternative music by turning it into Alternative Rock. Nirvana just cranked out some music that just struck too much of a chord for the industry to ignore. Once they made it big, executives demanded more of the same, so they could do what they always do, ear-rape people with 100,000 varieties of the exact same thing.

    But once such artists achieved success, modern capitalism did what it does so well. It takes something that is good/pure/revolutionary/cool and clones, copies, waters it down like a homoeopathic concoction, force feeds it to everyone and then uses it to sell other shit to people desperately looking to be cool. Forget the product, it’s all about the packaging. (On the plus side, dressing like your average Canadian male was never so cool.)

    This is what happened to Rap and Alternative Rock. Genres that had something to say and a new way to say it got hijacked by the very system they once resisted, or at least were excluded from. A few people had to be heavily bribed, killed off and/or replaced with Westworld robots, but eventually, the genres were reduced to milquetoast versions of themselves that sung the praises of mindless materialism, easily marketable love, and Walmart. The system’s capacity to squeeze every single drop of enjoyment out of something and replace it with toxic, manipulative, bullshit is truly awe inspiring. Eventually Grunge music was used to sell sugary cereal to kids.

    Meanwhile, alternative music retreated to the point where shoe-gazing cuddlecore and electronica became their meat and potatoes.

    Ah, whatever. Never mind.

    • Didn’t Zirgar say something to this effect over a year ago?

    • I’m rather partial to shoegazing cuddlecore and electronica, although I tend to like my shoegazing with a bit less cuddling and little more feedback/sonic brutality, like when MBV erupts like this:

      (Start about 1:55 in…)

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