A moderately awkward white male voice navigates a crowd at “some trust fund baby’s Brooklyn loft,” flirting nervously with a woman who, though she sounds a hell of a lot cooler than he does, steadfastly assures her skittish companion she doesn’t belong at the trendy party either.
This is “Broken,” this is Lovelytheband, and this is the defining sound of alternative music today. The song topped Billboard’s Alternative charts for the year, and it also came in at No. 1 on the year-end list published by Minneapolis’ own alternative radio station, Go 96.3. Glistening with innocuously unquirky perk, the track might have simply been called “pop” in the 20th century, before the likes of Britney aged out of “teenpop” and commandeered that simpler term for their own mega-commercial mutant hybrid of styles. Today, “Broken” is alternative, a term so thoroughly associated with a specific historical moment that I don’t even need to say when—so thoroughly that most people over 40 would put its current usage in scare quotes.
But like all radio formats, alternative has a history—think of how widely what has been marketed as R&B has changed over time. What began in late 1988 as the very Brit-centered and collegiate Modern Rock Chart was soon registering the success of a newly popular hard rock variant inflected by underground tastes. But over the next 20 years alternative would take in not just Pearl Jam and Green Day and the White Stripes but the Primitive Radio Gods and Finger Eleven and Saliva. Alternative was a stylistically fluctuating hard-rock format, a catchall for whatever commercial guitar music had some slightly rebellious cachet at the moment.
Earlier this decade, though, there was, as nonpareil music chart analyst Chris Molanphy noticed at the time, “a tonal shift toward poppier sounds” in alternative, and that’s really where our story begins. The acts Lovelytheband brushes sonic shoulders with draw from domesticated pop versions of already genteel indie: chirpy Foster the People synths, folksy Lumineers two-steps, booming Edward Sharpe group-sings. And curiously, much of it, like the couch potato jock jams of Imagine Dragons, wouldn’t have existed without hip-hop’s rhythmic imperative, even if its sprechgesang is more in the lineage of Barenaked Ladies or, hell, Robert Preston in The Music Man.
A “today is the first inspirational meme of the rest of your life” vibe runs through alternative lyrics, from Imagine Dragons’ “Whatever It Takes” (a title that nicely encapsulates their baldly ambitious aesthetic) to “Live in the Moment” by Portugal. The Man (best known for taking their Marvelettes rip “Feel It Still” to pop radio) to Walk the Moon’s “One Foot.” “There’s a desert in my blood and a storm in my eyes,” Walk the Moon’s singer guy insists, but there’s a calm in his voice, and that’s today’s alternative for you: men insisting they experience a broader range of emotions than their unharrowed voices express.
Yes, men. The Mitskis and Soccer Mommys who currently dominate the indie world may look back to the alt-rock heyday, but they’d stick out on Go like an all-acoustic Hank Williams cover on K102. (Billie Ellish, who skulks spookily in the shadowy realm Lorde left behind for pop, is the rare non-dude who bucks the trend.) Sometimes girls want to hear their fears and desires expressed in a voice they can identify with; sometimes girls want to hear boys pretend they’re not all soulless monsters by expressing those fears and desires instead. Alternative caters to that latter want with a voice that’s white, geographically indiscriminate, and male. (That voice, for instance, is all that distinguishes Bastille’s “Happier,” with its Marshmello production, from the EDM-folk that Zed and his ilk play for the pop kids.)
Contemporary alternative asks very little of a listener. I don’t just mean sonically or politically (though the current chart topper, Mumford & Sons’ “Guiding Light,” really is chill-out music for people who get anxious listening to Coldplay) but also psychologically or sexually: If pop thrives on the terror and drama of adolescence, alternative holds your hand and reassures you, a pose epitomized by Foster the People’s recent hit, “Sit Next to Me,” which invites you to do just that so you two can “see where things go naturally.” It’s a world where pretty, passive dorks float adorably in your vicinity until one magically becomes your boyfriend.
In this tame context, Panic! at the Disco rises up from the past like an insufficiently repressed id: Brandon Urie is the grand old man of this shit, the only survivor of the mid-’00s, the last era when rock was seen as a potent commercial force. Note, however, that Panic!’s decadent “Say Amen! (Saturday Night)” wasn’t as big an alternative hit as their mood-boosting “High Hopes,” and that while darksiders Muse have stuck around, their heirs are the sullen-not-dystopian Twenty One Pilots, whose mopery is permitted as a cautionary reminder of the misery that awaits if you don’t accept alt’s chipper bromides.
In alternative years, Panic! and Muse are Methuselahs. Wizened figures of yore like Beck put in an appearance from time to time as well, but the only real holdout from the Clinton administration is a band whose existence is unimaginable without “alternative” as a format. I’m talking, of course and unfortunately, about Weezer, who seem like they’re remaining popular just to spite us. Just because you hadn’t paid any attention to them for years before their “Africa” doesn’t mean they’d gone anywhere. When AJR, touted as “the next Jonas Brothers” just six years ago, wanted some alternative cred, they invited Rivers Cuomo in for a duet.
Admit it and accept it: Weezer were ahead of their time. You could trace Cuomo’s classic nerd pose back to untrendy punk godfather Jonathan Richman in his earliest Modern Lovers phase, an exaggerated normality as the mark of a true rebel. But Cuomo retained the image without risking the awkwardness. This is, after all, a guy who based his whole career on the lie that the world didn’t find Buddy Holly and Mary Tyler Moore sexy.
From Weezer, this current music inherited a belief that you could be “alternative” and “normal.” What forever sets “alternative” apart from other formats is the opposition inescapably encoded in its name, its need for some version of a mainstream to reject. More often than not, alternative’s baseline impulse has been an aggressive pushback against the adult imperative to behave. But over the past decade, it’s grown into a refuge for teens who hear pop music as too garish or childish or sexual or superficial—all of which it often is—who identified with the message of Lorde’s “Royals,” who imagine their ordinariness as a form of protest against excess.
Today’s alternative is a realm of mainstream misfits, reinforcing its listeners’ beliefs that their insecurities distinguish them as honored outcasts, to imagine themselves on the outside by pretending there’s such a thing as an “inside.” It has that much in common with yesterday’s alternative; even if the music and clothes and language have shifted with the years, the alternative ethos that you find your identity and your people by bonding over a shared belief in your own damaged psyches remains. Or as Lovelytheband chirps, “I like that you’re broken, broken like me.” Their little group has always been, and always will until the end.