Alternative Music, Alternative Audiences

“Can a mere song change people’s minds? I doubt that it is so, but a song can infiltrate your heart and the heart may change your mind.” – Elvis Costello

If you are a keen follower of the music press – particularly alternative publications – you might be aware of a recently controversial opinion put out by a Kerrang! journalist regarding who should and should not be allowed to pick up a guitar.

Basically, the argument goes that being bullied in school acts as a rite of passage in the alternative music world and that ‘popular’ kids shouldn’t be allowed to speak for the outcasts that they might have disregarded, or even bullied themselves in school.

Anecdote time: during my time at secondary school, my friends and I took a whole load of crap for looking different and listening to – you guessed it – alternative music. Come year ten, when certain favourites of ours started to seep into the airwaves, suddenly our interests began to gain popularity. Of course we were bitter to see those who had given us hell enjoying the very things we had used to seek refuge in, and for that, I can personally understand, relate to and appreciate the argument. But I’m going to shut it down anyway.

Now, the entire point of alternative music is to provide an alternative to the mainstream, whether that be in terms of fashion, film, or of course music (among other things). Arguably, the ‘alternative’ label could be compared to that of ‘indie’, which was initially used in reference to independent artists, but now lumps together all those who share a certain sound, regardless of whether they signed with a major or not. Clearly, the same can be said for alternative artists; so long as you have power chords nailed, you can expect a bit of airtime on Scuzz TV, whether you were the most popular kid in school or not.

But even at that, ‘alternative’ is an umbrella label and so many varying sub-genres take shelter beneath it. When the likes of Nirvana, Oasis and Twenty One Pilots have all been branded as ‘alternative’ in their time, how do you decide who is more worthy of the label? Must we read their school diaries and decide based on who suffered the most? And what happens when said artists break the mainstream, as all three have done in their careers – must they then renounce their alternativeness and pick up the pop mantle?

Alternative music is supposed to be about self-expression and acceptance – it should be used to build bridges, not put up walls between people. Variety in both performers and audiences is not a negative thing – if you only played for/listened to people who shared the same experiences and opinions as you, then you can never truly achieve the change so many alternative artists strive for.

The opening quote from Costello was written in reference to protest songs, though it is still applicable. Let the ‘norms’ and bullies delve into the outcast back catalogue and experience how their actions (or lack of) made their alternative classmates feel – how can they be expected to appreciate it otherwise? And, if an attractive poster boy wants to sing a cheesy pop-punk song about girls then let him, if that’s what compels him. If you listen carefully, you might even find that everyone has issues to deal with, regardless of how popular they were in school. Perhaps we could all benefit from listening to each other.


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