Bicycle riding has one virtue that exceeds the others (the rush of an oncoming Nissan Armada, the random sneak downpour): occasional epiphanies. As I listened to Throbbing Gristle on the way in to work this morning, I wondered what had become of alternative music. I mean, I know what has become of it--I've been slowly making up for ten lost years by gathering it together on my iPod. But nearly all alternative music is catchy, gentle, and melodic. It is also sincere and pleasant, which distinguishes it from commercial music, which, true to its name is so incincere and over-polished that it sounds like a series of ad jingles.
In the 1970s, before media fragmentation, mainstream culture was ubiquitous. We had three TV stations, a few radio stations, the local paper, and that was it. Music was dominated by vanilla trends and we were all subjected to the same crap. In the summer of 1975, the Billboard chart-toppers included the Captain and Tennille, John Denver, Wings, the Eagles, and Glen Campbell. We were all torn apart by the Captain and Tennille's love, but for different reasons.
Because the force of popular culture was so singular, it pretty much demanded a subculture to flourish. Punk got most of the attention as the counterpunch to Elton John (top song, November 1975), but even further out there was industrial music. In 1977, Throbbing Gristle released its first album, The Second Annual Report, and it was seriously harsh. (Here's a video of a performance from about 1980.) Industrial music plays with sonic noise, screams, machines, and heavy percussive elements to produce roughly the opposite effect in the listener as, say, Tony Orlando and Dawn (top song, August 1975). In my mindstream, that's a good thing.
In 1979, they released 20 Jazz Funk Greats, with a gauzy picture on the cover of the band looking like Abba (top song, April 1977). Of course, there weren't twenty songs on the album, they weren't jazz or funk, and they never became hits. In fact, the band was at Beachy Head, a famous last stop for England's suicidal. The intention, explicit in this recording, was to offer a rebuttal to the treacle that poured out of every radio. It was an alternative.
But with niche media, we don't have a mainstream. For those of us of a certain age, the 1970s meant not having access to the alternative. I didn't discover Throbbing Gristle until it was defunct, when I was in college. But now, with iTunes and the internet, being in backwater America doesn't mean you're isolated. The function of "the alternative" (in music, movies, art) is no longer to refute popular culture, it's to offer a non-commercial expression. So we get the Shins and the White Stripes, good bands that are nevertheless a challenge to no status quo.
It is really cool we're not all subjected to Olivia Newton John (top song, March 1975), but it sucks that we're also not driven into those far reaches of human expression. Now that we can go there, we apparently don't care to.