Author: Jim DeRogatis
Publisher: Da Capo Press
Genre: Music Essays/Criticism
Retail Price: 9.99
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Raised a metalhead, the “alternative” explosion of the 90s destroyed all that I held dear. Before I had a chance to really absorb the brilliance of Sacred Reich and Queensryche and any other “rike”-sounding band out there, the metal scene was invaded, and then overthrown, by the likes of Alice In Chains, Stone Temple Pilots, and Soundgarden. By the time Pearl Jam hit with “Jeremy” and wiped out the last vestiges of metalmania, I had already gotten into punk by way of the Ramones and Misfits. Soon, I would get into ska and bypass 90s rock entirely, blissfully ignoring it but always resenting it.
Whether it be my alterna-lovin’ fiance, or the feeling that “alternative” is now so uncool that it finally is the alternative, or that 21st century music is so terrible that even Oasis sounds good (okay, not quite), over the past few years I have been turning my ear toward alternative, or more specifically, the true alternative before 90s pop took that label. I’m now a huge fan of groups that my metal upbringing and punk/ska elitism would normally have forced me to snub, like the Pixies, the Vaselines, Galaxie 500, Sugarcubes, Bjork, the Replacements, etc.
But this book did seem to be about the mainstream 90s music that killed metal and ruined the good name of alternative — Kurt and Courtney, Eddie Vedder, Smashing Pumpkins, Lollapalooza, Tori Amos, Nine Inch Nails, Dave Mathews Band, Spin Doctors, the whole pile of crappola from Seattle grunge to female singer/songwriter fare to the “Second British Invasion” to retro-hippy rock. It looked like it was tapping into the ever-shortening gap between actual events and nostalgia. Milking it, like the ironic title.
The cards were stacked against me liking this book. I don’t like 90s music, I don’t like people making a buck off of nostalgia. But once I started reading, I couldn’t put it down. Bottom line: Jim DeRogatis is a great subjective rock critic, and an even better writer (perhaps for being so subjective).
This book collects many of his essays, interviews and reviews during the alternative period, categorized by subgenre and tied together with interesting introductions that help place things in context. His pieces are written artfully and insightfully, if often cynically, which not only make them interesting to read today but prove his observations were dead-on when viewed with the power of hindsight.
What I like about DeRogatis is that he tells it like it is. He never joined the sheep that automatically had to love every hip band that came along. Pearl Jam are self-righteous and oh-so-important, Smashing Pumpkins whiny and absorbed, Rage Against the Machine hypocritical. He doesn’t hesitate to call out a band as being a fraud or a clone or contrived. He reviews albums based on how he feels about the music, not by how many units were sold (and that integrity got him fired from Rolling Stone, stemming from an against-the-tide negative review of Hootie & the Blowfish).
DeRogatis also offers a lot of coverage of bands that preempted the alternative movement and those that survived it. For the former, there’s Big Black, John Cale, Brian Eno, and Pere Ubu. For the latter, Flaming Lips, Weezer, Spiritualized and others, showing that the alternative explosion didn’t happen in a vacuum, but was and is part of a long continuum. While it’s obvious to music lovers, that vital point is never mentioned by most music writers who lazily play off trends like a new, revolutionary thing.
But even the necessary inclusions in this book — Nirvana, Courtney Love, Pearl Jam, Smashing Pumpkins — are enjoyable because of DeRogatis’ observations of their music and personalities, and his interviews with the movers and shakers of the alternative scene are much more illuminating than any fluff piece in any mainstream music rag.
Bottom Line: A book about alternarock that didn’t make me vomit.