As traditional notions of the young white male crumbled due to economics in American society, the alternative rock movement reflected the state of a generation of who had suddenly become misfits with a fading future and diminishing opportunities. Realizing that they were not poised to exceed the success of their fathers, the men of this generation outright rejected many of the baby boomers’ ideals. The artists in the alternative movement reflected this sentiment by rejecting the notions of corporate rock that the previous generation founded and continued to benefit from. Whether they were boycotting a ticket monopoly or subverting traditional gender roles, the bands in the alternative rock movement were in a unique position of being rich rock stars while constantly threatening the status quo.
Furthermore, the rise of the female in economics was reflected in the alternative rock movement by a renegotiation of women’s role in rock music. By 1994, notions of “groupies” seemed a distant memory as Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Hole, and Smashing Pumpkins not only displayed tales of female empowerment, female anger, and diminishing males in their lyrics, but also used the mediums of photo shoots, interviews, and music videos to subvert gender construction and blur gender lines.
Ultimately, however, the alternative rock movement fizzled out before it had a chance to address moving into full adulthood. The resistance never offered a true cultural “alternative,” and, as Moore states, “the affective stakes in much postmodern youth culture are such that nothing can be sacred, all styles are exhausted the moment they are born, and, all other things being equal, one does, says, and feels nothing” (254). Perhaps none saw this more than Kurt Cobain, who did not believe his own hype and numbed himself with drugs before taking his own life in 1994. His death reflected the end of the alternative movement and was its ultimate rhetorical act: self-loathing and a sense of the future already lost personified in a single, tragic moment. While Pearl Jam, Hole, and Smashing Pumpkins continued on for years after Cobain’s death, the cultural importance of all three bands waned with subsequent albums and tours.
Admittedly, true underground “alternative” music never died; it simply remained underground. While my decision to focus (for now) on only the biggest mainstream acts of the movement in my limited space here may ignore many important underground bands of the Seattle and Riot Grrrl indie rock scenes, it was not my intention to diminish the importance of these bands. Rather, I chose to use this space to discuss the rhetorical dimensions of bands that had a direct impact on mass culture to showcase how artists with punk rock ideals addressed working in (and depending on) a mainstream corporate system. Furthermore, if, as McCarthy claims, “current feminism is pop culture-driven,” then a look at rhetorical gender construction by artists with significant cultural influence is a worthwhile endeavor to evaluate the alternative movement’s negotiation with gender norms (74). Finally, these four artists tapped into the American zeitgeist and meteorically rose to great fame and fortune as a result. With millions of young, working-class, white men angry at the disappearance of their cultural dominance and millions of young women seeing greater opportunity than their mothers while still fighting for equality, is it really all that unfathomable that these disagreeable, self-effacing, gender-bending “losers” became the voices of their generation?
Brummett, Barry. “Functions and Manifestations of Rhetoric in Popular Culture.” Rhetorical Dimensions of Popular Culture. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1991. 37-68. Print.
Furstenberg, Frank F. “The Sociology of Adolescence and Youth in the 1990s: A Critical Commentary.” Journal of Marriage and Family 62.4 (2000): 896-910. JSTOR.Web. 19 Apr. 201. <http://www.jstor.org/stable/1566715>.
Lott, Eric. “All the King’s Men: Elvis Impersonators and White Working-Class Masculinity.” Race and the Subject of Masculinities. Ed. Harry Stecopoulos and Michael Uebel. Durham and London: Duke University Press, 1997. 192-227. Print.
McCarthy, Kate. “Not Pretty Girls? Sexuality, Spirituality, and Gender Construction in Women’s Rock Music.” Journal of Popular Culture 39.1 (2006): 69-94. MLA International Bibliography. Web. 27 Apr. 2011. <http://web.ebscohost.com.ezproxy.uno.edu/ehost/pdfviewer/pdfviewer?sid=3d57f2fd-6b6f-4940-a8d2-111acc6819a8%40sessionmgr112&vid=4&hid=111>.
Moore, Ryan. “”…And Tomorrow Is Just Another Crazy Scam”: Postmodernity, Youth, and the Downward Mobility of the Middle Class.” Generations of Youth: Youth Cultures and History in Twentieth-Century America. Ed. Joe Austin and Michael Nevin Willard. New York and London: New York University Press, 1998. 253-71. Print.
Wald, Gayle. “Just a Girl? Rock Music, Feminism, and Cultural Construction of Female Youth.” Rock Over the Edge: Transformations in Popular Music Culture. Ed. Roger Beebe, Denise Fulbrook, and Ben Saunders. Durham: Duke University Press, 2002. 191-215. Print.
White, Lynn, and Stacy J. Rogers. “Economic Circumstances and Family Outcomes: A Review of the 1990s.” Journal of Marriage and Family 62.4 (2000): 1035-51.JSTOR. Web. 19 Apr. 2011. <http://www.jstor.org/stable/1566723>.