In 1996, alternative rock died a messy, forgettable death

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In 1996, alternative rock died a messy, forgettable death

L to R: Gwen Stefani (No Doubt), Beck, Noel Gallagher (Oasis), Gavin Rossdale (Bush), Liam Gallagher (Oasis), Shirley Manson (Garbage), Billy Corgan (Smashing Pumpkins) (Graphic: Nick Wanserski)
L to R: Gwen Stefani (No Doubt), Beck, Noel Gallagher (Oasis), Gavin Rossdale (Bush), Liam Gallagher (Oasis), Shirley Manson (Garbage), Billy Corgan (Smashing Pumpkins) (Graphic: Nick Wanserski)

“The one-hit Wonders… It’s a very common tale”

—Tom Hanks as Mr. White in That Thing You Do!

In the fall of 1996, Tom Hanks, hot off Forrest Gump and Apollo 13, cemented his role as America’s rose-colored glasses with That Thing You Do!, a directorial debut that looked at the music of the 1960s through the sanitized filter of a fictional pop band called The Wonders. Like the group’s titular hit single, That Thing You Do! floats in a strange, alternate version of the decade completely unmoored from the actual culture that defined it. It’s a world where seemingly no one’s worried about trying to compete with The Beatles, even though everyone’s trying very hard to sound like them.

That Thing You Do! takes place in 1964, but it just as easily could have been about the year it was released—a year similarly crowded with fun, forgettable music that may as well have been made by fictional characters, so fleeting was its impact. It’s a year when the biggest song in the world was Los Del Rio’s “Macarena,” proclaimed this century by VH1 to be the “greatest one-hit wonder of all time,” which dominated Billboard charts, FM radio, and the teachers’ portion of school talent shows for 14 straight, interminable weeks. In everywhere but America, its reign was challenged only by the Spice Girls’ “Wannabe,” a hit that heralded reclamation of the proudly commercial, pre-packaged pop that the rise of “alternative rock” had so briefly seemed to snuff out.

But 1996 was also the year that this so-called “alternative” music began to produce plenty of its own versions of The Wonders, playing equally disposable songs that sounded like facsimiles bleeding in from some alternate universe. The faux-graffitied writing had been on the wall for alternative rock’s attenuation into corporate-engineered dross since approximately two weeks after Kurt Cobain’s suicide, right around the time Live’s Throwing Copper was released. But as much fun as it would be to lasso the corpse to Ed Kowalczyk’s dumb ponytail braid, the truth is it was making its guttural death rattle for many months before Live’s album of melodramatic, faux-introspective anthems for the arena of one’s own ass. And 1996 was the year it finally growled its last.

In fact, you could fill an entire series of columns about the myriad post-grunge/ bubble-grunge/scrunge outliers who traded trying to sound like Aerosmith and U2 for mimicking Nirvana and Pearl Jam, and you’d still barely scratch the surface of just how watered down the genre had become in such a short time through the collective yarls of Collective Soul, Candlebox, Sponge, Silverchair, Better Than Ezra, et al. As 1996 kicked off with the release of Seven Mary Three’s “Cumbersome”—a song that sounds like something ad execs who couldn’t actually afford Pearl Jam might commission for a beer commercial—and concluded with Bush’s Steve Albini-produced Razorblade Suitcase—an album received about as well as a piss on Kurt Cobain’s nonexistent grave—it was pretty clear that year that the self-pity party was over.

Perhaps no one understood this better than Pearl Jam itself: 1996 saw the release of No Code, a scattered album whose themes of spiritual uplift married to rambling, world music jingle-jangle suggested Eddie Vedder and co. were desperately looking for new life beyond grunge, but whose title—“Do Not Resuscitate” in medical jargon—hinted they had reached a dead end. It’s hard to blame them for feeling spent. Drained by the stresses of touring and its losing battle against Ticketmaster, the band really was barely clinging to life. Turning on the radio amid this existential crisis, only to hear it crowded with karaoke versions of its own music, must have felt like being trapped in some sort of mocking, Twilight Zone purgatory.

Their OG Seattle compatriots in Soundgarden were also having a shitty year, similarly overwhelmed by the success of 1994’s Superunknown and the grueling tour schedule that followed, while also bickering over Chris Cornell’s own desires to move away from the sound that had made them famous. After releasing the more varied Down On The Upside that spring, they’d limp to a close the following April. Meanwhile, Alice In Chains explored some of its own acoustic guitar-driven moods on 1996’s self-titled Alice In Chains, but while critics hailed it as a “rebirth,” the band was already mostly dead. Frontman Layne Staley’s deep dive into drug addiction kept the band from touring, though he managed to pull it together that year for MTV Unplugged and a handful of shows opening for KISS. When Staley overdosed after a July 3 concert, he more or less disappeared up his own arm until finally surrendering to his addictions in 2002. And that was pretty much that for the surviving core of the once-vaunted “Seattle sound.”

Even Stone Temple Pilots—once derided as early coattail riders, but by now popular enough to be grandfathered in as an original—had traded grunge for glammed-up pop-rock on ’96’s Tiny Music… Songs From The Vatican Gift Shop, to critical acclaim yet commercial indifference. That year you were far more likely to hear “Interstate Love Song” still kicking around the radio than “Trippin’ On A Hole In A Paper Heart.” It didn’t help matters that STP was struggling with its own touring problems, compounded by Scott Weiland’s issues with drugs and depression. The group would also be on extended hiatus by the end of the year, and—the modest success of 1999’s near-unrecognizable “Sour Girl” aside—it never fully recovered from its ’96 downward slide.

Elsewhere, alternative’s elder statesmen in R.E.M. also put out their most varied artistic statement yet in New Adventures In Hi-Fi—again, not that anyone particularly noticed. Coming off the pure rock candy of Monster, the more nuanced New Adventures failed to hold onto the fickle kids that had glommed onto the band. The fact that it was released under R.E.M.’s new, $80 million contract with Warner Bros.—at the time, the most expensive recording contract ever—gave the album the aura of failure, and its underwhelming performance felt even more like a harbinger of overall decline once drummer Bill Berry bowed out the next year. Combined with the thud that was fellow college-rock progenitors The Cure’s little-loved Wild Mood Swings, there was a definite feeling in ’96 that “alternative” was on its way out.

For a living, breathing, moshing symbol of the way things were so rapidly falling apart, look no further than Lollapalooza ’96, whose Metallica-led lineup—and the macho crowd it attracted—famously spurred Perry Farrell to sit out his own festival in an epochal snit. “I helped create the genre alternative, and alternative was against hair metal, teased-out hair, spandex, bullshit rock music,” Farrell would later tell Rolling Stone of his decision. “Metallica, in my estimation at that time, wasn’t my thing.” Never mind that Metallica was actually doing its level best to meet the Lollapalooza crowd on its own superficially defined terms, with its ’96 album Load seeing the band drop its usual thrash-metal riffs and double-bass drum blasts for a more stripped-down, somber version of hard rock you could easily slot in next to Alice In Chains’ Dirt. They even cut their hair, for fuck’s sake, and they made poor Kirk Hammett start dressing like a goth Donnie Brasco. What more do you want?

Nevertheless, Metallica’s reputation preceded it, and this—plus the fact that Load was the No. 1 album in the world for a solid month—contributed to the Perry Farrell-endorsed proclamation that Lollapalooza, the once-sacrosanct church of “alternative,” had finally “sold out” and “gone mainstream,” the ultimate ’90s insult. Its sneering reception wasn’t helped by its mishmash undercard of nostalgia acts like the Ramones, Devo, and Cheap Trick, outlaw country stars Waylon Jennings and Steve Earle, and instantly forgotten headliners like Psychotica, all of which contributed to the sense that the once-savvy Lollapalooza had finally mistaken eclecticism for just throwing shit at the wall. The sight of a troupe of Shaolin monks demonstrating martial arts and preaching mindfulness to a bunch of beery metal fans aside, there wasn’t much to that year’s festival that could recapture the sense of unpredictability that governed previous incarnations—and hardly any of the style of music it once defined.

“Alternative rock still exists, but Lollapalooza ’96 treats it as a sideline, not a mission,” concluded The New York Times in its typical lukewarm review. Possibly even more damning, May ’96 saw The Simpsons haul ass to Hullabalooza, skewering the festival—and the “alternative” culture surrounding it—as just another marketing-driven behemoth aimed at getting gullible teenagers to buy stuff, based on appealing to their self-pitying/self-aggrandizing delusions of otherness. (That, and getting toasted… nicely toasted). If a trend is getting satirized on The Simpsons, you know it’s been dead for months.

Of course, there were a few exceptions to all the doom and gloom pronouncements for alt-rock. Lollapalooza/Hullabalooza vets The Smashing Pumpkins had their biggest year ever on the back of Mellon Collie And The Infinite Sadness, the sprawling two-hour “The Wall for Generation X” that debuted at No. 1, garnered an Album Of The Year nomination, let 10,000 “Zero” shirts bloom, and forever convinced Billy Corgan he was an artiste. But in many ways, that year was also the group’s worst: In addition to watching helplessly as a female fan died in a mosh pit during a Dublin show, it suffered the loss of touring keyboardist Jonathan Melvoin when he died from a drug overdose that July—all part of a terrifying, heroin-fueled summer that also claimed the life of Sublime’s Bradley Nowell, and very nearly took Pantera’s Phil Anselmo and Depeche Mode’s David Gahan.

Firing drummer Jimmy Chamberlin for his role in Melvoin’s death and finishing the dates with hired guns was, as even Corgan would later reflect, a regrettable decision that caused a schism with fans and portended a slow, steady fragmenting within the band itself. And while The Smashing Pumpkins were still seen as one of alternative’s sole remaining saviors, guitarist James Iha would declare at year’s end that rock music was “boring” and that “the future is in electronic music,” a theory the Pumpkins would test—along with fans’ patience—on 1998’s Adore.

If you’d tried telling Oasis’ Liam and Noel Gallagher that electronic music was the future in ’96, you’d likely get a pint glass to the face. The group had conquered the U.K. and the U.S. with its unabashedly throwback, Beatles-worshipping classic rock, and that year you couldn’t throw a stone in any direction without hitting some dude belting out “Wonderwall.” (Do me a favor; throw it hard.) That song—ranked fourth overall for the year, and the sole rock song to land in the Top 5—as well as all the other inescapable singles from 1995’s (What’s The Story) Morning Glory? made Oasis the biggest rock group in the world. But to watch Oasis in 1996 was to witness a band seemingly doing everything it could to blow it.

Almost immediately after playing the largest back-to-back shows in U.K. history, the Gallagher brothers started the exhausting, petty public bickering that would forever define them, epitomized by Liam heckling Noel from the rafters of the band’s Unplugged performance. After Liam pulled out of a U.S. arena tour, then was seemingly dragged out spitting to that year’s VMAs, Oasis somehow didn’t officially split up just yet—though it may as well have. It finished the year by recording 1997’s Be Here Now, a bloated, merely okay album that marked the end of the worldwide fascination with both the group and Britpop itself. Whatever “real rock ’n’ roll” revolution Oasis was meant to start would be quickly drowned in a sea of mopey British balladeers who took “Wonderwall” and pretty much built their entire careers on it.

In fact, the only one who seemed to be flourishing in ’96—without any caveats—was the artist everyone had most expected to flame out. Beck entered the year dismissed as a one-hit wonder himself, and he’d spent the two years since the fluke breakout of “Loser” doing everything he could to alienate his new fans. Playing shows full of noise freak-outs or reggae jams, setting fire to his equipment, changing the lyrics to “Loser” to prevent singing along—Beck came off as determined to self-destruct until he could safely return to busking his weirdo-blues songs on the city bus. Even the label execs at Geffen weren’t expecting much from his next album, except maybe a tax write-off. But he surprised them—and everyone else—by holing up with the Dust Brothers to make Odelay, an album that fused hip-hop, blues, folk, and country into a crazily idiosyncratic crowd-pleaser, one that threw into sharp relief just how stale everything else sounded around it.

By that winter, alternative rock wasn’t just being lamented as stagnant, however; its entire future was in question. In his December ’96 essay, “Waiting For The Next Big Thing,” Time’s Christopher John Farley looked at the slumping sales of R.E.M. and Pearl Jam et al. and stopped just short of declaring alternative as officially over, a victim of its own popularity (and, therefore, semantics). Noting it’s “sounding a bit cranky and old as it turns up in car commercials, movie soundtracks and award shows—not a good thing for a form supposedly powered by energy and youth and anger,” Farley blamed the usual suspects for alternative’s hastening demise: overexposure; artists who were ill-equipped to deal with popularity; “difficult” follow-up albums. But the biggest culprit of them all, Farley said, was the proliferation of one-hit wonders diluting the genre, making it so, as one record executive puts it, “A&R people, who know music better than anyone, hear a record come on, and even they can’t tell which band it is.”

You definitely would have been hard-pressed to tell the difference between most of the alt-rock acts floating around that year, without benefit of the CD cover or weirdly over-lit music video (and maybe not even then). Half the post-grunge bands especially sounded like they’d been grown in the same basement lab, exposed to round-the-clock spins of Pearl Jam’s “Daughter” and cooked to a lumpy finish under the same bare, swinging light bulb, before being handed their tiny choker necklaces and sent out into the world. On the radio, Goo Goo Dolls’ “Name” bled into Tonic’s “If You Could Only See” into Dishwalla’s “Counting Blue Cars” into The Verve Pipe’s “The Freshmen” into Matchbox Twenty’s “Push” in a watery bouillabaisse of quiet-loud-quiet song structures and sad-bro earnestness.

“Earnest” seemed to be the de facto mood of ’96 rock, seeing as grunge’s ironic detachment was already moving far less units. Lifted by the success of Counting Crows and Hootie And The Blowfish—whose sophomore albums were released in ’96 to, respectively, modest returns and collective hostility—and inspired by the feel-good vibes of Blues Traveler and its H.O.R.D.E. Festival spawn, the nation was suddenly awash in naked sentimentality set to strummy guitar. Where grunge had made music for self-flagellating introspection over what a beautiful loser you were, these artists conveyed their angst in a more hopeful, romantic way you could enjoy over a round of hacky sack.

Some still managed to stand out from the cargo-shorts-clad crowd. On The Wallflowers’ Bringing Down The Horse, Jakob Dylan had a certain, bleary-eyed Bruce Springsteen sincerity (the family cred didn’t hurt), while Dave Matthews Band distinguished itself with skronking fiddle and being fucking obnoxious. But the guitarists of, say, Dog’s Eye View and Deep Blue Something probably could have accidentally switched tour buses at a rest stop and neither one would have noticed. And all of this indistinguishably clean-cut, frat-friendly mush-rock—and the proliferation of alternative-ish female pop singers (i.e. people who were not Madonna) such as Sheryl Crow, Alanis Morrisette, Fiona Apple, and Jewel—would eventually force the creation of the format “adult alternative,” thus rendering a meaningless sobriquet of a genre all the more so.

Most of those who did still traffic in irony were already seeing diminishing returns—no one more so than Weezer. The rock heroes of a certain breed of drily sarcastic romantic experienced a dark night of the soul and went full-bore, jaggedly confessional on its sophomore album Pinkerton, and the results seemed to embarrass fans, critics—even Rivers Cuomo himself. Looking back now, Pinkerton is regarded as a landmark, a cult classic that influenced scads of emo-pop bands, and it remains the Weezer album to which all others must be compared. But the relentless backlash at the time sent Cuomo into a years-long crisis, from which he slowly recovered by wrapping himself in ever-increasing layers of protective mediocrity.

Even groups who hadn’t garnered a tenth of Weezer’s attention also seemed prematurely jaded by success. Local H, who scored a leftfield hit with “Bound For The Floor” that year, spent much of its breakthrough album As Good As Dead taunting the “high-fiving motherfuckers” crowding into the alt-rock scene and wondering aloud, “If I was Eddie Vedder, would you like me any better?” On Nada Surf’s “Popular,” Matthew Caws sang about being the big man on campus, but the subtext about Top 40 fads was fairly obvious. Nada Surf’s tourmate for that summer, Superdrag, put alt-rock ennui even more bluntly on its MTV Buzz Bin staple “Sucked Out”: “This was my dream / Played-out rocking routine / Who sucked out the feeling?” Everywhere it seemed there was a prevailing sense of benumbed, spiritual emptiness—a “Novocaine For The Soul,” as the Eels’ Mark Oliver Everett characterized it in his own surprise hit—that found alt-rock artists who’d only just arrived already wondering if this was all there is.

Shit, was anyone having a good time? Spacehog, perhaps. Its soaring, psilocybin ramble “In The Meantime” (along with STP’s Tiny Music) suggested that sullen alt-rock might find release by playing dress-up with Bowie-esque glam—though ultimately, Spacehog’s brief flicker of success was meaningful maybe only to Remy Zero. Definitely Cake, whose wry, nerdy-cool “The Distance” and “I Will Survive” cover brought it international fame, massive TV exposure, and a fiercely loyal fanbase of computer programmers—though for most, the group would forever remain ”that fun band with the mariachi trumpets.” And even though its second album, II, had failed to make the same impact as its debut, The Presidents Of The United States Of America were still having a grand old time in ’96, singing “Lump” and “Peaches” until you just wanted to move out to the country yourself so you never had to hear them again.

Still, these were passing fancies, not anything anyone would seriously consider to be a post-alt-rock future. So where did those soothsayers of ’96 see the mythical Next Big Thing taking shape? “Ska is a candidate,” Farley wrote, noting that No Doubt’s 1995 album Tragic Kingdom had continued to be huge throughout the year, driven by the success of the decidedly non-ska “Don’t Speak.” But while a couple of bands managed to ride ska’s third wave—Goldfinger’s “Here In Your Bedroom” and Reel Big Fish’s “Sell Out” were both minor hits that year—America’s ska phase proved to be as short-lived as most people’s, everyone growing tired of it somewhere around the 500th spin of The Mighty Mighty Bosstones’ “The Impression That I Get.” Ska managed to linger on a little while longer by mutating into the Swing Revival a couple years later, the seeds for which were already being planted in ’96 with new albums from The Brian Setzer Orchestra and Cherry Poppin’ Daddies, the unpredictable hit of Squirrel Nut Zippers’ “Hell,” and, of course, Swingers. But replacing flannel and guitars with suits and horn sections was really more of a stopgap, not a solution.

Like James Iha, industry experts also saw a future in electronica, which had begun making significant in-roads—even if, just like today, no one really knew what the hell “electronica” meant. In 1996, it applied to just about anything made with digital instruments: the sleek synth-rock of Garbage’s “Stupid Girl” and Republica’s “Ready To Go”; the trip-hop-influenced, narcotized pop of Primitive Radio Gods’ “Standing Outside A Broken Phone Booth With Money In My Hand,” The Cardigans’ “Lovefool,” Luscious Jackson’s “Naked Eye,” Cibo Matto’s “Sugar Water,” and Sneaker Pimps’ “6 Underground”; the thundering big beat of The Chemical Brothers’ “Setting Sun,” Fatboy Slim’s “Going Out Of My Head,” and The Prodigy’s “Firestarter”; whatever you want to call Bjork. The thirst for anything that sounded vaguely electronic was so strong, Robert Miles’ New Age trance sleeper “Children” somehow becoming one of the year’s biggest hits, while radio listeners even eagerly gobbled up dance remixes of the Mission: Impossible and X-Files themes. But while ’96 also saw important electronic releases from DJ Shadow, Aphex Twin, and Boards Of Canada, with the exception of a small handful, most of the electronic artists who briefly broke onto the radio would be all but forgotten by the 21st century.

Strangely, despite Odelay’s success and the continued flourishing of what he calls “hardcore rap,” Farley fails to predict just how quickly hip-hop would become the de facto mode of musical expression, with plenty of “alternative” artists already trying on boom-bap rhythms and speak-sing cadences with a gusto not seen since Blondie’s “Rapture.” That’s particularly odd given the success of Rage Against The Machine, whose second album Evil Empire was blaring out of every pissed-off kid’s disc changer in ’96, likely on rotation with Korn’s sophomore effort Life Is Peachy. It’s possible Farley, like most people, was simply in the dark about the rise of rap-metal and nu-metal groups that these two were spawning in their wake, such as Limp Bizkit and Linkin Park, both of whom began bubbling up around this time. Or maybe Farley heard 311’s “Down” and thought the only recourse was to ignore it until it went away.

There’s no way he could have ignored Sublime, however, which had rebounded from Bradley Nowell’s death that summer to enjoy the biggest posthumous success since Jesus. As “What I Got” and “Santeria” hot-boxed MTV and the airwaves with its drinking-brews-on-the-front-porch vibe, programmers surrounded it with similarly laid-back, lowrider anthems like Fun Lovin’ Criminals “Scooby Snacks,” OMC’s “How Bizarre,” and Soul Coughing’s “Super Bon Bon.” The desire to hear white men talking over guitars was so fervent that even Butthole Surfers—the stalwart acid-punk demons whose very name mocked the idea of ever getting on the radio—landed the first and only major hit of its long career by sort-of-rapping on “Pepper.” All of these success stories pointed the way to a future dominated by pop-rap choads like Sugar Ray and LFO, as well as the many aggro bands who finally buried the corpse of alternative rock under turntable scratches and break-shit tantrums before symbolically setting it on fire at Woodstock ’99.

Farley also completely sidesteps pop punk, though this is more understandable, considering the genre was mostly taking a much-needed year off after the back-to-back blitz of Green Day, The Offspring, and Rancid. But even with those bands sitting things out, the already-plenty-commercial punk revival was becoming an unstoppable corporate concern in ’96, as the Warped Tour inaugurated its second year by picking up Vans as a sponsor, thus starting its path toward “Warped Tour band” becoming the same catch-all genre signifier Lollapalooza had once been. By the turn of the century, “Warped Tour bands” like Blink-182 and Sum 41 were the dominant, adenoidal voice on alternative radio—a format that, thanks to the internet and Napster, was now doubly meaningless.

Of course, it’s easy for us now, with the benefit of hindsight and Wikipedia, to look at all these shifting factors and declare that 1996 marked the end of alternative rock, and to spot the beginnings of what would replace it. We can look at the debuts released that year by Modest Mouse, Spoon, and Belle & Sebastian, or even the solid, career-building albums from Sebadoh, Guided By Voices, and Wilco, and say confidently that what would become the far more long-lasting, even more nebulous subgenre of “indie rock” was obviously the real story here. We can recognize that it was so obvious from the ’96 success of Korn, Rage Against The Machine, Marilyn Manson’s Antichrist Superstar, and Tool’s Ænima that rock would inevitably end the decade trading grunge’s bruised-heart jadedness for seething, self-flagellating nihilism. We can see that Creed and Nickelback both made their first recordings around this time and smugly say, “Oh yeah. Well, there you go.”

But for everyone living in the thick of it, watching alternative rock die fast and leave a bloated corpse came as a surprise, rendering them as confused as Tom Everett Scott at the end of That Thing You Do! when Tom Hanks blithely tells him it’s over while subtly mocking his protests that he still has a hit record. To watch MTV or listen to the radio that year was to see a genre that once promised revolution over recycled pop fluff collapse under the weight of its own pandering retreads and disposable novelty songs.

By the next summer, that revolution was all but finished: Pockets of resistance formed around the Foo Fighters’ The Colour And The Shape, Blur’s self-titled album, and Radiohead’s OK Computer—and indie obviously continued to flourish, for those who had the wherewithal to seek it out. But on the mainstream stage, “alternative” was left with the future nostalgia cruise line-ups of Third Eye Blind, Creed, Everclear, and Smash Mouth to stand against the tides of Puff Daddy, Spice Girls, Hanson, and Will Smith. With teen queens and boy bands marshaling their troops in Orlando, it was all over but the shouting of Fred Durst. And looking back at 1996 now, we can see that the new and different story alternative rock promised was just another of music’s very common tales. Maybe someday, at least, it’ll all make for a decent movie.

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