The "rock" element of alterna-rock became the genre's primary draw
Having rejected party-hearty subject matter, noodly guitar leads, and slick power ballads in favor of dense guitar distortion, oblique lyrics, and a socially conscious outlook, alternative rock (particularly grunge) was ably placed to fulfill that role (this sort of stripped-down, grim-and-real oppositionalism to mainstream rock is also what enabled Metallica to thrive handsomely at the same time). Despite a contrary nature that would result in some rather backward-looking tributaries from time to time—the ramshackle ‘60s-adoring “cutie” bands of the mid-to-late ‘80s being a perfect example—the genre’s noisier vanguard from Hüsker Dü on through Dinosaur Jr., the Pixies (which established the extreme dynamic shifts that would become the style’s trademark), and Sonic Youth, and up through to Nirvana and its peers had indeed made advances in redefining approaches to the electric guitar, leading to a dense, overdriven assault that by 1991 was cutting-edge stuff to the multitude.
The result of all this was that the “rock” element of alterna-rock became the genre’s primary draw for fans. This meant that unless you were R.E.M. disciples like Toad the Wet Sprocket or Gin Blossoms, after 1991 alternative artists were expected to be loud, riff-heavy, and able to move from a sedate verse to a cathartic chorus at the drop of a hat. The way forward for alt-rock was clearly illustrated by Nirvana’s late ‘91 guest-spot on MTV’s Headbanger’s Ball, where its “Smells Like Teen Spirit” video was performing quite well (“Skullcrusher number five!”). As the footage of Kurt Cobain—decked out in drag—and Kris Novoselic chatting with host Riki Rachtman (who struggles desperately to get his interviewees to loosen up) demonstrates, the alternative and metal sensibilities jarred hilariously, but the draw of the music to the latter fanbase was undeniable.
Fortuitously, in most cases, the potential new saviors of R-O-C-K managed to have ready the strongest LPs of their careers. Of this opening salvo of hard rock alternatives, the Chili Peppers scored with the masses first. Building upon the groundwork laid by their 1989 LP Mother’s Milk and its crossover rock radio hit “Higher Ground” (ironically, a buffed-up Stevie Wonder cover), Blood Sugar Sex Magik would elevate the Chili Peppers to the big leagues. Although the album’s second single “Under the Bridge” would do its part to boost sales of the record throughout 1992 by vaulting up to number two on the U.S. pop charts, its lead single “Give It Away” was an important beachhead in and of itself by confounding the assumptions of commercial radio. Singer Anthony Kiedis mentions in his autobiography Scar Tissue that the group sought to premiere the track on a Texas station, but were told to “come back to us when you have a melody in your song.” Such a snippy attitude overlooked that the rhythmic thrust of “Give It Away” was what made it compelling, and that Chad Smith’s drum fills and Kiedis’ wiseguy rap flow were hooks in of themselves; it also illustrates the ingrained biases that faced metal and hip-hop on the airwaves, which would only be refuted by gigantic record sales. The Chili Peppers got the last laugh, as “Give It Away” reached number one on the Billboard Modern Rock Charts (the first chart-topper of many), and is now one of the long-running stadium-filling act’s signature tunes.
Red Hot Chili Peppers
RHCP’s breakthrough success with Blood Sugar Sex Magik would however be eclipsed by the event that would finally break down the doors for alt-rock forever, Nirvana’s wholly unexpected ascendancy to stardom. Having snapped up the buzzed-about yet still fairly obscure grunge trio amidst heated music industry competition, DGC Records still could only hope that Nirvana’s second LP Nevermind would match the numbers shifted by fellow signing/Nirvana booster Sonic Youth’s Goo from a year before, about 250,000 copies. Without warning, the group’s first major label single “Smells Like Teen Spirit”—which itself was never intended as a breakthrough hit, but a base-builder to introduce neophytes to the band—conquered the radio airwaves in spite of reluctant programmers who were inclined to restrict the abrasive, mumbly-mouthed riff-rocker to nighttime radio play. Unprecedented demand created shortages of Nevermind, causing DGC to put production on other releases on hold in order to manufacture sufficient supply. Once the “Teen Spirit” music video entered heavy rotation on MTV, sales exploded even further; despite popular conception, MTV did not make “Teen Spirit” a hit, although it did multiply its impact to astronomical proportions.
The introduction of SoundScan, which relied on barcode scanning at the cash register to accurately measure each record sold, in the United States that year also aided Nirvana and its peers immensely. Previously, it had been relatively easy for promoters to entice stores to skew their sales tallies to benefit veteran artists and middle-of-the-rock pop/rock. The most shocking result that the implementation of SoundScan revealed to the industry was large gains in market share for three genres: hip-hop, country, and alternative rock. Having numbers on its side, DGC used the skyrocketing figures for Nevermind to convince radio stations playing more established artists to add the group to its playlists.
By Christmas 1991, SoundScan placed Nevermind at selling between 300,000 and 400,000 copies a week. Sources state that most of these sales were kids exchanging unwanted holiday gifts, with Michael Jackson’s latest LP Dangerous being the overwhelming returnee. Meanwhile the critical plaudits piled up—the 1991 installment of the renowned Village Voice Pazz & Jop critics’ poll (published in March 1992) would unveil the album and “Smells Like Teen Spirit” as the most-acclaimed recordings of the year by a healthy margin. In just four months, Nirvanamania had spread out from the U.S. and UK, hounded Nirvana along its European tour dates, and caught on around the rest of the globe.
Considering R.E.M. and the Chili Peppers had already shifted crateloads of records that year, and Lollapalooza had just prior introduced the phrase “alternative rock” to the tongues of your average punter, it may seem curious that history fixates heavily on Nirvana’s role in alt-rock’s ascendancy to become the dominant form of rock music in the ‘90s. It isn’t historical revisionism though, as a trawl through magazine and newspaper archives will reveal how observers were shocked by what Nirvanamania meant for music. Alternative was expected to be eked out to the masses slowly; springing straight from the underground and leapfrogging ahead of tried-and-true marketing strategies (and assumptions) was not supposed to happen. Although Nirvana ousting Michael Jackson from his Billboard perch on January 11, 1992 was in essence a freakish exploitation of chance developments (biographer Michael Azerrad points out in Come as You Are: The Story of Nirvana, “As luck would have it, U2 had decided to release its version of an art-rock record, Michael Jackson continued his artistic slide and Guns n’ Roses saw fit to release two albums at once.”), even if the album hadn’t reached number one, it still performed impressively—it was clear that there was a waiting audience after all for this genre’s rougher corners beyond college students and hipsters.