It’s the spring of 2014. You turn on your local Top 40 station and they’re playing Paramore’s “Ain’t It Fun” for the fourth time that day and life is good. You then switch to the alternative station. They’re playing the acoustic version of MAGIC!‘s “Rude” after playing the standard version only 45 minutes ago. The only Paramore song played on local alternative radio is “Misery Business.” Then, you book a flight to New York to see some friends. After arriving you decide to check out K-Rock to see what they are playing… Wait, why is K-Rock a Top 40 station? Is it true that alternative music cannot be heard on terrestrial radio in the number one market in the country?
This was the state of alternative music at the start of the 2010s. After fun. had their run of hits, the genre was ignored, dismissed, and left for dead. “Rock is dead” became a popular refrain. And, if you did not dig far enough, that perception was accurate. There were significant questions as to the future of alternative music. Then four new artists came along—some with primary roots in the genre, some that straddled the line, and others from a completely different artistic place. But they came, they saw, and they saved alternative music. Even if you are not a fan of the following artists, you should thank them because they are responsible for your favorites having a platform.
The first face of alternative music is Halsey. She is a pillar because, while her music always straddled the line between alternative and Top 40, she always gave a shoutout to the genre. Even at the height of her pop success, she pushed for more female voices to be heard on alternative radio through social media and releasing songs like “Nightmare” and “11 Minutes.” Her last two records firmly belong in the alternative genre and moved the needle on her terms. Throughout her eight-year career, Halsey has gained the admiration of fans with all varieties of music tastes. Her influence, preeminent among new artists in both pop and alternative, is only exceeded by another face below.
Twenty One Pilots
Twenty One Pilots represents the second face of alternative music. With an innate ability to connect with an audience with lyrical topics that penetrate to the core, Tyler Joseph and Josh Dun catapulted to the forefront of the alternative scene in 2015 with Blurryface and have not looked back. “Stressed Out” and “Ride” brought the new generation of alternative fans to pop radio and took the genre off life support. Think this is an exaggeration? Consider that Alternative radio returned to New York City largely because of the success of the album (plus “Heathens”).
While their live shows are widely regarded as some of the absolute best in all popular music, some gatekeepers were critical of them for their lack of live instrumentation and questioned if they had the credentials to qualify as a “rock band.” This critique is now irrelevant following Scaled and Icy (2021)and subsequent Takeover Tour that expanded their musical repertoire. This ability to evolve with an established fanbase all but guarantees their continued relevance. While Joseph and Dun tend to avoid controversy, this cannot be said for our next face of alternative music.
Machine Gun Kelly
Machine Gun Kelly did not start as an alternative artist. He has feuded with Eminem and is all over TMZ multiple times a week. He can be annoying, a troll, and a miscreant. Most would even say you do not want to bring him home to your suburban mom. All these reasons are why his transition to alternative is one of the most important developments in the last five years. Danger attracts an audience. Exposure to one artist can prompt people to discover half a dozen more and grow the genre.
Beyond the salacious, MGK‘s biggest contribution is that he has made guitars cool again. Consider how many people, even after the rise of TOP, have said something like, “guitars are dead.” This cannot be said anymore and MGK (along with the emo revival) is a big reason this is the case. We do not have to like his antics, but it cannot be denied that Machine Gun Kelly is a critical part of the alternative resurgence. However, no artist is as critical as our final face of alternative.
Billie Eilish has made a generational impact on alternative music before her 21st birthday. If Twenty One Pilots returned alternative music to relevance, Eilish returned it to preeminence. Her impact on a new generation of fans is the most profound since Kurt Cobain (these are not my words but Dave Grohl‘s). And, if you know anyone under the age of twenty-five, you know that it is not a hyperbolic statement.
From the front pages of TMZ to Vanity Fair and beyond, Eilish’s rise to global dominance has led to the wide acceptance of alternative. It can be seen through the flood of strong female artists to follow in her path and the mimickry of Finneas’ production style across all genres. There’s just no overstating Billie’s impact. For those that are not fans and only consider her a “whisper-singer,” listen to the Happier Than Ever album from top to bottom. Influences ranging from The Beatles to Prodigy are wrapped in a 21-year-old powerhouse. Even if the album does not fit your taste, you must recognize that your favorite artists have more of an opportunity to be heard thanks to Billie.
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The four artists listed above are most responsible for taking alternative music out of purgatory and into top billing. While one reserves the right to have gripes with any of the artists listed—music is subjective after all—it cannot be denied that they have allowed more voices to breakthrough. If you’re a fan of those mentioned, celebrate their work proudly. And if you’re not a fan you should celebrate as well. The alternative genre is in a much healthier place and the aforementioned artists are a primary reason. It was not that long ago that it neared the brink of irrelevance, left for musical death on the side of the road. Alternative music matters again, and it is time to give thanks to those who allowed it.