The annals of music history are filled with once-specific genre names that are now functionally meaningless. “Indie rock” and “EDM” are some recent examples, but back in the ’90s, it was “alternative” that got so overused as to become meaningless. In fact, these days it’s a term whose non-nostalgic use is largely limited to various music awards shows — including the Grammys, whose 2013 nominations were announced last night. Perhaps more than ever before, this year’s crop of “Best Alternative Album” picks raises the question: What does “alternative” even mean in 2012?
Here are the 2013 nominees:
The Idler Wheel Is Wiser Than The Driver Of The Screw And Whipping Cords Will Serve You More Than Ropes Will Ever Do — Fiona Apple
Biophilia — Björk
Making Mirrors — Gotye
Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming — M83
Bad As Me — Tom Waits
It’s tough to imagine a set of criteria that would contain both M83 and Tom Waits, Björk and Gotye. What makes Fiona Apple’s The Idler Wheel… a more “alternative” album than its predecessor, Extraordinary Machine, which earned its 2006 nomination in the “Best Pop Vocal Album” category? How would the National Academy of Recording Arts have categorized the music of Tom Waits (who won a “Best Contemporary Folk Album” Grammy in 1999 for Mule Variations) before the “alternative” field was added in 1991? If the “alternative” designation is supposed to honor music from outside the mainstream, why does it include an album that features one of the most popular songs of 2012?
Since I couldn’t make heads or tails of the list, I wrote to the Academy to see if they could shed some light, and they let me know that their current criteria are as follows:
For albums containing at least 51% playing time of newly vocal or instrumental alternative recordings. This category is intended for recordings of a non-traditional form that exist (at least initially) outside of the mainstream music consciousness. Its avant-garde approach may utilize new technology or new production techniques and contain elements of rock, pop, dance, folk, country, or even classical musical styles.
These weren’t the original guidelines. When the “alternative” category was introduced for the 1991 awards, it was intended to “recognize the kind of nonmainstream rock records heavily played on college radio stations.” In other words, it encompassed what we currently think of as “indie rock,” a type of music that is now better represented in the Grammys’ general “rock” category, whose 2013 nominees include The Black Keys, Jack White, and Alabama Shakes. While “alternative” once meant “alternative to the mainstream,” for the Academy’s purposes, it has evolved into a sort of catch-all, “none of the above” field.
Artists like Björk and M83, part of an ever-growing contingent of musicians whose albums resist categorization, undeniably pose a challenge for awards shows. In fact, they highlight the utter absurdity of sorting varieties of artistic expression and/or product packaging into groups and choosing one that’s “best.” But since the Grammys aren’t going anywhere, I’d like to see the Academy at least retire the “Best Alternative Album” category — which will forever conjure up retro images of long hair and flannel — in favor of a more contemporary designation for these acts. After all, no single sound represents 21st-century musical innovation as much as music of all kinds that breaks, redefines, or flat-out ignores the boundaries of genre.