In the early '90s, alternative rock exploded thanks to groups like Nirvana and the Smashing Pumpkins, who banished chart-topping hair-farmers Warrant and Slaughter to the county-fair circuit. Lollapalooza became a top summer draw, an opportunity for thousands of shirtless dudes to throw beer cups at Nick Cave and Tricky. Alternative Nation was one of MTV's top-rated shows, and even Northwest nobodies like Seven Year Bitch were somehow getting major-label deals.
But these days, the alternative scene looks as dead as Robert Smith does. A slew of new albums released this year by such alt-rock prime movers as Courtney Love, PJ Harvey, Sonic Youth, and Morrissey are all on pace to sell little more than 100,000 copies. Those numbers may be fine for Afroman, but for the former vanguard of college rock, they suck wind like Ms. Love chasing down her sanity.
It's even bleaker on the touring front. A few weeks ago, Lollapalooza was canceled due to poor ticket sales, despite a lineup boasting such seminal acts as Sonic Youth and Wilco. The Cure's Curiosa Fest, whose roster includes college-radio faves Interpol and Mogwai, is reportedly selling fewer than 5,000 tickets in some markets.
Look at the handful of tours that are making money this summer, and it's easy to see why these two bills have failed to live up to expectations. Ozzfest and Warped are perennially strong draws because they mine a specific culture. Punk-rock kids don't even need to see who's playing Warped each summer before ponying up their allowance for a ticket: The tour is as short on surprises (NOFX is playing for the fifth freakin' time, the Vandals for the fourth) as it is unpierced nipples. The diversity's no better on Ozzfest, where Black Sabbath is headlining this year for the fourth time. Fans don't go just for the bands anyway -- they go to be surrounded by thousands of sweaty people just like them. The culture itself is the cause for celebration.
Lollapalooza 2004 failed because there's no longer a unified alternative culture for the tour to tap into. Granted, the alternative scene has always been much harder to define than metal or punk (what, you don't see the similarities between R.E.M. and Ministry?), but most genres are broad. Cannibal Corpse doesn't sound much like Black Sabbath, but both bands are as metal as Iron Man's schlong. Like headbangers, alternative crowds were once united -- in their universal disregard for conventions of mainstream music and in their sense of adventure.
But once Nirvana topped the charts in 1991, alternative became so big that countless bands clearly outside the scene glommed onto it to boost sales, thus riding the trend to a quick death. Straight-up rock bands like Pearl Jam and Alice in Chains (who opened for Megadeth, Anthrax, and Slayer on their first arena tour) were all of a sudden branded "alternative" due to little more than the town they heralded from. Really, what was Pearl Jam an alternative to? Foghat?
By the mid-'90s, unchallenging, vanilla-rock bands like Bush and the Foo Fighters became the new face of alternative rock; consequently, the scene lost its meaning and flatlined. When the world's biggest metal act headlines Lollapalooza, as Metallica did in 1996, you know alternative culture is done for.
And so here we are, a few years later, and Morrissey, who thought he'd be touring amphitheaters this summer, will soon be hitting a club near you. Alternative rock is all about nostalgia, like polyester-clad yuppies boogieing down to KC and the Sunshine Band at the rib burn-off. The old guard will still buy a few thousand tickets to something like Lollapalooza, but alternative music has failed to register in the minds of the younger generations, who are necessary to make large-scale rock tours like this one work.
Adventurous music still exists, to be sure, but the culture that united it all is long gone. For those weaned on the strange, wonderfully eccentric community that was alternative rock, there's little to identify with these days. Morrissey's friends got more than successful. They got lost.