What Does ‘Alternative’ Mean in 2020?

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From left: twenty one pilots' Tyler Joseph, dior, 24kGoldn and Swift.

In June, Billboard introduced its revamped Hot Alternative & Rock Songs chart to reflect how much “alternative” had grown beyond the kind of guitar-based music once defined by bands like Pearl Jam and Foo Fighters. The list of 2020 No. 1s on the chart spans from Taylor Swift's twinkling piano ballad “Cardigan” to twenty one pilots’ disco-pop jam “Level of Concern” to rappers 24kGoldn and iann dior’s “Mood” — ironically, perhaps the most conventionally rock-based banger of the bunch. To make sense of an increasingly ambiguous category, Billboard asked four industry tastemakers share their perspectives, in their own words.

The Streaming Service

Laura Ohls, senior editor, folk and AAA, Spotify: I’ve always thought of “alternative” as referring to any artist creating music that challenges what’s being popularized in the mainstream, across all genres. In the ’90s, rock music was still very much at the core of popular music culture, and as a result, “alternative” [was more] guitar-driven in sound. Fast forward to 2020, where hip-hop, pop and Latin are the titans of genre, and you’ll find that the class of artists defying what’s expected are doing so within these genre spaces. As a result, there is an amalgamation of genres that make up modern “alternative” sounds.

We launched our Alternative Hub earlier this year in order to unite all of our alternative programming into one dedicated space. The idea was to have a destination that encapsulates all of the different “alternative” possibilities: If you grew up in the ‘90s with alternative rock and you're looking for that catalog or the next wave of alt-rock artists, we have those playlists. If you are a Gen Zer looking for what’s popular or interesting in alternative pop, we have those playlists. It acts as a one stop shop for any of our listeners that have alternative-leaning tastes.

John Stein, team lead, music culture and editorial, Spotify: Hip-hop is such a core part of youth culture right now [that] alternative is starting to move in that direction, even if bands aren’t doing it consciously. And the hip-hop space is so vast and diverse in terms of sound, as listeners have access to so much more than they’ve ever had: Just as The Strokes and Nickelback were “rock” for listeners in 2001, Tierra Whack and NAV are “hip-hop” for listeners in 2020 — doesn’t mean they have much crossover in terms of fans or sounds. There’s a fluidity of taste and genres that’s much more acceptable now than it was 20 years ago.

The Label Head

Mike Easterlin, co-president, Elektra Music Group: Alternative has taken on more of a pop lean than a grungier, guitar-driven style, which seems to make it more accessible to a broader audience. It has definitely shifted, but in a good way. The biggest Elektra alternative artist would be twenty one pilots, but we also have Panic! at the Disco, we have Young the Giant, who live more in the indie space, and we have White Reaper, which is a bit more throwback. I think it shows how broad the music can get, if given the opportunity.

Rock struggles in this streaming world. It’s challenging to find the next thing that’s going to catapult heavier, more guitar-driven rock music back into the forefront. I do think it will happen. At which point that happens and which band forces that — we’re out there searching. I scratch my head constantly thinking, “What is it? What going to be that thing, that one band to come along and really change the dynamic and make a giant impact in that world?” I don’t know if it’ll be something like Slipknot or something that’s more melodic that speaks to what kids are ready to hear. Maybe when they’re burned out on 15-second TikTok videos they’ll want to get into something a little more substantial.

My kids are 16 and 18, and they don’t think “genre.” If they like a rock song, they like a rock song; if they like a hip-hop song, they like a hip-hop song. They don’t really care. When we’re talking about radio, there are certain borders they need to stay inside of — they’re not all over the map. But those borders have definitely gotten wider, which is great.

The Artist

Sameer Gadhia, frontman, Young the Giant; host, Point of Origin (SiriusXM’s Alt Nation, Pandora): I wanted Point of Origin to build a community for what I think is the truest essence of alternative artists — artists who provide a different opinion, a different narrative on where current music is. And what better way to do that than by showcasing artists of color? I’m an Indian lead singer and have always been the extreme minority within the traditional view of what “alternative” is, which tends to be relatively homogenous.

I wanted to build a community for young artists to feel seen, heard and understood — as well as to showcase them, because in general alternative has maybe not done as great of a job as it could have. And that’s why I feel like, since the 2010s, it has fallen out of favor. People want to dive into music that shares their story, where they see representation. So there has been a huge push toward pop and hip-hop. What I’m trying to do is show the listener that it’s not all white males in alternative, it’s people coming from all over the spectrum.

In the beginning of alternative music, guitar was the easiest way to be like, “OK, an amateur can pick this up and make cool music.” The beginning of the punk scene — even the DIY alternative scene — was that feeling of, “I’m not a professional, I’m not classically trained, but I can play barre chords and you can feel something.” But now with the advent of new technology, you can do anything. And an amateur can pick it up and make it sound huge. Being 19 years old when I [got started], there was still a tradition in alternative music: what should be done and what shouldn’t be done. Talking with all these young artists, they don’t give a shit. They don’t care what Pitchfork thought was cool in the early 2000s — they care about what they care about. They’re going to bring that out — and that’s pretty cool to see.

A version of this article originally appeared in the Dec. 19, 2020, issue of Billboard.