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No Alternative

Last Sunday I went to the New World Music Theatre for Q101's Jamboree '96, a veritable who's who concert of the station's current playlist. Since "alternative rock" was originally a marketing term and is now, among other things, a radio format encompassing everything from fun-wanting popster Sheryl Crow, who played at last year's Jamboree, to blunt-smoking hip-hoppers Cypress Hill, who headlined the festival this year, to Metallica, set to headline the next Lollapalooza, its definition was sufficiently far enough out of my grasp for me to ask around. Alternative rock's literal meaning has evaporated; according to Billboard, 9 of the 13 bands that performed at Jamboree '96 have albums in the top 200; Cypress Hill, Everclear, Seven Mary Three, and Foo Fighters have platinum records; Korn and Garbage both have gold records. What can the mainstream provide an alternative to? Indeed, outside the theater I saw one of those mobile billboards for Rock 103 declaring "There is no alternative." Who better, I figured, to seek wisdom from than the people who listen to this stuff?

Disappointingly, those I spoke with in the overwhelmingly white teenage suburban audience provided no consensus. Adam Enevold, 17, of Lindenhurst, told me that "alternative is whatever. It's just trendy." He and his friends almost seemed to apologize for attending the event. Sixteen-year-old Kelly Mihovilovich of Antioch insisted that "alternative just means that the music's obscure, but it usually is better too" and that "it doesn't stand for anything" for most people. Enevold blamed the music's trendiness in part on people he called "ringers," a term that seemed to apply to well-scrubbed kids wearing white retro-70s T-shirts with a colored neck band. His pal Nate Koepke, 18, also of Lindenhurst, showed me his T-shirt, a takeoff on a Tabasco label touting the band Sublime, as an example of who made real alternative music.

Some chose to define the elusive genre in strictly musical terms. One fan called it "a kid brother to metal," while 19-year-old Ryan Machnica of Schaumburg waxed poetic: "It's basically hard rock. It's like the root of the family tree, and all of the other types, like rap and ska, are branches, and it allows all different kinds of music to be part of it." The theme of stylistic diversity was repeated by several interview subjects, such as 16-year-old Art Liberman of Skokie, who said alternative covers everything "from the Cranberries to Filter." While Enevold blamed the scene's downfall on ringers, Liberman pointed to "all the rich kids in flannel with the hemp patches and expensive Q101 shirts."

When I found Vicki Magenta, 17, of Elk Grove, she was hurrying toward one of the many merchandise booths, wearing a Q101 shirt commemorating Jamboree '96 and emblazoned with the Pearl Jam song title "This Is Not for You," a phrase the station has used as a motto. When asked who the music wasn't for she responded, "It's not for everyone." Pressed further she said, "It's for people who are alternative."

A number of fans claimed that alternative rock provides social meaning for its fans. Chris Ulber, 18, of Schaumburg, said, "A lot of the bands sing about drugs and bad times, but it's all got a really good beat too. People can relate to stuff about bad times."

Lovestruck Sherry J., 14, of Romeoville, told me between kisses with her boyfriend that the music allows her and her friends "to express ourselves and not care if other people think we're freaks." It's a good thing too, because Matt Klein, 15, of Lemont, enjoyed last year's Jamboree more because there were a lot fewer "freaks"--people with "blue hair and stuff." He disagreed with Sherry that the freaks are expressing themselves, claiming instead that they were only trying to attract attention. But he also told me "It's not working."

Perhaps the most direct response I heard was from Kristin Robinson, 14, of Romeoville, who simply claimed that alternative rock "stands for kids." While the audience had its fair share of beer-swilling collegians, middle-aged young-at-heart types, and, of course, a good number of parents, kids comprised most of the 30,000 people at the show, which reportedly sold out in a mere 75 minutes.

The concert benefited "Rock the Vote," and Q101 claimed that the association aimed "to roust young voters to the polls," though many in the audience weren't even old enough to drive. But those "Rock the Vote" pins sure looked cool on flannel and Q101 shirts.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Yael Routtenberg.

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