When the KROQ Weenie Roast made its Los Angeles debut in the summer of 1993, the advantage was obvious: Foreign tastes were quickly gaining commercial ground and radio stations could capitalize on it.
Billboard had launched its “Modern Rock” chart five years ago in an attempt to quantify the brooding rock that performed well on college stations and MTV but did not reach the pop charts. The explosion in the early 90s of Nirvana and its peers suddenly made alternative radio big business and one-day festivals populated by the same bands a clear bonus. The formula has spread to large and small markets.
In Raleigh, The Big Shindig located the Weenie Roast model, hosting late 90s and early 2000s hitmakers such as Ben Folds Five, Train, Third Eye Blind and Semisonic on two stages at the Walnut Amphitheater. Creek for several years. After a long absence, the event returned last year again with two stages and again with 90s stars like Weezer and Fuel. While pop station G105 presented these original shows, the new Shindigs originate from Clear Channel 95X’s local branch, “Raleigh’s New Rock Alternative”.
Aside from an ongoing commitment to the Foo Fighters singles, the link between the stations is programmer Chris Edge, a longtime radio pro who returned to the Triangle in 2012 to revive alt-rock radio in the region. But as the definition of modern rock becomes more certain, events like The Big Shindig matter less than ever. Despite their resurrection, they refuse to evolve.
This year’s Big Shindig lineup is a loose mix of acts from the ’90s past and bland contemporary dudes. A few crazy-headed gems stand out from the Stone Temple Pilots headliners discography, but with Scott Weiland perpetually unable to pull himself together, and former Linkin Park frontman Chester Bennington now singing “Big Empty” even a claim on the value of nostalgia is tenuous. Openers Live and Blues Traveler could be wiped out entirely from cultural memory. This nostalgia only gives way to commercially strong and aesthetically mundane newbies like Bleachers and the declining Passion Pit bloggers.
And it is not a question of digging into an average market. The lineup for Weenie Roast 2015 in Los Angeles was slightly more current but just as uninspired. Headliners Muse, Death Cab for Cutie and Panic! at the Disco featured a terrifying future class from the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, although Florence and the Machine ranked the lineup with center-left pop. It’s a bigger issue than location or budget.
Instead, the version of the alternate format that persists in 2015 offers only a slight contrast to the pop, hip-hop, oldies, and country that dominate the rest of the dial. The alternative is an increasingly conservative option. You get either classic rock with a slightly off target demographic, or dude heavy synth-pop rendered in soft strokes. Over the past few years, the # 1 hits in the format have come from briefly successful and unseen to critics like Imagine Dragons, Cage the Elephant, and Bastille. Die-hard rock bands like Black Keys and Foo Fighters remain strong, while 2000s rock bloggers like Cold War Kids are releasing hits.
Beck may be the most relevant historical artist in the mix, but he’s definitely on the other side of the peak of his career. Namely, when Kanye suggested Beyoncé deserved to win Beck’s Grammy for “Album of the Year” earlier this year, many accepted Beck’s indignity towards Queen Bey as an uncontroversial truth. Pop music, especially hip-hop and R & Bnow, occupies a position of critical worship that the paradoxically described “mainstream alternative” cannot compete with.
And so, ignoring a new landscape where the underground lives more and more online, and not on the air, hinders the programming determined by old-fashioned broadcasting. Weird pop artists like Grimes, FKA twigs or St. Vincent open up new aesthetic horizons but don’t appear on Clear Channel. This new reality is better noticed by the Pitchfork Festival in Chicago, behind the scenes at Coachella in California or even by the young Hopscotch from Raleigh.
When a festival like Brooklyn’s Afropunk expands just how inclusive alternative culture can be, the things that top the modern rock charts don’t seem so modern anymore. Keeping up with the pulse of changing social attitudes is not the primary concern of a station like 95X, as shown by The Big Shindig’s lineup and the free “Thong of the Day” shots on its website. The alternative does not represent a point, but a refuge against it.
Ancient gods of radio
Injecting life into alternative nostalgia radio festivals, like The Big Shindig, doesn’t necessarily mean breaking the format. There are enough legitimate hitmakers who linger on the ’90s vineyard to compile an afternoon that we’d love to see, if reunion beggars and big-budget deals could be involved. Here is an idea.
WITHOUT A DOUBT
Gwen Stefani’s sporadically active pop-punk group is the rare holdover from the alternate era with the call to anchor a national festival like Coachella.
TERENCE TRENT D’ARBY
Diversifying the lineup to reflect a recent adoption of alternative R&B might be as easy as getting one of the style’s ancestors to pick up a microphone. D’Arby himself was a headliner in KROQ’s first big Weenie Roast lineup in 1993.
In the late 1990s, alternative radio programming took a tough turn towards nü-metal. With metal identification no longer a novelty in underground music circles, a gentle recuperation of the legacy might be appropriate. The emo, Cure-loving, Californian Deftones accents have always kept them pretty close to the traditional center of alternative rock, anyway. (Also in this category, on a smaller scale? Helmet, soon playing a sister Shindig event in Baltimore.)
PRIMITIVE RADIO GODS
Alternative’s chart dominance has resulted in many successful wonders that deserve more prominence in our ’90s nostalgia than Smash Mouth. The lazy surreal boredom and skillful soul sampling of PRG’s “Standing Outside a Broken Phone Booth with Money in My Hand” made it one of the leading lost classics of the era. Bring them back.
Exquisitely dismissive singer Justine Frischmann seems content away from the spotlight, but her band, the Britpop class of the mid-90s, is sorely missed. Their eponymous debut LP is nothing but hits; even long-delayed follow-up, The threat, has aged beyond its initial flop status.
This article appeared in print with the title “Alternative (Stag) nation”