When the KROQ Weenie Roast debuted in Los Angeles in the summer of 1993, the upside was self-evident: Stranger tastes were rapidly gaining commercial ground, and radio stations could cash in.
Billboard had launched its "Modern Rock" chart five years prior as an attempt to quantify the brooding rock that played well on college stations and MTV but failed to reach pop charts. The early-'90s explosion of Nirvana and their peers suddenly made alternative radio a big business—and daylong festivals populated by the same bands an obvious bonus. The formula expanded to markets both big and small.
In Raleigh, The Big Shindig localized the Weenie Roast model, hosting late–'90s and early-'00s hitmakers such as Ben Folds Five, Train, Third Eye Blind and Semisonic on two stages at Walnut Creek Amphitheatre 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 the pop station G105 presented those original shows, the new Shindigs come from local Clear Channel affiliate 95X, "Raleigh's New Rock Alternative."
Aside from a continuing commitment to 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 area. But as the definition of Modern Rock grows safer, events like The Big Shindig matter less than ever. Despite their resurrection, they refuse to evolve.
This year's Big Shindig lineup is an ill-sitting mix of past-peak '90s acts and bland contemporary dudes. A few lunk-headed gems stand out from the discography of headliners Stone Temple Pilots, but with Scott Weiland perpetually unable to get his shit together, and former Linkin Park frontman Chester Bennington now belting out "Big Empty," even a claim on nostalgia value is tenuous. Openers Live and Blues Traveler could be edited out of the cultural memory entirely. This nostalgia yields only to commercially strong, aesthetically banal newbies like Bleachers and waning blog-poppers Passion Pit.
And this is not to pick on a medium market. The lineup for the 2015 Weenie Roast in LA was slightly more current but equally uninspired. Headliners Muse, Death Cab for Cutie and Panic! at the Disco presented a terrifying future Rock and Roll Hall of Fame class, though Florence and the Machine classed up the lineup with left-of-center pop. It's a problem bigger than locale or budget.
Instead, the version of the alternative format that lingers in 2015 provides only a mild contrast to the pop, hip-hop, oldies and country that dominate the rest of the dial. The alternative is an increasingly conservative option. You either get classic rock with the demographic target slightly shifted or dude-heavy synth-pop rendered in meek strokes. Over the past few years, No. 1 hits in the format came from briefly successful and critically invisible acts like Imagine Dragons, Cage the Elephant and Bastille. Straight-ahead rock bands like Black Keys and Foo Fighters remain strong, while '00s blog rock refugees like Cold War Kids eke out charting hits.
Beck is maybe the most continually relevant legacy artist in the mix, but he's well on the other side of his career's hip pinnacle. To wit, when Kanye suggested Beyoncé deserved to take Beck's "Album of the Year" Grammy earlier this year, many accepted Beck's unworthiness relative to Queen Bey as an uncontroversial truth. Pop music—especially hip-hop and R&B—now holds a position of critical adoration with which the paradoxically described "mainstream alternative" can't compete.
And thus, ignoring a new landscape where the underground increasingly lives online, not on-air, hinders lineups determined by old-school airplay. Weird pop artists like Grimes, FKA twigs or St. Vincent are breaking new aesthetic ground but not popping up on Clear Channel. This new reality gets better notice by Chicago's Pitchfork Festival, on the side stages of California's Coachella or even Raleigh's younger Hopscotch.
When a festival like Brooklyn's Afropunk is expanding how inclusive alternative culture can be, the stuff that tops the Modern Rock charts doesn't seem so modern anymore. Keeping up with the pulse of shifting social attitudes isn't the main concern of a station like 95X, evidenced by The Big Shindig lineup and gratuitous "Thong of the Day" shots on its website. The alternative represents not a cutting edge, but a refuge from it.
Injecting life into alternative radio nostalgia-fests, like The Big Shindig, doesn't have to mean breaking the format. There are enough legitimate hitmakers lingering on the '90s vine to compile an afternoon we'd be excited to see, if some reunion begging and big-budget offers might be involved. Here's an idea.
Gwen Stefani's sporadically active pop-punk group is the rare alternative era holdover with the appeal to anchor a national festival like Coachella.
TERENCE TRENT D'ARBY
Diversifying the lineup to reflect a recent embrace of alternative R&B could be as easy as enticing one of the style's progenitors to pick up a microphone. D'Arby himself was a headliner in the first lineup of KROQ's grand Weenie Roast in 1993.
Near the end of the '90s, alt-radio programming took a hard turn toward nü-metal. With metal identification no longer novel in underground music circles, a soft reclaiming of the legacy might be appropriate. The Cure-loving, emo overtones of California's Deftones always kept them kind of close to alt-rock's traditional center, anyway. (Also in this category, on a smaller scale? Helmet, soon playing a sister Shindig event in Baltimore.)
PRIMITIVE RADIO GODS
Alternative's blip of chart dominance dragged along plenty of one-hit wonders that deserve more centrality in our '90s nostalgia than Smash Mouth. The surrealist slacker ennui and deft soul-sampling of PRG's "Standing Outside a Broken Phone Booth with Money in My Hand" make it one of the era's top-tier lost classics. Bring 'em back.
Exquisitely disdainful singer Justine Frischmann seems content away from the spotlight, but her band, the class of arch mid-'90s Britpop, is sorely missed. Their self-titled debut LP is nothing but hits; even the long-delayed follow-up, The Menace, has aged beyond its initial flop status.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Alternative (Stag)nation"