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The rise and fall of alternative rock

Craig Schuftan's new book looks back at the music of the 1990s and its lasting impact, Dan Bigna writes

Back in February The Canberra Times published a front-page story to commemorate the 20th anniversary of grunge band Nirvana's arresting 1992 performance at the ANU Bar. The story included impressions from those who had been lucky enough to attend the show with clear recollections of youthful energy amid heat, sweat and noise. I am also one of the lucky ones to remember the show like this. Many fantastic bands graced the stage of the ANU bar in the 1990s, but the fact that Nirvana's appearance made front-page news 20 years after the event signposts the phenomenal impact this particular band had on popular culture.

For those of us who came of age at the tail-end of the 1980s - when the mainstream entertainment industry had become increasingly bereft of anything new and exciting - the appearance of Nirvana suggested a clean sweep of tired stadium rock and fading celebrities. The hope was this group and its American north-west brethren would usher in a new era to bring bands and audiences together and hopefully irritate our baby boomer parents in the process.

Craig Schuftan points out in his illuminating latest book Entertain Us: The Rise and Fall of Alternative Rock in the Nineties that the Seattle music scene, along with myriad other cultural expressions, exerted a large influence on the cultural direction of the 20th century's final decade.

I first became aware of Schuftan through a segment on national broadcaster Triple J in which he might discuss Futurist painting and 1970s Velvet Underground obsessives The Modern Lovers with equal enthusiasm. Schuftan is one of the rare authorial breed, like Peter Conrad and Alain de Botton, who absorbs art from across the spectrum and then reveals links to provide a context for progress and innovation.

This forms the basis of his first two books, The Culture Club and Hey! Nietzsche! Leave Them Kids Alone! and turns up again to good effect in Entertain Us. Concise, yet highly detailed chapters cover much musical ground ranging from the neo-psychedelia of The Stone Roses and Happy Mondays to the strangely surreal punk rock of the Pixies. All are brought together in an evolving narrative that details a struggle to promote meaningful artistic expression in a corporatised world.

I ask Schuftan to outline those distinguishing aspects about alternative music in the 1990s which might draw the reader into a diverse cultural milieu. ''The interesting thing about the '90s is that it was a time when, to some extent, people like me got their wish,'' he says. ''The weird noisy garage punk music you and your friends listened to became the most popular music in the world. But this turned out to be not as much fun - for the bands or the fans - as those people might have expected. So then there's a question. Is it alternative music's job to remain just that, an alternative? This question was answered - or avoided - in so many interesting ways over the course of the '90s. The more I learned about it, the more I felt like that period of time had a lot of valuable things to teach us about the relationship between rock music, the entertainment industry, politics, and society.''

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Entertain Us explores these interconnected relationships in unexpected ways. For example, it became increasingly clear that my enjoyment of the book didn't simply stem from a stirred longing for ''happier times,'' as Simon Reynolds puts it in Retromania, his recent book on popular music and its obsession with the past.

Early in his book Schuftan points to a worrying sign of the times in a chapter about Jesus Jones's song, Right Here Right Now, recorded in 1990 in response to the fall of the Berlin Wall the previous year. This song is a staple on commercial FM radio today and was written in a burst of optimism.

But Schuftan points out under the heading ''Freedom isn't Free'' that the song had been adopted by American bomber pilots in the air war over Iraq in early 1991. This disparity between cultural freedom as shaped by the grunge bands, the neo-psychedelia of Primal Scream and the evocative Brit-pop of Pulp and Blur, and the reality of an uncertain post-Cold War world are backdrops to the many musical moments making up Entertain Us.

Economic and political uncertainty is reflected in the many shifts that took place in 1990s music, which in the first half of the decade was played out as a struggle between heavily commercialised mainstream culture and grass-roots artistic expression. The antidote to this uncertainty was approachable art - in some cases the louder the better.

As a fan of squalling guitars, I find Schuftan's insightful discussion on vital bands like the Pixies and Sonic Youth entirely appealing. With this in mind, I ask him about the concept of liberation through noise. ''I can say from personal experience that it can happen,'' he says. ''I remember watching the video for [Sonic Youth's] Kool Thing on Rage one night, not long after the single came out. I felt at the time, and have been more and more convinced ever since, that the sheer noisiness of that song was a pretty important signpost in my life. I probably wouldn't have articulated it like this at the time, but I definitely got the idea from Thurston Moore's guitar that the world didn't necessarily work the way people had tried to convince me it did up to that point. It seemed to point to a new reality, or at least a new way of living your life.''

When the 1990s kicked in, I recall hoping that my desires would be expressed in the music I listened to, and I wonder if Schuftan felt as I did. ''I think a large proportion of the wider rock audience was bored by what was available on the radio and in the record shops as early as 1987,'' he says. ''But people didn't really know what else to listen to. They were desperate for something authentic, but heard nothing on the radio that would satisfy them. Meanwhile, there was all this great music in the underground - on both sides of the Atlantic - but no one was hearing it. Almost simultaneously, the mainstream music industry heads realised there was a new generation of consumers whose tastes weren't really being catered to, and began to tentatively take some chances.''

Many people certainly took chances in the 1990s - factor in the appearance of bell-bottom jeans - but what does this mean for those of us looking back 20 years? How has cultural expression advanced from then? ''I think things are a lot better,'' Schuftan says. ''When people say they believe the '90s was the last time music mattered, I think they're saying they wish an indie band could have the kind of global impact on culture that Nirvana did in 1991. But Nirvana were embraced by a system which they would really rather have destroyed. But now we have thousands of great bands distributing their own music and forming small, meaningful communities all over the place.''

A cursory glance at 2012 suggests the cultural revolution promised by 1990s alternative culture remains in small, yet significant pockets - from a local perspective check out recent band line-ups at The Front Gallery in Lyneham and Smiths Books in the city for instance.

Entertain Us articulates the ongoing struggle for meaningful artistic expression in a corporate world as a significant legacy. What was the secret behind Schuftan's seemingly effortless ability to craft a rich history into an engaging narrative? ''A bit of discipline,'' he states bluntly. ''I know a lot of people enjoyed my first two books because of the strange, surrealist-influenced way in which they're put together, with often quite dramatic leaps from one time-period to another. I like that too, and it's still the guiding principle behind the new book. My two biggest inspirations in this - apart from Michael Azerrad's Our Band Could Be Your Life - were Norman Davies' Europe: A History and E. H. Gombrich's The Story of Art. I thought if Davies could tell the story of a whole continent and the people who lived on it over a period of 4000 years and keep it interesting, I should be able to manage a decade in music.''