When It Began: The Birth Of The Alternative Grammys And The Commodification Of The Underground

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At the beginning of 1991, the Replacements were in a bad place. The beloved Midwestern punks were weathering a mixed reception for their most recent album All Shook Down, they had recently fired drummer Chris Mars and were in the protracted process of breaking up.

But some things were shaking up. At least they were finally nominated for a Grammy.

1991 saw the debut of the Best Alternative Music Performance award, later renamed the Grammy Award for Best Alternative Music Album. Or, as The New York Times put it during a write-up of the year’s nomination, “Best alternative music performance, a category recognizing collegiate rock, was added this year.” Not that the Replacements, one of the groups that helped set the template for “collegiate rock” cared that much.

“They were never exactly the kind of band that really cared too much about awards,” says Bob Mehr, whose acclaimed book Trouble Boys: The True Story Of The Replacements, told the story of the Minneapolis pioneers and the alternative music scene they helped incubate. “And I think they were also confused, probably, by the whole idea of this new alternative music category. The idea of it being quantified or validated by an organization like the Grammys probably seemed a little odd.”

Well, maybe one of the members cared just a little. While the rest of the band were on tour and didn’t bother to attend the ceremony, “Chris Mars was among those nominated,” Mehr notes. “The Replacements’ managers at the time had gotten word that Chris was maybe gonna go to the ceremony, and if they won, was gonna cause some trouble and bad mouth the band on TV and all that sort of stuff. Of course, none of that turned out to be true, Chris didn’t end up going to the ceremony, and that section wasn’t televised anyway at that time as far as I know.”

And that’s the story of the Alternative Grammys right there. From Radiohead to Nirvana to Tame Impala, many of the artists nominated for the award feel, at best, ambivalent about it, and the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences doesn’t even deign to give winners airtime. But the creation of the award still signaled that the coalition of do-it-yourself bands and oddball artists who worked tirelessly to create boundary-pushing art, and the college and specialty radio stations that nurtured them, had made their presence felt on the mainstream music industry. For better and for worse.

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A lot of the alternative fans felt ambivalent about the awards as well,” says Scott Frampton, the former editor of the magazine CMJ New Music Monthly, of the college radio community’s reaction to the creation of the award. If not downright hostile. “My recollection is ‘eh whatever.’ Because if you are defining yourself by what you aren’t, then there’s nothing less punk rock than the Grammys.”