When the Recording Academy launched the Best Alternative Music Performance Grammys category in 1991, it was a case of perfect timing. Not only was Nevermind on deck to detonate existing rock trends — and drag underground sounds into the mainstream — but the vast and varied college rock system (and its descendent, “modern rock”) were on the precipice of a breakthrough. Billboard had launched its modern rock singles chart in late 1988, in response to the genre’s burgeoning popularity, and bands such as R.E.M., Depeche Mode, and The Cure had been drawing increasingly larger crowds in the US as the ’80s progressed.
The first alternative Grammy nomination class was suitably, well, alternative: Kate Bush, Laurie Anderson, World Party, The Replacements, and eventual winner Sinead O’Connor. In the ensuing years, however, the category — which eventually settled into the name “Best Alternative Music Album” — has reinforced music’s patriarchal hegemony. More than that, it’s clear that both the #GrammySoWhite and #GrammySoMale hashtags apply: White men — whether as solo artists or part of a band — have overwhelmingly dominated the win column. Only Alabama Shakes vocalist Brittany Howard, who is biracial, and Gnarls Barkley co-collaborator CeeLo Green break this trend.
On the gender parity front, only two female solo artists, St. Vincent and O’Connor, have ever won the category. Count award-winning women from bands, and that list includes only Howard and The White Stripes’ Meg White. The losing landscape is just as dismal from a diversity perspective: Although women have received nods over the years, the number of non-white musicians simply even nominated is close to nil.
It’s not necessarily surprising to see the mainstream-leaning Grammys fumble coverage of non-mainstream music. However, it’s disappointing and unacceptable to see how little has been done over time to make the category more inclusive. The idea of “alternative” might be fuzzy today, but the descriptor sprang up originally as a catch-all genre to provide a real substitute to narrow-minded musical views and genres. Taken as-is, the category simply reinforced mainstream biases in the alternative realm.
In the spirit of trying to give a more complete (and varied) view of modern rock’s last three decades, we looked at the Best Alternative Music Album winners since 1991, and determined whether the Recording Academy chose right — or whether another artist deserved to win.