Several years ago, I was talking to the cantankerous head of an independent rock label about why rap and metal albums fly up the charts, while alternative-rock albums often have such slow builds. ''Kids who are into metal feel that way because it's part of their everyday life,'' he groused. ''For people into indie rock, it's just background music.''
In 1995, the situation is both the same and different. Alterna-rock has clearly swum into the mainstream; we now live in a world where the mall punk of Green Day's Dookie has sold a mind-blowing 7 million copies. But what will happen when Green Day releases a follow-up? Judging from their peers, they may encounter the same degree of fan fickleness that plagued earlier bands in the genre. Is this the dawn of a new age or a new age of one-hit wonders?
For alternative bands, the facts must be sobering. Recently released sophomore albums by Radiohead and Collective Soul both of whom had major hit singles their first time out have been greeted with marked indifference, as if fans can't even work up the energy to form an opinion about them. (Radiohead's The Bends debuted at No. 200 out of 200.) The Stone Roses were the next big thing five years ago; when they finally got around to releasing album No. 2 this year, all the publicity in the world couldn't remind anyone why we cared about the Manchester sound in the first place. And then there is Belly. The band's first album, Star, was ubiquitous on MTV's Alternative Nation show. In contrast, their second album, King, is one of the year's ignominious flops, slithering down and off the Billboard album chart.
It's important to note that commercial and artistic success should never be confused. Juliana Hatfield's Only Everything is hot on Belly's trail down the charts, even though ''Universal Heart-Beat'' is the strongest, most confident single she's ever made. And let's not forget the venerable sophomore jinx: Belly's second album was weighed down with coy, hookless songs. Still, the failure of that album and others like it points to problems that alternative rock, and the major labels now catering to it, will soon have to face.
There is, for instance, the simple matter of overkill. Major labels are signing as many alterna-rock bands as possible, resulting in a torrent of alternative discs on the market. There's simply too much to keep up with. Right now, fans may be devouring Better Than Ezra's grunge-by-numbers ''Good'' single and video, but thanks to the short attention spans encouraged by the likes of MTV, there are 58 other new alterna-bands and their videos waiting to take Better Than Ezra's place tomorrow.
In a recent article in the Hollywood Reporter, radio consultant Jeff Pollack complained that much of the new music was ''disposable,'' and compared the era to the one-hit parade of the Knack, Soft Cell, and other skinny-tie proponents of the early '80s. He may be right. The interchangeability of many of these bands has become increasingly problematic. It's getting hard to distinguish your Quicksands from your Verves, your Letters to Cleos from your Velocity Girls. Then again, some of these bands may simply not have much more to offer than one song, as anyone who tried to plow through Bush's entire album of Kurt Cobain knockoffs knows.