Scott Weiland, long-time frontman for the alternative rock band Stone Temple Pilots, was found dead in his tour bus last week. STP had its heyday in the mid-1990s. Weiland struggled with substance abuse and mental illness throughout his career.
Lost in the wall-to-wall news coverage of Donald Trump, ISIS, and refugees last week was a sad story about one near-forgotten musician, Scott Weiland, who at one time helped create a new genre of music in the American rock scene.
Twenty-five-ish years ago, I was a very young teenager, just learning about popular music. At that time, we still listened to the radio every day. Morning shows were paramount. In those days, in my city, we had a station called Power99, a local top 40 station, that completely changed its format overnight and became 99X, moving from the profitable, proven top 40 model to something that had recently been labeled “alternative rock”.
So, instead of playing music handed down from the Billboard charts — music that was guaranteed to be popular — this new 99X was going to scour college radio and small club scenes across the country for music that fit this new emerging sub-genre. It was a ridiculous move. And thus they became the loudspeaker for a generation of people like me in the 1990s. The move would make them the most profitable radio station in Atlanta for a brief time, and would also lead to their demise, about 15 short years later.
Radio executives didn’t realize that their renegade DJs were tapping into a cultural phenomenon that was already in full swing across the country. And it was this musical and cultural upheaval that enabled people like Weiland to become superstars. In the years that followed, Weiland and his band Stone Temple Pilots, along with the likes of Nirvana, Pearl Jam, and the Wallflowers, would carve out a new genre, channeling the angst and discontent of teenagers like myself.
Alone in a crowd
Unlike other genres of music, there was no real network of artists and producers to support the longevity of alt rock. Alt rock began as a loose stream of artists experimenting with rock, most of them characterized by their refusal to conform to the accepted norms of other types of music.
Country music had (and still has) its Nashville-centric network of writers and producers that feeds the success of its best singers and continually churns out new talent. A similar network exists in the rap and hip hop world, as well as in pop.
And so, as culture evolved and alt rock moved to the sideline of the cultural shift, musicians that had once fueled the progress of American music were left without an audience. Weiland, Vedder, and others like them have no heirs apparent, no one to take the torch they lit long ago. The revolution started with them, and it left them behind.
The Irony of Celebrity
The irony in all this revolution-speak is that alt rock was not in itself the musical revolution we were convinced it was. There was no uniting ideology, no identifying set of principles, as there was for other types of music. It was all part of a cultural shift that was much bigger than the tiny genre of music we listened to. It was about nonconformity, adolescence, and escape. The musicians that became popular were simply tapping into the sound of our collective yelling and screaming, vying to be recognized as adults. And later, as we actually stepped into the world of adulthood, that yelling and screaming died out.
And a greater irony has taken hold for those musicians that profited from this phenomenon — namely Weiland and Cobain, and others who came to an untimely demise. In a world where they were recognized as immeasurably talented individuals, they took their nonconformity to the highest level, refusing to give themselves to the people that needed them most.
They had wives and children, but in many ways we — the listeners — got a better view of them than their own families. We got to see only their talented, performing greatness, and we affirmed them for how they affirmed us. They gave us a voice as we vied to break free of our obligations and reach new highs. But it was their breaking free that brought them down.
Their talent was also their downfall. That which made them great musically also drove them to rob those closest to them of the things that only they could provide. Friendship. Fatherhood. Family. Relationship. Love.
In retrospect, that which once seemed to have so much meaning has become meaningless, as we realize that there are things in this world worth holding tightly to.