How to Be Alternative | Year In Review | Chicago Reader

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How to Be Alternative

A Concise Dictionary and Guide to Usage


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In its October 25 cover story on Pearl Jam, Time magazine boldly declared, "Alternative has no strict definition." Like virtually everything one reads in mainstream newsweeklies, this claim is patently false. As the following glossary and usage guide will demonstrate, it is possible to define "alternative."

Alternative: Life-style choice whose adherents express disdain for everything "mainstream." Note: The right-thinking alternative person no longer uses this word as it has been co-opted by the mainstream media. See also: Doc Martens, goatee, underemployed.

Birkenstocks: Notoriously comfortable German sandals favored by alternative persons, excellent for walking around at Lollapalooza. Also fairly effective as a form of birth control.

Broken home: Household characterized by the absence of one parent or the presence of a stepparent, often cited by the mainstream media as a possible cause of alternativeness. Note: If you do not come from a broken home, a dysfunctional one will do.

Coffee: Centuries-old beverage made newly popular by clever marketing schemes. The problem with coffee, alternatively speaking, is that it is consumed by so many people in the mainstream. Hint: Right-thinking alternative people can distinguish themselves from mainstream coffee drinkers by drinking lattes and/or double lattes. See also: personal cup.

Doc Martens: Clunky shoes or boots, often black, which if worn properly confer instant alternative status. In order to ensure that people who are not legitimately alternative will have no idea what you're talking about, refer to them alternately as "Docs" or "DMs." In the course of casual conversation, one should shudder to learn that "DMs" can now be purchased at Kinney. Fashion tip for girls: Wear them with a dress!

Drinking: The use of intoxicants such as beer, wine, or hard liquor. The problem with alcohol, alternatively speaking, is that it is consumed by so many people in the mainstream (including frat boys, law students, and many elected officals). Warning: Unless the individual in question is wearing Doc Martens, it is virtually impossible to distinguish a right-thinking alternative drunk from a mainstream drunk.

Eyeglasses: Lenses worn to aid vision, always with distinctive wire-rim or tortoise-shell frames. The right-thinking alternative person eschews contact lenses. Example: Kennedy, bespectacled host of MTV's Alternative Nation.

Goatee: Facial hair popular among employees of coffeehouses, alternative rock musicians, and college students. Message sent by wearer: My girlfriend pays most of the rent.

Grunge: Aesthetic/personal style characterized by ripped, threadbare clothing and unwashed hair. In its most extreme form, grunge is practiced only by those alternative persons who are not required to pay back college loans. Exemplars of extreme grunge include Dave Pirner (lead singer of Soul Asylum) and many unemployed graduates of North Shore high schools.

1 Guy: Person of the male sex. Within the mainstream "guy" is widely used, in a value-neutral sense, as a synonym for man.

2 Guy: Pejorative term for a person of the male sex who is self-centered, self-satisfied, and/or immature. Alternatively speaking, "guy" describes a state of mind rather than a biological condition. Example of early alternative usage (from the 1989 movie Say Anything): "The world is full of guys. Be a man. Don't be a guy." Example of late alternative usage: The title of Liz Phair's debut album, Exile in Guyville.

High school: Stultifying American institution. If you were popular in high school, it is virtually impossible for you to be alternative.

Hip: Term of approbation appropriate for use on all occasions. Example: "That's so hip." Antonym: unhip. The paradox of hip: The only way to achieve a state of genuinely alternative hipness is to disdain all things hip.

Irony: Incongruity between the expected result of an action and the actual result. Hint: Always note the "irony" of "alternative" bands breaking into the "mainstream."

Lesbian chic: Personal style characterized by short hair and strong political convictions, e.g., k.d. lang. Note: One does not necessarily have to be lesbian in order to practice the art of lesbian chic. Many, if not most, short-haired, Birkenstock-clad women overheard in feminist bookstores swapping vegetarian couscous recipes and chatting about Adrienne Rich are not lesbians but straight girls educated at east coast liberal arts colleges.

Mainstream, The: Commercial culture. As a general rule, the right-thinking alternative person eschews all cultural products generated by monolithic, profit-mongering corporations, including TV, Hollywood movies, glossy magazines, and lavish Broadway musicals. Exception: It is considered acceptable in many alternative circles to watch television--but only if it is watched "ironically." Suggestion for ironic viewing: The Partridge Family.

Middle part: A division of the hair beginning at the top of the skull and extending down to the center of the forehead. Female equivalent of the goatee. Message sent by the wearer: My father pays most of the rent.

Nonsmoking: Abstaining from the use of tobacco products. Nonsmoking is perceived in many alternative circles to be ascetic and/or bourgeois.

Personal cup: Reusable cup, often with thermal properties and a lid. The use of a personal cup is an excellent way for environmentally right-thinking alternative people to distinguish themselves from mainstream coffee drinkers.

Poseur: Any person pretending to be more alternative than he or she actually is. This includes everyone on the North American continent except Neil Young.

Queer: Homosexual. The right-thinking alternative person, if heterosexual, not only respects homosexuals but also, when appropriate, expresses remorse over not being homosexual. Quote Kurt Cobain: "I'm definitely gay in spirit." Note: When bestowed upon a straight person by an actual homosexual, the term "queer" is an honorific implying a certain largeness of mind and is not indicative of sexual orientation.

Reader: Weekly newspaper. Since the Reader is available for free at many stores, restaurants, and bars, the right-thinking alternative person may generally obtain a copy without having to participate in consumer culture.

Smoking: Inhaling and exhaling the fumes of burning plant material. Hint: Many right-thinking yet health-conscious alternative people smoke only when they go out drinking. This allows them to participate in the rituals of smoking (asking strangers for lights, bumming cigarettes) without experiencing the many grim side effects of nicotine addiction.

Tattoo: Indelible mark fixed upon the body by insertion of pigment under the skin; the only fashion statement ever found to be more painful than platform shoes. Message sent by the wearer: This is not a phase. See also: body piercing.

Twenty-five: Age at which many right-thinking alternative people apply to law school. Quote from the 1992 film Singles: "Time is running out to do something bizarre. Somewhere around twenty-five, bizarre becomes immature."

Underemployed: Said of someone with a college degree working in a position that does not require one. See also: goatee.

Vegetarian: Person who does not eat meat. As the recent death of noted vegetarian River Phoenix has shown, the meatless life-style does not have to be a dull one. Many recreational drugs contain no meat and are not tested on animals!

Vinyl: Tough thermoplastic resin formed by the polymerization of a vinylidene compound and used especially to form discs with spiral grooves carrying recorded sound. Preferred musical format of all right-thinking alternative people.

Wicker Park/Bucktown: Bohemian Chicago neighborhood. If you live there, insist that it is "dangerous" (this makes you look bravely iconoclastic), but "not too dangerous" (which would make you look stupid).

'XRT: Radio station. Lament the fact that it's not quite as "alternative" as it once was.

Zine: Short for fanzine, i.e., magazine written by and for fans. Ideally, you should produce your own. However, if you are pressed for time you can probably get away with simply knowing someone who does.

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