A young, vibrant alternative scene has turned music on its ear. But are the new stars too hot to be cool?

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This is the story of how a gas-station attendant and high school dropout grossed more than $50 million for a record company and found himself in the middle of rock's noisiest controversy.

Only three years ago, Eddie Vedder was working the night shift at a service station in San Diego, sometimes telling people he was a security guard to impress them. He doesn't have to worry about that anymore. Today the 28-year- old singer and lyricist for the alternative-metal band Pearl Jam is rock's newest demigod. His group's debut album, Ten, has sold nearly 6 million copies and still ranks in the Top 30 of the Billboard album chart more than 90 weeks after its release. This week the Seattle-based quintet will release its second album, called simply Vs., which is expected to be one of the biggest-selling albums of the year.

They haven't built that Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, Ohio, yet, but when they do, they'd better save a room for Vedder. He's got all the rock- idol moves down. Does he have a painful, shadowy past? Check. Does he have an air of danger and sensuality reminiscent of Jim Morrison? You bet. Does he refuse to adopt the trappings of a rock star, thus demonstrating that he's such a genuine article he doesn't need stardom? Absolutely. Is he happy to be on the cover of TIME? No way.

Vedder is a product of the thriving world of alternative rock, a musical genre that rejects the commercial values of mainstream pop. Alternative has no strict definition, but it has a feel. Its musicians reject show-biz glitz. They support progressive social causes. Many of them avoid dating groupies and models. Their music is usually guitar-driven, with experimental touches. While pop songs are often about love, alternative lyrics are usually about tougher feelings: despair, lust, confusion. Alternative rock is a reaction, especially among the twentysomething generation, to all the years of being subjected to Madonna's changing hair color and MTV close-ups of George Michael's butt.

Alternative rock has been simmering for years, ready for this moment of boiling over. The Georgia-based band R.E.M. was an alternative pioneer in the mid-'80s that went mainstream years before Pearl Jam was even formed. What's new is that the record charts are now crowded with alternative bands ranging from the arty-rock quartet Smashing Pumpkins to the folk-tinged Soul Asylum. MTV's Alternative Nation program and the Lollapalooza road tour, which feature the new breed, have become the hippest venues going.

And therein lies the controversy: alternative music is currently one of the most potent forces in the mainstream, which has triggered an identity crisis and rancorous debate among musicians and fans. If these rockers are stars now, fans ask, haven't they become everything we're against? Nothing better symbolizes the struggle for this musical genre's soul than the success of Pearl Jam, a band adored by followers but reviled by some fellow musicians as sellouts, poseurs or opportunists riding on the fame of their fellow Seattleites, Nirvana. Nirvana leader Kurt Cobain has said that bands like Pearl Jam are "jumping on the alternative bandwagon." Cobain and his crew have released a new album, In Utero, that is deliberately abrasive (three weeks after its release, it ranks No. 3 on the Billboard chart).

Vedder, who has already had his share of inner conflict, has been dizzied by the transformation from outsider to idol. "Any kinda quick success of the kind we had is inevitably bound to provoke some degree of contempt," he told Britain's Melody Maker newspaper. "I end up having a lot of difficulties with it myself. I'm being honest when I say that sometimes when I see a picture of the band or a picture of my face taking up a whole page of a magazine, I hate that guy."

In keeping with rock tradition, alternative is defiant. The twist is what it's rebelling against. What angers today's rockers and their fans is that life is so unjust, which they learned at a vulnerable age. Alternative rock is the sound of homes breaking. If you are in your teens or 20s, chances are your family has been through a divorce. Alternative music has become an emotional sound track, speaking directly to unresolved issues of abandonment and unfairness. "I tried hard to have a father/ But instead I had a dad," Nirvana's Cobain sings on In Utero. One of Pearl Jam's biggest hits, Jeremy, is a song about a boy who kills himself in a classroom: "Daddy didn't give attention/ To the fact that Mommy didn't care." Pearl Jam's keen sense of angst has garnered the band comparisons with the Who and U2.

Can they survive the hype? While Pearl Jam, Nirvana and their colleagues have a real message to deliver, most of this was overlooked during the past two years by trend watchers who were more interested in the way they dressed and the Seattle scene they came from. Style mavens fixed upon the thrift-shop wardrobe of flannel shirts and torn corduroy jackets, dubbing it the grunge look. For a fashion shoot, Vanity Fair dressed Manhattan socialites and celebrities in flannel and denim. All this exploitation made the term grunge deeply unfashionable among American youth, but bands like Pearl Jam have shaken off the label, becoming better known for their music than their baggy shorts.

In terms of influence, alternative musicians borrow from the rough edges of rock's history. Out of the 1960s comes the spirit of social protest and artistic freedom. From the late 1970s come the primitive, do-it-yourself sensibility of punk and the slam-dancing and stage-diving mayhem that went with it. "We rip off everyone equally," says Shannon Hoon, lead singer of Blind Melon, which has sold more than 1 million copies of its first album this year. The trick is to sample riffs from somebody who's so long gone that the modern repetition of it sounds fresh and new. Even the theatrical group Kiss -- whose members wore demonic makeup onstage -- is cited as an influence by today's alternative rockers. "I had the worst crush on the God of Thunder, (Kiss bassist) Gene Simmons," says Kat Bjelland, lead singer for the punkette group Babes in Toyland. "They appealed to me because they're really basic. Plus they're so evil!"

Alternative rockers keep a clear conscience about all the borrowing because their hodgepodge sound is homemade, not the formula of a record company. "I don't like labels," warns alternative rocker Juliana Hatfield, a winsome woman with a girlish voice and a guitar that barks. "But if you want to put me in that category, it's O.K. with me, because being labeled alternative has a certain amount of respect that goes along with it. It means that you've started out on your own, the ethic of doing everything yourself."

The alternative movement was dependent on the entrepreneurship of dozens of independent record labels, or indies, that sprang up during the 1980s as major labels focused more on such superstars as Bruce Springsteen and Madonna.

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