No-one can think of 80s music without remembering the impact of hair metal. Dressing up classic hard rock in glitter and makeup and investing the gross domestic product of a small nation in hair products, bands like Cinderella, Motley Crue, Poison, Van Halen, Warrant, Ratt and Faster Pussycat dominated the charts for half a decade with their easy-sleazy brand of rock’n’roll debauchery and good time party music. Yet as suddenly as it appeared, the whole scene vanished, leaving Hollywood Boulevard a desolate landscape with anorexic groupies blowing like tumbleweed attempting to find the merest hint of a musician in eyeliner and leather. Why?
Its really easy to take cheap shots at hair metal on the basis of its image, in fact thats pretty much what most haters of the genre do. You don’t have to be especially hip to point out that the fashion was god-awful and the sound is dated, but thats ignoring the fact that of much of the 80s, metal was pop music, by which I mean it was popular, with the charts, magazines and media featuring more metal acts than at any other point in history. And as a pop culture, its fashions became inexorably intertwined with the era. Modern liberalism will always point to the glam metal scene as being at best sexist or at worst mysogenistic, and there’s more than a handful of truth grains there, though its hard to see how you can separate that from the Miami rap scenes apparently inexhaustable pursuit of horizontal jogging, and no more relevant to music being bad than suggesting that r’n’b should be condemned for its focus on wealth. And modern musicians will forever claim that the music was soul-less, merely acting as a conduit for a generation of lead guitarists’ tinnitus-inducing pyrotechnic masterbation sessions.
And to a greater or lesser extent (and it veers in the direction of greater) all of these points are true. But none of them explains why, in the early 90s, metal’s reign came to a shuddering halt previously matched only by the dinosuars or Ayrton Senner. The truth is that it came from the bands themselves for the most part, and from a lesser part from the fans. Iit always irks me when faced with some die hard glam fan who insists that the genre has “gone underground, but is just waiting to come back and be as popular as before”. No it isn’t. It killed itself and you, my dear KISS acolyte, nailed its coffin lid shut. Wearing an original Bulletboys t-shirt and dressing like a member of Poison circa Open Up and Say Ah! isn’t showing support for the bands and paving the way for the Second Coming, its exemplifying one of the things it was ridiculed for. Fuck, even the bands you idolize don’t dress like that any more. Fashion doesn’t go in circles. Fashion constantly evolves, although it might reference older styles in a new incarnation. Flares made a comeback, but CND symbols, acid tripping, tie-died hemp underwear and a Summer of Love didn’t come with them. Nothing looks sadder than someone who has to make a permanent statement about what music they listen to by dressing a certain way. You don’t look edgy, you just look like a cock.
“80s metal killed itself. It and it did in spectacular style that Cobain would probably have approved of. It did it by simultaneously boring its fans and alienating them at the same time.”
Hair metal fans love to point to the arrival of grunge as the thing that killed off the glam scene, like it was some conspiracy to stop people listening to music that made them happy, to regain control of the music industry and to promote new artists through whom the record executives could line their pockets. Some even argue that metal had become too powerful, that the fans were rebelling against the extablishment through the reveolutinary messages of Shout at the Devil, or even that rock was promoting a lifestyle that the authorities felt was unseenly and therefore felt the need to intervene, Big Brother style and bring up a new generation of teens on the more wholesome diet of straight edge bands, flannel shirts, songs about introspection and artists who blow their own heads off with shotguns.
This, of course, is utter horseshit. The simple truth is, 80s metal killed itself. It and it did in spectacular style that Cobain would probably have approved of. It did it by simultaneously boring its fans and alienating them at the same time.
Hair metal grew as an antidote to the new wave electronica of the early 80s, from 70s hard rock and heavy metal. Mixing influences usually promotes new ideas but in this case the new rock bands simply attempted to distill what they thought were the best bits, creating some dreadful blueprint for inbred pedigree music. The Kennel Club published and article stating that some dog breeds such as the English Bull Terrier have been so refined in an attempt to create the perfect specimen that there are now less than 25 genetically different individuals in the world, which is way to little diversity to sustain the breed. This is a perfect analogy to 80s rock music. It attempted to refine the music of its forebears without understanding the need for diversity. Bands like Led Zeppelin and Deep Purple had the soaring vocals and wild guitar solos, the look and the legendary sexual appetite, the bad boy notoriety and appeal that was represented in the songs. But that certainly wasn’t the sum of what they were. Hair Metal looked at Zeppelin’s template and built their style around it. Bands were expected to look a certain way and sing songs in a certain style – anything else was simply unacceptable. What resulted was a scene where every rock star needed to look feminine, sing songs about shagging, be guitar focussed and portray a dangerous rebellious image. If a band wanted to make an impact, they had to outdo everyone else. Singers needed to sing higher, songs needed to be cruder, they needed an image that was full of more hard drinking, stripper shagging makeup-wearing decadence than any of their conteporaries, In other words, the pedigreed themselves into oblivion. I don’t care how much anyone professes to love 80s glam metal, there are only so many things you can do with the riff to Cat Scratch Fever and songs about either a)sex, b) living in Hollywood or c) both, before it all rolls into one giant, tedious compilation album.
Which leads me on to the fan element of this. Fans made it impossible for their bands to evolve beyond their self-imposed constraints. Poison attempted to subtly slide out of their sugary image of their first 2 albums by first learning to play, then releasing a genuinely semi-competent album with Flesh and Blood before culminating in Native tongue, a mix of soulfll swamp-blues and geniunely good songs. How did the fans react? Largely, by requesting yet another spinning of Talk Dirty To Me from the DJs. Love/Hate cut their hair and promptly fell off the edge of the planet. In short, the fans clamoured for more of the same, but the well had run dry.
All of this might sound like a poor judgement call and bad luck on the part of hair metal bands in general, but they also adopted an attitude that was to directly lead to their own demise, and for this they are wholly responsible. Contrary to the oft voiced and ill informed fan opinions in the early 90s, metal acts weren’t dropped by their record labels as some part of a larger consipracy – they were dropped because their records were not selling. If you are a band who needs to budget for 20 hookers, a lighting rig the size of the Enterprise, more explosives than a day at the Somme and a whole new set of instruments for each concert, you’d better be selling a shit load of records if you don’t want to get dropped, and alienating your fans is probably quite a poor idea.
Hard rock and metal has always catered for outsiders. It was an empowering music for the geeky kids, for the pot-washers with no real road away from their dead end jobs. It was music that told the the underdogs that they were cooler than their bosses or the IN crowd, even when they weren’t. It didn’t matter if you were poor, ugly, ginger, fat, wore glasses, lived in a poor neighbourhood – rock levelled the playing field and made you more popular than the Porsche driving Gordon Geckos or their cheerleader girlfriends. Look at the classic video for Twisted Sister’s We’re Not Gonna Take it – the band have the aesthetics of a shit in a cup of vomit, but they understood the dream of everyone that was at the bottom rung of the power ladder. The bands of the 80s were the first generation to be able to exploit the medium of music television and the music video, and none used it more effectively to curl out a steamer on their fans than glam metal bands. KISS, Van Halen, Roxy Blue, Danger Danger became the beautiful In Crowd, surrounded by the gorgeous cheerleader babes. They showed us all that women with nerdy jobs could be cool IF that geeky exterior secretly hid an inner stripper. Warrant ahowd us that being virginal AND a waitress was OK , as long as secretly you were a nymphomaniac. Motley Crue pointed out that you were now only invited to the party if you were on day release from the Playboy Mansion (and Vince Neil took this further by categorically adding that “Your Friend Can’t Come”. Presumably your friend is a bit of a chunker).
Rock music is supposed to be about rebellion, and there’s none more rebellious than teenagers. Teenagers are painfully aware of not fitting in and not fitting the template of The Beautiful People. Since there’s ‘s nothing remotely rebellious about a top selling album that gets tons of airplay, and the band and the fans in their videos are blatantly all the things the average teenager is not, the sleaze rock groups of the 80s did more to prepare Kurt Cobain’s future audience for the arrival of Smells Like Teen Spirit than any gig Nirvana had ever done.
Hair metal had its chance, and like its omnipresent groupies, it blew it big time. It left little behind in terms of a musical legacy. It promoted elitism and alienation towards those who should have embraced it. Those that loved the glam and sleaze scene consumed it with such a passion that they keep trying to resurrect it via club nights and “new” bands, but there’s still nothing new about any of it. Go to any hair metal club night and you’ll hear the same 10 songs being danced to by people that look like they are attending a costume party where the rule is to come dressed as an 80s rock star . Go to see any of the bands and you’ll see another collection of leathered, eyelinered clones calling themselves Hollywood Valentine Boulevard Guns and regurgitating play-by-numbers pop metal blissfully ignorant that every ironic swish of their cock-arsed hair they play further butt fuck the impression of rock music as a whole.