Do or Do Not.

Metalhead: An Essay

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I’ve never made any bones about the fact that I was (I guess I should say am) a big fan of 1980s pop metal. I’ve written before about my five favorite metal concerts; I wrote an entire post about Bon Jovi action figures and another about the utterly talentless and justifiably forgotten Britny Fox, of all things. I’m now on my third trip through Chuck Klosterman’s Fargo Rock City, a book in which he puts way more thought into the history and cultural meaning of eighties’ metal than any sane person should do.

But reading that book has made me realize how we may have tried to retroactively reclassify and attempt to marginalize the music that was the dominant form of most of the 1980s, and it’s made me think about my own relationship to hair metal. (Maybe for the first time.)

Klosterman raises a good point: while it’s easy shorthand to use the term “hair metal” to refer to those radio-friendly, (usually) good-looking, follicularly fantastic arena rock bands, it also effectively disregards the fact that some of those bands actually did have some talent and wrote some genuinely good, memorable hit songs. By no means all of them, of course; there were as many crappy bands thrown out there by record labels to make a quick buck as there have been at any other time.

But lumping the chaff in with the wheat and dismissing all of them with such a demeaning label is neither fair nor does it accurately represent what was going on culturally back then. That “hair metal” label attempts to minimalize the cultural impact this form of music — the one that ruled the Billboard charts and car speakers in the back half of the 1980s — by painting it with a brush of ridiculousness it only partly deserves.

Yes, the hair was ridiculous, as were many of the clothes, as was much of the philosophy (such as it was) and iconography. Granted. But c’mon, that’s true of virtually everything from the 1980s, so lampooning and dismissing metal simply for its cosmetic silliness given that it fit perfectly within its era is a bit intellectually dishonest and missing the point.

Much of the music wasn’t silly at all, especially to the people who listened to it.

And there were an awful lot of us listening to it.

Universally Popular

Look, I’m not gonna lie to you, folks: I loved me some Bon Jovi. I will, however, try to claim some form of street cred here by noting I was into them starting with their largely overlooked 7800° Fahrenheit album and not with the massively über-popular Slippery When Wet. Hell, I was distraught to discover I was going to miss the MTV world premiere of the first video from Slippery, “You Give Love a Bad Name,” because I was stuck in Jacksonville at the house of some friends of my dad’s who didn’t have MTV. I had to call my friend Eric after it had aired so he could describe the song and video to me.

As much as we love to make fun of Bon Jovi now — as much as many people loved to make fun of them then — you have to realize that they were everywhere. A decade into the twenty-first century, the music industry is so fractured and diverse that it’s almost impossible to find a single act that could be considered “universally popular,” but in 1986, that phrase described Bon Jovi pretty accurately.

For all the mocking, I can imagine most musical acts today would gladly murder a gaggle of nuns to sell twelve million albums in the States alone and twenty-eight million worldwide. Def Leppard’s Hysteria and Guns ‘n’ Roses’ Appetite for Destruction also each sold more than ten million albums apiece during 1987 and 1988. (As a point of reference, only two albums even sold as much as three million copies in the US in 2009: Taylor Swift’s Fearless and Susan Boyle’s I Dreamed A Dream.) Walking through any mall for any period of time in the U.S. and not hearing Bon Jovi would have been almost unthinkable.

I saw Bon Jovi perform at the Pensacola Civic Center twice in a two-year span. The first time was in 1985 when they were the opening act on Ratt’s Invasion of Your Privacy tour. At that point, they were a mildly-popular B-level act that had gotten some decent MTV play, most notably for the track “Runaway” from their self-title debut. The crowd that night seemed to like them well enough for an opening act, but they certainly weren’t blown away and seemed more than happy for Bon Jovi to clear the stage so that Ratt could invade their privacy.

But just eighteen months later, Bon Jovi was the main attraction in a sold-out show in the same arena, and they killed. The crowd totally dug on their anthemic choruses and high energy performance. Interestingly (and somewhat tellingly): the show where they were the headliner had a remarkably higher percentage of females in attendance than the show where they were second fiddle to Ratt. (Another reason for the greater female-to-male ratio might have been the opener: Poison, another act that traditionally had a large female contingent to their fanbase.)

So yeah: Bon Jovi, popular as all get out. And as much as it might seem incomprehensible now, they were considered by those millions of fans and the music industry at large to be heavy metal, much in the same way Great White, White Lion, Whitesnake and all the other pop metal bands were. We listen from our twenty-years-on vantage point and compare those bands and their music to what we now think of as “heavy metal” and it just doesn’t fit our current definition. At all. Sure, fine, there’s guitar solos in virtually every song, and many of the singers hit that histrionic vibe so much metal has even today. But damn, man: Bon Jovi had (has) a full-time keyboard player. Ain’t nothin’ metal about that, amirite or amirite?

Well…I don’t think that’s true. Bon Jovi was metal because culturally we agreed that it was metal. Sure, the people who listened to much harder stuff would have chafed at that assessment, and likely still do. But the sort of metal they listened to had to be relegated to sub-genres: even Metallica, before they broke into the mainstream with 1988’s …And Justice For All, were considered thrash metal, a somewhat marginalized ghetto within the larger Metaltropolis.

Bon Jovi was metal. So was Def Leppard. So was Poison, and so was Winger. The issues of Circus magazine I bought every month said so. So did MTV’s “Headbanger’s Ball.” So did the record stores — I always went straight to the section of the cassette wall labeled “Metal,” and that’s where all these bands lived.

So let’s just go ahead and agree on that point, okay? Whatever we might think of this music from twenty-five years in the future, tens of millions of people back then agreed that it was metal, so let’s consider that question answered.1

Allen @ 15

But it’s while considering this metal-versus-not-metal point that I realize I have to retroactively reconsider my own teenaged identity. I thought of myself as something of a metalhead back in the mid-80s, but really… even if you accept our agreed-upon definition of “metal,” I’m not sure that label ever really fit me. I mean, sure, I had the long hair, which was one of the biggest — if not the biggest — markers of One Who Was One With The Metal.

I admit, however, I was never into the harder stuff; my tastes always, always ran more toward the party-hearty, alcohol-laden, sex-with-hot-girls arena-rock strains of metal than they did the angrier, more aggressive, more Tipper Gore-provoking ones. I had friends who loved Iron Maiden, friends who’d get psyched to discover a new Judas Priest album was on the way, friends who really got into Slayer or Metallica.

Not me. I didn’t even all that much care for Mötley Crüe (their radio-friendly blockbuster Dr. Feelgood excepted). I don’t think I’ve ever even listened to the entirety of Shout at the Devil — anything that carried even a whiff of eau de Satan, I wanted nothing to do with. (Yes, I realize how much of that attitude is based in perception and marketing and not necessarily in fact, but fifteen-year-old me didn’t really make that distinction.)

I clearly wanted my metal as inoffensive as possible.

Really, does this guy look like a metalhead to you?

In retrospect, I liked the same things then that I do now: strong melodies. Preferably catchy ones. And those sorts of melodies tended most often to be found from the bands we now derisively think of as “hair metal” bands. Also, I’ve never been one to like my music particularly angry and for the most part the metal I was into was upbeat instead of pissed off (except for Guns ‘n’ Roses, of course). I dug plenty of guitar-driven, big-chorus rock — but the heavy stuff that the real metalheads would have been into? Not so much my thing. It’s a distinction that’s much easier to recognize now than it was for me then, but as my dad likes to say, we’d all have 20/20 hindsight if we wore our glasses on our asses.

This isn’t me trying to deny what I liked or deny that I thought of myself as a metalhead; I’m just saying that it could be I was wrong to think of myself that way. I took on an identity, a substantial if not huge part of my overall sense of self, that didn’t line up with what I actually did. It’s like thinking of myself as an athlete but rarely getting out for any exercise, or thinking of myself as a writer but never writing anything. (Oops.) There were kids far, far more into metal than I was, some who fit the metalhead stereotype and some who totally busted it — those kids felt it. I just wore the clothes.

My question is this, I guess: does it matter? I mean, no one ever called me out for being a poseur or not being metal enough; this is just me-at-almost-forty thinking about stuff me-at-fifteen couldn’t be bothered to think about: what did it mean to be a metalhead? I just sort of assumed that’s what I was because I had pinups of Don Dokken and Rudolf Schenker2 cut out of Circus on my wall and had hair past my shoulders. But I wasn’t defiant or anti-authoritarian; I didn’t feel that I was being held down in any way, unless you mean I was held down because I couldn’t take both yearbook and Calculus since both were offered at the same time.

See, I never discovered music outside the mainstream — that was stuff you had to go looking for or you had to have someone expose you to it, and it never occurred to me to go looking for it. I didn’t have to go searching for metal: it was all around me, all the time. I had absolutely no idea the depth and breadth of music that might have been available to me to discover had I but known to seek it out. Oh, sure, there were kids at school who listened to The Dead Kennedys or The Descendents or even The Cure, but c’mon, man — those dudes were just weird.

The people I hung out with didn’t listen to that stuff, so I didn’t listen to it. They listened to metal, so I listened to metal (though skewed to my own preferences for catchy hooks and inoffensiveness). Klosterman argues that metal is all about power, and I’m sure to many people, that’s true — maybe that’s one of the key differences between me and real metalheads: to me, metal was all about acceptance and community and friendship.

Silly as it might sound, metal was something we shared. The music was something that united us in a way that not a lot of other things did, especially as high school took us in different directions. We talked about the music and the musicians, we bought and traded the cassettes, we went to the concerts. I can’t believe I’m about to admit this in public, but we even had concerts of our own: some weekend nights when one of us would have a parent-free house, we’d move furniture out of the way, make a tape with whatever playlist we wanted to “perform” and spend two or three hours lip-synching and air-guitaring our way to pantomime rockstarhood.

I wonder what a fifteen-year-old me with access to the Internet as a means for discovering music might have found, what effect such an expansive view of the world of music might have had on my development as a person. Perhaps not much; I wasn’t the most introspective or inquisitive of teenagers. Maybe I would have had my mind opened much earlier than I really did, but then again, maybe I wouldn’t have bonded with my friends the way I did. Exposure to different music might have made me a better person; at the very least, it likely would have made me a different person.

And I like the way I turned out. Even if I’m really not very metal.

(For all that talk of metal and considering myself a “metalhead,” you know who was undoubtedly my most very favorite band when I was a teenager? Journey.)

  1. Yes, I’m more than aware that we cannot use that same “well, everyone agreed!” criterion in all, or even most, cases. But as this question is one purely of cultural impact and not, like, trying to apologize for the atrocities of war, I’m totally fine using it. 

  2. I did not have to look up the name of the Scorpions lead guitarist or the spelling of his name. Go me. 

Written by Allen

July 2nd, 2010 at 8:47 am

Posted in Music

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8 Responses to 'Metalhead: An Essay'

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  1. Mmm, the Descendants. And I like Suicidal Tendencies. But I didn't get into either until I was in my twenties.

    This is a really interesting essay, sir. I went the grunge/industrial route and thumbed my nose at metal, but even I have some Def Leppard and Bon Jovi on my iPod. It's hard to argue with catchy songs, even if you've decided you're Not That Kind of Person. No matter how many mosh pits you were in, sometimes you just find yourself swooning melodramatically to “Blaze of Glory,” because it's just a good song.

    By the way, nice new banner design! I love it.


    2 Jul 10 at 1:33 pm

  2. Thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you!

    Allen, you nailed it. I am now a snooty jazz snob whose main collection ranges from Bill Evans to Miles Davis to John Coltrane to Ella Fitzgerald. However, between the ages of 12 and around 20-something I DIED for this kind of music (& the Blues, of course).

    I'm amazed at how retroactively snobby the entertainment media can be. 20 years ago, they kissed GNR's ass. These days, the same media dismiss GNR completely. Ditto for Bon Jovi. Ditto for scads of decent bands.

    Fargo Rock City is a wonderful book, but your essay is equally wonderful. You need to write more things like this, and you need to SUBMIT. You're a damn fine writer, and you don't need to forget that fact, my friend.

    Jeff Newberry

    2 Jul 10 at 1:39 pm

  3. I think you're enough younger than me that it wouldn't even remotely have been cool for you to be into hair metal as a teenager; it had already gotten hit with the post-grunge backlash so thoroughly that listening to Bon Jovi then would have been ostracizion-worthy. (Is that even a word? “Ostracizion?”) Anyway, you're totally right — NOW, everyone's got SOME of that stuff in their collection, and we're far enough away from the backlash that you can listen to it with only minimal mocking. :)

    And glad you like the banner pic! I took it last weekend and thought it was about perfect for use here. :)

    Allen Holt

    2 Jul 10 at 1:50 pm

  4. Glad you liked it, Jeff! Somehow I'm not surprised that you did. :)

    And thank you for the kind words on my writing. I worked harder on this essay than on anything I've written for quite awhile — in fact, that's one of the reasons I subtitled it “An Essay.” I realized when I passed two thousand words that it was more than just what I normally do for a blog post!

    Allen Holt

    2 Jul 10 at 1:53 pm

  5. I was definitely too young to be into that era of hair metal, but the thrash and arena types were alive and well in my teenage years. It wasn't top 40 anymore, and it showed up more on SNL than MTV, but people were still backtracking into Metallica's older albums and cranking GNR. One of the effects grunge did have was that everyone gravitated towards the dark brooding metal, since it was emotionally in sync with the rest of popular music. This ended up replacing Def Leppard with the vast array of metal/rock bands in the 90s. It seems to me that the 80s as a decade was impressed with how over the top it was, whereas the 90s was impressed with how upset and bored it was. Whatever the decade wanted to celebrate about itself, that's the music it chose to canonize. The media of my teenage years redefined “metal” as “serious and angry,” which allowed everyone to mock the popular music it came from as “not metal.”


    2 Jul 10 at 5:41 pm

  6. I think you're exactly right about the sorts of metal that were still acceptable, and I think it was directly in counter to what had come before it: I think kids in the 90s were into the angry, serious music precisely because their peers from the previous decade were so into the fluffy, shiny stuff. That music tried so hard to separate itself from what had come before that it might've gone too far in the other direction.

    Also, I think that sort of responsive shift might be the last time that sort of thing happens — there's now such easy access to so many different kinds of music and so many different artists that we're not going to see that one massive shift anymore. We've seen more of a shift in the way music is consumed than we have in the music being consumed. Since there's really not that concept of a universally popular artist anymore, there's nothing to have a concerted reaction against.

    Allen Holt

    2 Jul 10 at 5:51 pm

  7. I first saw Bon Jovi open for Scorpion in Savannah, GA. Big hair, big makeup, plastic shoes, tight pants, the works. It was de rigeur! To think, I blended in at the time! I think I was 16 and no one checked my ID. If my parents had seen me at the time, I would have never made it out the door. :) Bon Jovi were catchy, they were showmen, they “spoke” to my attention-seeking teen-aged heart and echoed my desperate and somewhat complex combinations of hormones and naiveté.

    Anyway, your candor and insight are much appreciated and your 'guilty' secret is safe with us.


    2 Jul 10 at 10:39 pm

  8. Big hair, big makeup, plastic shoes, tight pants, the works.

    Wait, was that the band, or you? :)

    Bon Jovi were totally showmen, and I think they connected with most of their audience the way you described — and I think that's why they're about the only band from that era still making hit albums and having successful tours today. (Thanks for giving me somewhere to bring up that point, because I couldn't find a good place to fit it into the essay!)

    Allen Holt

    3 Jul 10 at 2:43 am

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