This was supposed to go up last night, but we’ve been having tech issues all day. They should be fixed now. Enjoy!
Thanks to reader Tim for sending me this awesome blog post by Mr. Oyola at Sounding Out! about a phenomenon that has always bothered me, as well: songs about rock that don’t rock. It’s an irritating and baffling phenomenon, because why on earth would a song writer draw comparisons, knowing they’ll come up short? The worst offender is “American Pie” by Don McLean, but bringing up the rear is “Old Time Rock ‘n’ Roll” by Bob Seger, which is the focus of Mr. Oyola’s post, as well as this scene of Tom Cruise playing a pampered rich kid that slums for a week in the movie “Risky Business”.
I’ll leave it to you to click the link and read the analysis of Seger’s song, and how it was actually taking a piss all over the great pop music history of America. But I want to agree with a couple of points. One is the great irony of Seger saying, “Today’s music ain’t got the same soul,” which is a sentiment that describes the very song it’s in better than a lot of the contemporary music that Seger condemns. I will also point out that many of the great songs in the disco genre he condemns have more soul in their first four bars than Seger has in his entire catalog.
But I want to use that post as a launching pad to examine the two strains of Straight White Suckitude Dude Rock of the 80s: soulless corporate rock and hair metal. Both were, I’d argue, a reaction to the creepy Otherness of great pop music. Not just in the racial, gender, or sexual orientation sense, but also in the overall outsider sense. By the early 80s, even the straight white guys channeling greatness were freaks and weirdos. Think: Robert Smith or David Bowie. The one exception to the rule is Bruce Springsteen, but hey, there’s always an exception, isn’t there? As I’ve said before, the 80s were basically a time when outsiderness as a force in pop music retrenched itself after the Disco Sucks folks tried to reclaim dominance. But it’s not like D00d energy disappears just because it takes a distinctly sucky turn. Thus, the other side of the 80s. The side that sucked.
Bog Seger represents an entire genre of 80s music, which “rock music that doesn’t rock in the slightest”. Granted, there were a couple of ladies in that pantheon—Bonnie Tyler comes springing to mind—but mostly it was dudes in blue jeans posing like they’re rocking in videos over music that doesn’t rock: Don Henley, Bryan Adams, Tom Petty, Huey Lewis and the News(to his credit, though, Huey Lewis had a sense of humor about it), many AOR bands from the 70s who kept on making money in the 80s. The main selling point of this music seemed to be that it was reassuring to its audience. It was bland enough not to offend, but it resembled “rock”, so you could feel that you weren’t as lame as you were listening to it. It often referenced the 50s and 60s nostalgically, but it never had the energy of the music it referred to. Above all, it was a rebuke to the make-up laden weirdos, hip hop newbies, crossover artists like Michael Jackson and Prince, and pop music queens that were crowding out the radio dial in the post-disco era. The men who made this strove to have this super strong casual masculinity, so there was no doubt where they stood as pop music got queerer. Musicians who perhaps used to rock started to get soft and sound like this, such as The Who.
Seriously, it’s so depressing I can’t barely think about it. It hasn’t gone away, either. After alternative rock returned a truly exciting image of hetero masculine rock that actually rocked, it was immediately killed off by corporate radio and remade in the image of Nickelback and Creed. D00d rock of this sort is a zombie with shape-shifting abilities. Its haircuts change, but its life-sucking properties do not.
Then there was hair metal, which is at least more fun, especially when it’s Van Halen. Or maybe even occasionally creeping into listenable, like Guns ‘n’ Roses. Hair metal’s strategy was poaching. The tights, the make-up, the big hair, the wild patterns—borrowed heavily from the outsider fashions of disco and New Wave. Van Halen even went back on its word and started incorporating the feminized instrument the synthesizer into its music. But it’s not like this was about meeting outsiders halfway. Seriously, hair metal artists were comically overbearing about their straight white masculinity. GNR was overtly racist and homophobic, but even bands that weren’t still were all about creating an image of straight white masculinity that was in direct tension with a lot of other stuff that was going on in pop music. Even though I was a child in the 80s, I still associated that music with a certain kind of dude. That’s just how it was.
Poaching, for the record, is the better strategy. Hair metal and corporate rock both sucked, but the former had moments of greatness and fun that the latter is missing entirely. I’d consider dropping the needle on a hair metal song at a party, if the mood struck me, but I’d never play Don Henley or Huey Lewis in a million billion years. The prevalence of the former over the latter in mash-ups is all you need to know to understand how this works.
I would say this is a struggle that’s been going on for the past century—outsiders dominate the ranks of the culturally innovative and the dominant culture in society wants to exploit the innovations without sharing the rewards. But it’s fair to say that the amount of oppression innovative outsiders face in the mainstream has relaxed considerably. Now you can be openly gay, a complete weirdo, or not white and rewarded directly for writing awesome music that grabs the public’s ear. The 80s were an era where this ball was moved down the field considerably, with artists like Prince and Michael Jackson directly attacking the idea that there should be separate charts for black and white music. It’s definitely a two steps forward, one step back process—it’s not like we still don’t have “urban” as a music category. But I do think a lot of the loosening up of these boundaries, which has created the Billboard Top 100 as it looks now for instance, is one reason that you hear a lot of screeching from teabagger types about how they’re so oppressed by a cultural elite. A lot of big pop stars are people who would be counted in the ranks of outsiders outside in one way or another of that specific world. They don’t look the people who actually run the world.
I don’t have any grand statements to make beyond that, except to point it out, though. Conclusions that can be drawn from this turn of cultural events are elusive, though I suppose 100 years from now, the way things turn out will seem obvious in retrospect.