My youngest son inherited my love of metal music, so much so that he plays guitar and records his own albums. I’m not even sure how many guitars he owns nowadays, but I’d guess it’s at least a dozen or more. And, like a true metal head, he’s also grown his hair quite long. At 18, he’s an adult by legal standards, but he’ll always be my baby.
He informed my husband and me that he has a date this weekend, and I made the mistake of making some comment to the effect that being a metal guy attracts women.
My son promptly informed me, Not nowadays, mom.
Wait a second. Am I out of touch nowadays? I question myself on occasion, and I sometimes feel like the world is starting to move past me. My kids make me feel like that frequently…
But, believe it or not, this post isn’t meant to be about me mourning a generation passed by. Instead, I’m celebrating progress, but that doesn’t mean I always feel like I get what’s going on. I’m sure my parents and grandparents felt the same way when I was younger. Despite that, I really wasn’t wanting to wax poetic about the passing of time but instead reflect on the evolution of the metal culture.
Most of you who have been reading me for some time either know outright or have suspected that I came of age in the 80s (and, if you didn’t know, this is your wake-up call!). I progressed from my teens to adulthood during that decade, so I would say that that the 80s, more than any other period of time, shaped my love of hard rock and metal music, and that love continues to this day. However, the culture and music were different back then, so I just wanted to talk about that.
Before the 80s, all the elements were there, and I would argue that metal was making its appearance in the 70s (and even the 60s to some extent). That’s when we first saw Black Sabbath (and, of course, Ozzy!), AC/DC, Deep Purple, Van Halen, and lots of musicians exploring their electric Les Pauls, figuring out exactly where they belonged creatively.
Side note: When I was in middle school, disco was the thing. It wasn’t just the music; it was the culture—and it defined society as a whole. Whether you loved or hated it, disco infused its tendrils through every nook and cranny of America and took it over.
And then, it died.
When I was a kid, I didn’t really notice that death. Instead, I just kept listening to music. My obsession with Donna Summers and the Bee Gees shifted to Foreigner, REO Speedwagon, and the like. It would still be a year or two before I discovered what would become my music obsession for life. But that’s what led up to it.
So as a little kid, I listened to country, easy listening, and pop—whatever my parents were into—and even though I found my own thing, it was thanks to them (and one music-loving grandmother) that I discovered my love of music. I started high school in the early 80s, and I remember listening to music all the time. The sounds of Duran Duran and Billy Squier gave way to more. For instance, I will never forget when I heard Def Leppard on the radio for the first time. There was something in the music that spoke to me, that made me want to sing. They were the first band where I listened to the whole album and discovered that there are gems on both sides that the radio never shares. After that, I started listening to every album I bought, every single song.
They spoke to me.
The door was open. I started listening to the radio all the time and discovered very quickly that I loved Ozzy, Judas Priest, Aldo Nova, Aerosmith, Quiet Riot, Mötley Crüe—and then it was like everything exploded. Whatever name you call it by—“hair metal,” “glam metal,” or something else—it was here. It was loud and it was everything I wanted, and just about every paycheck I earned fueled that obsession with purchases not just for albums, but posters, buttons, keychains, t-shirts, and any merch that told the world I was a metalhead. Lita Ford, Twisted Sister, Sammy Hagar, Bon Jovi, Dokken, Ratt, W.A.S.P., Whitesnake—all those guys made high school amazing. (Other bands like Cinderella and Guns N’ Roses appeared when I was in college and I had way more money to blow!)
But, as you know, metal in the 80s wasn’t just about the music. There’s a reason why it was called “glam” or “hair” metal. That’s because it was also about the image. I was in high school when I saw my first music videos, and it just added another element to the music I already loved. Thanks to MTV broadcasting videos constantly (yeah, they actually showed music videos in the 80s), you could see your favorite band performing a song—and it seemed like most of the new stars understood that they weren’t just selling their music; they were also selling their image. So it wasn’t just the music; it was also their looks—so a lot of these guys (and I say guys because there weren’t many women in metal) wore makeup and hairspray, and their clothes were part of it, too. So it was easy for someone like me to dress like the bands I loved in order to signal who I was and what I valued.
But it was more than that. I knew the names of every guy in every band and I sometimes even knew the name of their guitars. It was a magical time. Some of you have read some of my posts about metal and women, so you know that it wasn’t just that there weren’t many women playing metal that was a bummer; it was also the way women were viewed and objectified—but, of course, that’s a topic for a different blog post. Just suffice it to say that, in the 80s in terms of metal, women seemed to be valued solely for their willingness to have sex with a rock star. Back then, I didn’t really see it. Maybe I was too young. But now, I understand that just because women got the right to vote in the United States in 1920, change takes time. Some things, like societal change, move slowly, whereas other things, like music, change more quickly—which brings me closer to the main point of where I’m heading.
What we considered metal back in the 80s (Van Halen, Dokken, Queensrÿche, et al) would possibly not be considered metal nowadays. Metal today is decidedly different—harder, often angrier and darker, growled and screamed vocals. Heavier guitars. Different techniques. I’m okay with that and I love it.
Near the end of the 80s, hair metal died. There are a lot of theories about why—that it was because the image overtook the music or stuff like that—but I’m going to tell you my theory, because I was and am a fan, and I still feel the same way today. I was the person buying the albums, watching the videos, playing the music constantly. I was the person at the music store snagging the new albums. I wasn’t the 13-year-old who’d just discovered it. I’d been living it for the better part of a decade. And guess what? As a fan, it was losing my interest. Why? Because none of it sounded original anymore. It sounded derivative and, dare I say it? BORING. I know a lot of you guys love Skid Row (and I don’t hate them, okay? I bought their first album and listened to all of it), but I remember buying their first album in 1989. I listened to it, but I didn’t devour it. It was good…but it felt like it had been done a thousand times before. And not just them. Dokken was arguably one of my favorite bands in the 80s, mostly due to George Lynch. Because over the years there was a lot of fighting between him and Don Dokken, most of us fans knew a breakup was inevitable—and I joked for years that if George Lynch formed his own band, he should name it Lynch Mob.
Well, guess what? He did. And I bought that damn album as soon as it was released (1990, I believe). It was classic Lynch—but, even with that album, I felt like I wasn’t hearing anything new. It had all been done before.
I sensed that the music I loved down to my core was dying. I knew it. I could sense it. I’d just gotten married and my husband listened to everything out there. He liked it all. We agreed when it came to Ozzy Osbourne, but he had a soft spot for Billy Joel. Fortunately, he listened to GNR with me and I dug Pink Floyd, but I’m a music snob while he loves it all–so he wasn’t in mourning like I was.
Every new metal album I heard during that time either sounded disappointing and unoriginal or it seemed like they were trying too hard in a different way. I got sick to death of acoustic albums (metal MUST be plugged in, I would scream!) done by some of my favorite bands (GNR and Cinderella are the ones I remember off the top of my head). It wasn’t that they weren’t trying, but it felt like they’d lost their inspiration. I give them credit for trying, because doing the same old, same old wasn’t working. I didn’t give a shit about their image. It was always about the music—and it was dying a slow, ugly death.
THAT was why metal died the first time. It had nothing to do with makeup or hair. It was disappointing music. Flat, uninspired, unoriginal.
(Side note: some bands evolved with the times and kept chugging along. Think Metallica. Again, as a fan who lived it, there is a HUGE difference between “old” Metallica and the black album. That was when I started hearing people who’d never listened to shit like Master of Puppets saying they were huge fans. *eye roll*)
So when grunge hit the scene about the same time, guess what I was drawn to? I remember seeing an Alice in Chains video (“Man in the Box”) and thinking it was weird…but the song stuck. Shortly after, I discovered Nirvana, Soundgarden, and Pearl Jam. That shit felt original, inspired. The first time I heard “Smells like Teen Spirit,” I fell in love, and I knew music–tunes I loved–would survive. I can’t impress upon you how revived I felt. There was a period of about a year or so where I was convinced I had outgrown music—but in retrospect I can see exactly what happened.
And grunge and alternative gave way to nu metal and dozens of subgenres—but it survived. And I then discovered my new loves of the day: White Zombie, Godsmack, Korn, Slipknot, and lots more. I don’t give a shit about the subgenre. There are too many and I don’t care to make those distinctions. If it’s metal, I’ll listen. If it speaks to my soul, I’ll love it (and buy it and listen to all the songs on the CD).
We’ve bypassed my 30th high school reunion, so suffice it to say, I’ve listened to a lot of music for a long time—and I know what I love. Metal survived. It evolved and changed with the times.
So where does that leave us in terms of culture, that idea I started talking about in the beginning of this post? Well, times have definitely changed. We can look at the music to make that determination.
But there’s more. My parents raised me to be an independent young woman. And while my parents were decidedly not about feminism, I saw my mother doing things like wearing pants and speaking her mind. She and my father considered themselves antifeminist, but I think that was only because of their religious beliefs. They actually helped our culture progress—but, I suppose, that’s a topic for another day.
The bottom line is WE have changed—and the music we listen to is a reflection of that. Maybe it’s because our children have grown up listening to us talking about wanting equality for everyone. We want people to be treated well, not just women, but everybody, no matter their color, religious beliefs, or sexual preference. And so we have changed our world. And now, as sad as it makes me on some levels, I’m also proud that my children are changing the world today.
At least I still have my metal.