Why Hair Metal Killed the Rock Star.
While the Rock Hole is largely dedicated to singing the praises of all things hair metal, there are plenty of things to be said against it too. To bring some balance to the party comes very special guest writer Daniel Lacalle, the perfect man for the job. He's not some grunge maniac who hates corporate rock in principle, and his treatment of the matter is balanced and well considered without ever resorting to the tired "they're cheesy" argument or making lame Spinal Tap comparisons.
"Every time I read a critic's review I laugh my way to the bank" Neal Schon (Journey) 1978
"Every time I read a bad review I think of the new house I bought" Jon Bon Jovi 1988
These two quotes are separated by a few years, nearly a decade, but definitely signal one of the main problems of the lack of credibility and general hatred that corporate rock conveys, a sentiment which was replicated a decade later towards Hair Metal.
The story of Hair Metal and its bad press is not unique, nor extraordinary. It's simply the old story of a musical style adapted and polished to the extreme to satisfy the requirements of a mainstream market until it becomes literal fast food for the ears. Effectively, since popular music started, for every Elvis, Eddie Cochran or Jerry Lee Lewis, the industry found a way to market (or create) a Fabian, Ricky Nelson or Frankie Avalon… and for every Led Zeppelin there has been a Boston or a Journey. One could argue that it's all popular music, rock'n'roll, only different styles. But there is certainly a disturbing element of "not pushing the boundaries" and a scent of "label-corporate intervention" in every note released by these bands.
Take a look at the attitude, the sound and the lyrics of Hair Metal. It's Hard Rock passed through innumerable filters for mainstream radio acceptance. Hair bands should be more appropriately be called Light Metal bands. Light Metal, in effect, means commercially acceptable-formerly-dangerous music. These bands were influenced by two main genres: 70s Heavy Metal and Glam Rock. Yet somehow, in the process of artistic (?) creation, the sparkle of inventive, raw, fresh, genuine inspiration was lost in favour of a more sanitised and widely palatable sound. The power ballad was invented and the music business was saved. Millions were made, but, as dear old Nick Cohn said, two minutes of Blue Suede Shoes made more impact in music history than the entire output of all these bands together.
Yes, Hair Bands did receive influences from the likes of Led Zeppelin or T Rex, but when they finally signed a record deal and looked for success, they tried to mirror the brutal and undeserved success achieved by corporate AOR rock bands of the 70s. Who can blame them? I am sure that the members of Journey or Styx enjoy a healthier retirement plan than the members of Slade, Sweet, Deep Purple or Nazareth. But no one should blame the public then for giving hair bands the same historical treatment that corporate rock bands have received. General indifference and oblivion.
In fact these light metal bands were as novelty acts and as fashion statements as The Bay City Rollers or The Osmonds, and have the same historical significance and influence. Just think of the hideous perma hairstyles, the leather jacket-white-t-shirt-torn jean uniform, the make up and the squeaky quasi-feminine vocals. Most of these Hair Bands were above all a fashion statement and afterwards, if ever, a musical proposition, and, like any fashion statement, they passed. Next one.
Stylistically, some hair bands leaned more heavily on Glam, others on Bluesy Roots Rock, etc… but the clear distinction is that all shared a common desire not to disturb the prevalent moral order, an uncontroversial, safe, sanitised style, which drew on an alleged anthemic call to rebellion within the system, and at the same time spoke one to one to the female audience asking for true love and everlasting relationships. Finally, the overall sound of these bands, as with corporate rock bands, is practically undistinguishable for the casual listener. Take Winger, Warrant, Poison, Cinderella, etc… The diehard fan might (just might) find stylistic differences in their sound, but the casual fan heard the same chords, bombastic production, anthemic airbrushed choruses, overamped drums and keyboard-guitar layers.
Ultimately, the public ended up being exhausted by so many power ballads sounding the same, repeating the same old formulaic messages of love, fun, regret and despair, so many calls to arm in the name of Rock, so many sexist hormone-pumping hymns and so little real inspiration or true talent.
Like in Corporate AOR Rock, Hair Metal had some really worthy and original bands, but the overexposure to endless carbon copies of the latest Van Halen, Bon Jovi or Def Leppard song, and the repetitious mimics for most of a decade resulted in the general rejection towards the whole genre without exception and the urge to listen to musical proposals which, at least initially, sounded more sincere and less manufactured.
Personally? I will always concede (in private) that some Hair Bands released songs that are childish but enjoyable (Poison's "Nothin' but A Good Time" springs to mind), but they deserve the treatment that history has given them and should at least be content with the fact that they can still live decently from the royalties paid by their power ballad airplay in nostalgia US radio. But please, don't be as egocentric as to demand critical or historical praise. Just join the Rock Never Stops tour and buy a new wig.