Armagideon Time

With a bullet

September 13th, 2011

1991 was the “Year Punk Broke.” The late September release of Nirvana’s Nevermind was the long-awaited signal which unleashed a horde of be-flanneled malcontents to topple the reigning hair metal hegemony and expand the Alternative Nation’s boundaries into the realm of the mainstream.

It’s a story that has been recounted countless times through career retrospectives, no rx capsule histories of the era, recipe or obituaries (both professional or actual). It’s also utter bullshit.

Here are Billboard’s top ten “Album Rock Tracks” for October 12, sales 1991, roughly two weeks after Nevermind hit the shelves:

The abscence of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” isn’t surprising (as the rankings were based on radio airplay and the song had yet to build popular momentum), but note the utter lack of anything remotely resembling hair metal. A Cinderella cut did made it into the bottom end of the top twenty, but almost all the other artists — with the exceptions of G’n’R and Metallica — could have been pulled straight out of a similar list from 1986.

The alternative revolution did represent a paradigm shift in rock music, but one that was more dynastic than oppositional. The bitterness of has-beens aside, the grunge didn’t kill hair metal though it did hammer the final nails in its coffin. The subcultural conflict between silly excess and outsider authenticity was a marketing ploy, a compelling myth for the new guard and a handy excuse for the old.

Glam metal — and the pre-ironic notion of RAWK in general — had been on the wane a good while before grunge lumbered onto the scene. It was a generational shift, and one I watched in microcosm during my stint as a pan washer at the hospital kitchen. The “older” (as in “two or three years my senior”) dudes tended to conform to the classic blue-collar hesher archetype — blue jeans and t-shirts, classic rock and metal — while the younger kids were into Public Enemy, the Beasties, and Adidas gear. They were from the same socioeconomic class, same hometown, and — in a couple of instances — the same family, but the the groups were on opposite sides of a cultural fault line.

While you can still find atavistic throwbacks to the leather vest and custom van conversion crowd here and there, the demographic pool that produced such individuals en masse during the 1970s and 1980s is far more likely to produce a “food court gangsta” or juggalo…and even the dubious torchbearer for old school hesher rock channels Snoop Dogg as much as he does Skynyrd.

Getting back to my main point: Glam/hair metal was done in by the diminishing returns and oversaturation which has accompanied every moderately successful musical trend from doo-wop to disco, sitar jams to swing revival. Grunge merely filled the vacated space reserved for the Next Big Thing.

Recommended listening: I don’t remember the Summer of Grunge. I was too busy fiddling with my suspenders and kicker boots.

4 Responses to “With a bullet”

  1. J

    Reading this post was a very Joe Carducci-esque experience. And I mean that as a compliment.

  2. Tim O'Neil

    Yeah, every time I read any quotes from the old hair metal vanguard, they’re quick to point out how much of a fallacy this was. Most of the metal guys were waning long before the early 90s, except for the few who managed to remain (relatively) popular. And most 80s metal guys (because it seems like every metal guy gets asked at some point) are quick to point out that they couldn’t begrudge Nirvana their success they liked Nirvana too.

    How much of that is ex post facto spin on the part of irrelevant rock dinosaurs is neither here nor there.

  3. William

    Broadly agree, but some more nuance to it . . . the biggest hair metal bands *imploded* just prior to Nevermind. Motley Crue kicked out Vince Neil. Poison broke up. Bon Jovi had membership issues. Within a few years, everyone left G&R. Etc. The bands that managed to stay more or less intact and release decent albums did well (Areosmith and Def Leppard had platinum albums after Nevermind hit big). Mutt Lange moved on to country music. I would personally pinpoint the nail in the coffin for hair metal with Dr. Dre’s The Chronic. Afterward, there really wasn’t much space left over for other types of popular misogynistic, adolescent, party music.

    I think what confuses folks is that aging out of misogynistic, adolescent party music *always* happens to some degree or another. It just so happened that there was a brand new, sonically similar thing going on . . . but if not Nirvana or Pearl Jam, those folks would have discovered Led Zeppelin or Pink Floyd or something else.

  4. bitterandrew

    Exactly. The transition I saw at the hospital kitchen happened around ’88 to ’89, years before the Seattle sound got huge. (Oddly enough, one of the line cooks once popped a tape of Soundgarden’s Louder Than Love in the boombox and insisted it was the wave of the future. I thought they sounded like a bad Zeppelin tribute band.)

    Aerosmith and (to a lesser degree) Def Leppard were fellow travelers on the edges of the scene, and mutated into cabaret versions of the mythic hard rock archetype. By the time the cycle had come around to prominence again — in part due to pushback against the Lilith Fair/”chick rock” scene — the sound had shifted to the lad’s music contingent of Britpop and nonsense like Limp Bizkit.

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