Do you remember where you were when you found out that Alice Cooper gave a crowd a chance to butcher their own poultry? Or when Ozzy Osbourne put Iowa on the map long before Slipknot for gnawing on a bat? Or any time The Mentors appeared on low-rent public access shows? Or that there was a spat where churches were getting torched in Norway?
Metal, throughout its storied, sometimes glorious, sometimes tragic, sometimes sordid, never boring history, has often used shock as an attractant. The stories above, in particular, are all unforgettable, selling the music as much as the music itself. For a while, pushing the limits of good taste was part of the modus operandi. And in the Reagan ‘80s, anything with a pulse of personality was enough to be rebellious. Metal’s still going strong — arguably it’s been in a renaissance since the mid-2000s — but it’s been a long time since the halcyon days. And yet bands still want to project an edgy image, still want to adhere to an “if they hate us they must be right” mindset.
Is this need to shock — this expectation of shock as an (un)holy commandment — holding metal back?
It may have been essential in launching metal to the mainstream, but it’s a vestige and attitude best left behind.
Recently, I saw W.A.S.P. play in San Antonio, which is about as W.A.S.P. country as you can get. San Antonio lovvvves its old metal. W.A.S.P. had some pretty raucous live shows in their early days — they were best known for throwing raw meat at audiences, and scantily clad women were sometimes tied up in mock torture devices. Were you gonna go deaf, were you gonna get a hellish stomach flu, or were you strapped in for a life of sin? Your fate might have been in Blackie Lawless’ hands.
It wasn’t all flash. Lawless had substantial songwriting mettle, especially compared to most of his Sunset Strip peers — in his prime, he had Pete Townshend’s ear for volume and eye for grandeur, mixed in with glam edge from his brief tenure as New York Dolls’ live guitarist. Still, the Strip was competitive, and Blackie knew he couldn’t get by on his considerable talents alone. The show in San Antonio did not have any raw meat or chained women or yelling out to rivetheads “looking for a little bit of pusssssay” or anything resembling their stage show back in the day. There was still some excitement in the air, though.
Not only was this W.A.S.P.’s first major U.S. tour in some years — in fact, the show the following night in Dallas was cancelled because the promoter oversold the show by 1,200 tickets — they also brought back “Animal (Fuck Like a Beast)” into their setlist. This was major, as Blackie refused to perform the song for years, since about the mid-2000s, because of his born-again faith. (Blackie didn’t even yell “I FUCK LIKE A BEAST!” — he let the crowd take care of that. Oldest trick in the aging rock frontman book. I guess that’s how he’s still cool with the Lord.)
Not only that, it’s one of W.A.S.P.’s most celebrated songs, a high point in early ‘80s L.A. glam excess, before sleaze got overrun by polish.
“Animal” did not invent horny on Main, but it stripped rock’s almost translucent veil concerning sexual desire. It wants to fuck, and it wants to fuck hard. Blackie saved one of his raunchiest riffs for “Animal,” and guitarists Chris Holmes and Randy Piper mauled it with absolute himbo conviction. You let it dominate you. “Animal” is a glorious exercise in obliterating subtlety, and if there’s an American Great Rock n’ Roll Songbook, it should be in it, right next to Fun House and Raw Power in their entireties. So, what made Blackie give in to the fans and perform a song, W.A.S.P.’s most notorious and beloved, he finds objectionable?
Chalk it up to subtly weaponized nostalgia. “Animal” was one of the “Filthy Fifteen,” the list of songs that the PMRC (the fascist-sounding, and -intending, Parents Music Resource Center, which sought to make certain kinds of lyrics illegal, and criminally prosecutable) deemed were corrupting the youth of America, and Blackie will not let you forget it. At the show, right before “Animal,” video text outlined the story of W.A.S.P. versus the PMRC. Towards the end, it declared that “censorship anywhere is censorship everywhere.” (The onscreen prompt claimed W.A.S.P. were “singled out” by the PMRC, though Dee Snider might take exception to that.) Which…yes, but the whole thing felt like a cheapened boomer reminiscence of an important moment in music.
Government censorship is abhorrent, there’s no question. And the PMRC was a low point in a decade known for bizarre Christian outrage and overwhelming conformity. Snider, Frank Zappa, and John Denver rightfully decimated the PMRC in their hearings, making a mockery of them for years to come. I’m not asking older headbangers to simply get over it. Still, you have to wonder — why are they still so hung up on the PMRC in particular? Maybe it was a ham-fisted attack on “cancel culture,” the modern boogeyman for shitheads of all ages. Who knows, but Blackie probably wishes Washington had a secret hard-on for him. Metal hasn’t been under attack — not in the States, anyway. They haven’t held congressional hearings on vulgar music for fucking years — constituents are more than happy to peddle theories about new Satanic Panics on their own.
Look, I’d love to think that blasting “Animal” on my way to the grocery store will unsettle and melt the minds and flesh of, uh, WASPy parents and other busybodies opposed to loud music and anything remotely pleasurable. It doesn’t. Some of that’s changing times, some of that is because a not-insignificant portion of W.A.S.P. fans are prissy suburbanites themselves. That doesn’t diminish my love of the song, but that’s just reality. It would not be the filthiest song on most peoples’ playlists today, and that’s a step in the right direction. The sooner we dismantle America’s puritanical roots, the better.
Shock — or the desire to shock — is hard to wean off of. I get it. We gravitate towards the Alices and the Ozzys for their outlandishness or, perhaps more accurately, the time where they were considered outlandish. We want things to feel forbidden, as they’re more tantalizing that way. And for a time, such bravado can provide a light. In my early youth, Marilyn Manson was the center of moral panic, and he was probably the last relevant “shock rocker” before that became an antiquated term. He made a lot of right-wing faux-moralists mad, and before I knew the term “Christofascist,” that sold me on him. Manson has turned out to actually be a fucking awful person, but not for the reasons 1990s America’s Concerned Christian Parents thought. (A lot of them probably had football star sons who faced credible accusations.) He had more in common with the powers looking to take him down than we thought. That ain’t edgy, that just sucks.
Most fans got into metal through a seemingly contradictory but essential force in popular music: Metal sells the image of going against the grain, of being against the mainstream. Most people can’t get beyond the noise and screaming to find true beauty, breathtaking performances, and hearts ripped out and smashed onto sleeves. Metal can be too raw, too uncomfortable, too cerebral for most people. Sometimes, that makes the best metal. To appreciate metal may make you feel like you have an edge against most folks. (It’s how I have something of a writing career.) Normies not getting it is part of the appeal. On the one hand, fuck ‘em. We can bang to Sacrofago on our own.
That can’t be the main or only reason you’re still into metal, though. Hating normies isn’t enough. Making people mad is fun, yes, but it’s not an end unto itself. You can really only piss off so many folks before no one gives a shit anymore. The farce is the tragedy. Have you ever seen an El Duce-less The Mentors perform while a guy in a banana suit dances on stage? I have, and it’s the saddest thing I’ve ever seen.
This falls in line with another issue in metal: Sometimes bands and fans will more loudly declare what they’re against more than what they’re for. Then, what really are you? “Ordinary fuckin’ people, I hate ‘em,” uttered by Repo Man’s Bud is often repeated by, you guessed it, ordinary fuckin’ people. Critiquing modern society doesn’t get much more boilerplate or oversimplified than “Everyone wants to be different than everyone else,” but it sticks because there’s something to it. By wanting to prod the collective drab, you end up fusing with the beige blob. Not even literally shooting off your own foot would set you apart.
With all this said, does metal have to be this safe, ready-to-eat, homogenized sound product? FUCK NO! Metal might not be the target of cultural watchdogs anymore — it doesn’t need them for vitality. Metal’s matured a lot in its half-century existence. It should have the freedom to mature even further, grow even deeper, and become better than it already is.
And it’s already fucking great, which is why I’m hammering on this particular point so hard. There’s more to life than shock. Continuous electricity — what’s metal without amps powered by dead dinosaurs? — won’t last forever if we don’t get this damn climate change shit under control, so we might as well do something productive with the resources we extract. If the Earth were to swallow us whole because she’s sick of hair-metal has-beens (who didn’t make a song as good as “Animal”?) complaining on blabbermouth.net about cancel culture… well, that would be understandable too.