These go to eleven
Irony's assault on heavy metal
Having already embraced mullets and trucker hats with ironic glee, it was just a matter of time before hipsters sunk their cooler-than-thou talons into heavy metal. The music's camp value is well-established: This Is Spinal Tap first mined hard rock's excesses for laughs 20 years ago, and bands such as Manowar and Gwar have been lampooning them at least that long.
But recent albums from Andrew W.K., Satanicide and the Darkness suggest the ironists are now descending en masse.
As Jack Black has shown in his prog-metal goof band Tenacious D and, more recently, in his film School of Rock, it's certainly possible to send up rock's outlandish trappings and simultaneously get a genuine kick out of the music. But when the joy isn't there, it's a tired exercise.
Case in point: Pop-metal party boy Andrew W.K. For all his admonishments to party till you puke, there's nothing especially fun about his latest record, The Wolf. In fact, there's something vaguely fascist about it: "I want to have a party!/I want to have a party!/I want to have a party!/You cannot kill the party!/You cannot kill the party!/You cannot kill the party!" he bellows over the grind of "Long Live the Party." For W.K., partying isn't a carefree lark; it's a mandate. With its Wagnerian pomp and lockstep chants, "Victory Strikes Again" feels like the soundtrack to a Michael Bay remake of Triumph of the Will.
It just never sounds as if Andrew actually likes the music he plays. It feels like subtle mocking intended to flatter his audience, who he assumes will be happy to look down their noses at the sort of drooling bipeds who freely use the word "party" as a verb, adjective, noun or interjection. On "Make Sex," W.K. shouts, "I wanna make sex!/Wanna make sex!/Oh!" over and over, his voice multitracked to sound like a stadium full of soccer hooligans. Who says "make sex"? He seems to be goofing on metal's clumsy machismo, but what he doesn't get is that while AC/DC's Brian Johnson may sound like a Neanderthal growling over those American thighs, at least he sounds like he's telling the truth.
Of course, W.K. insists that he, too, is telling the truth. In interviews he steadfastly claims that his intentions are dead serious. But his music renders his denials unconvincing. "Tear It Up" boasts lyrics that may well have been ripped from the mouths of fourth-graders at recess ("I met a lot of friends who were cool/But a lot of them were jerks"). On "Your Rules," the wall of cheesy synths makes inane chants — "We will never listen to your rules/We will never do what others do/If you want to fight we'll fight with you" — feel less like a tribute to the teen anthems of Slade and Twisted Sister than a sub-"SNL" parody of them.
When I Get Wet, W.K.'s debut, appeared in late 2001, some suggested that his very existence was a hoax perpetrated by Dave Grohl. Prior to the album's release, W.K. had opened a handful of Foo Fighters shows, dressed in tight white jeans, a sweat-stained white T-shirt and white sneakers (the uniform he maintains today), dancing wildly and shouting hoarsely to prerecorded tracks. But W.K.'s attraction to metal predates his association with Grohl: He once played in the Pterodactyls, a metal outfit whose output was more performance art than pop music. It seems plausible that I Get Wet was similarly conceived. Lyrics like "Hey you, let's party!/Have a killer party and party!" are so beyond lame they must be considered as some sort of ironic commentary on the quality of discourse in heavy metal.
And what, exactly, is that commentary? Well, it's an elitist line that essentially regards rock as an enterprise that sells meaningless messages to an audience of fools. When W.K. professes in "I Love Music," which closes The Wolf, "You are my faith/You are my friend/You are my family/And I am coming," he's not so much mocking metal bands (as Gwar and Spinal Tap did) as he is metal's devoted fans. Which is why, at his shows, you're more likely to find smirking post-grads facetiously throwing devil horns than peach fuzz-sprouting heshers in tight jeans and Slayer concert tees.
The joke is even less subtle on Satanicide's Heather, but at least it's occasionally funny. The band is basically a parody of mid-'80s hair-metal acts — Skid Row, Poison, Motley Crue — with songs about cars, girls, the road, New Jersey, Dungeons & Dragons and how hard Satanicide rocks. The CD booklet features the band members posing in tattered T-shirts, headbands and leather pants, assuming cliched rock poses: standing in front of muscle cars, reclining on Victorian sofas, presiding over trashed hotel rooms, wielding a sword and clutching a severed head. Just in case it's not clear that this is all supposed to be ironic, the album includes an over-the-top cover of Celine Dion's "My Heart Will Go On."
The problem is that the joke gets old quickly, and there's little else there. These guys hammer home the punch lines as if they're afraid their audience might mistake them for the buffoons they're ridiculing. There isn't even a cheesy double entendre to enjoy in lines like "Heather, you've been sluttin' around for a while/Heather, come on baby, just give me a slice." And, of course, anyone who paid even cursory attention to metal in the '70s and '80s knows that the kind of bands who sang about rock 'n' roll debauchery were not the same ones who wrote songs like "20 Sided Die," Satanicide's ode to fantasy role-playing games. If these guys can tell the difference between Poison and Dio they don't show it: both are just easy targets.
Worse, Satanicide never acknowledges that bands such as Motley Crue and Poison kicked out some genuinely throttling rock, with a purity to their hedonism. Metal never denied its Id; it indulged without reservation. When you strip away the pretense, Satanicide and Andrew W.K. merely engage in class snobbery: the educated, cultured elite making fun of the white trash. As Vanessa Grigoriadis pointed out in a recent New York Times feature on Vice magazine and white-trash chic, "By definition, hip taste is embraced by hipsters because the masses don't get it." This metal mini-renaissance isn't any sort of sincere embrace of blue-collar populism — it's mostly just condescension.
So how does the Darkness manage to get it right? Permission to Land, the debut record from the British quartet, is as catchy and overpowering as it is hilarious. Frontman Justin Hawkins — a beanpole of a guy who thinks nothing of wearing a skin-tight, zebra-print Spandex unitard — sings with a theatricality that raises the specter of Freddie Mercury, careening between a working-class snarl and a quivering, glass-shattering falsetto. And the band has the chops to back it up. As Hawkins howls, "Get your hands off of my woman, motherfucker," his brother Dan grinds out a meaty power-chord progression. "Growing on Me" and "Givin' Up" both sport monster hooks and an insistent pulse, while "Love Is Only a Feeling," with its soaring arpeggios and swooning chorus, is like a valentine to the very institution of power balladry.
Are they kidding? Maybe. But there are no winks, no nods, no snooty derision. The Darkness' take on metal is often as silly as Andrew W.K.'s or Satanicide's — and plenty of people probably appreciate it with the same ironic titters — but Permission to Land feels more like a celebration of the genre than a smug condemnation of it. The Darkness may very well be aware of the inherent ridiculousness in donning spandex and prancing around on stage singing, "Monday rowing/Tuesday badminton/Dancing on a Friday night," but the way the band gives itself over to the song suggests it simply doesn't give a fuck. Dual guitars ring out as Hawkins coos gorgeously about the helplessness of being a young, terminally geeky kid in love. Permission To Land's lyrics are hopelessly sentimental and trite, but there's an essential sweetness, innocence and generosity to them that separates them from W.K.'s totalitarian sloganeering or Satanicide's unmitigated sarcasm.
And the differences in the way the Darkness, Satanicide and Andrew W.K. approach their music is not simply a matter of narrow critical distinctions. The Darkness' freewheeling attitude actually makes its record sound better. Where W.K.'s songs are monotonous and oppressive, and Satanicide's come off as half-assed spoofs of metal cliches, the Darkness' tunes arrive fully formed with powerful, soaring hooks, fiery fretwork, exacting arrangements and the kind of choruses that practically beg you to sing along. Say what you will about the Darkness' sense of humor, but the group's music and energy are never tongue-in-cheek.
What Permission to Land displays — corny as it sounds — is a sincere belief in the power of rock 'n' roll. Big, gleefully dumb rock 'n' roll. The Darkness understands, as its predecessors seemed to intuit, that there really are few better ways to spend a Saturday night than getting drunk with your friends, chasing girls and listening to a kick-ass band. The Darkness is not embarrassed by its enthusiasms; its members don't care if they look stupid and are not concerned whether their audience appreciates Judas Priest the way they do. The Darkness' version of metal doesn't involve any secret handshakes, only high-fives.