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Wednesday, February 25, 2004
In Fargo Rock City, Chuck Klosterman writes:

Part of the reason 80's hard rock will never get respect--even kitschy respect--is because so many of the major players have retroactively tried to disassociate themselves from all of their peers. Disco didn't wrestle with this kind of shame: Even after it had been flogged like a dead horse, formed discotheque superstars were still proud to be part of the phenomenon they built. Subsequently, it's become acceptable to play disco albums at parties.

Which leads me, of course, to the issue of Sebastian Bach on Gilmore Girls.

Before we get into all the critical issues, let me just say first how much I love this. The character Bach plays, Gil, is an older guy who could be accurately described as a "metal dude." He has a family and runs a sandwich shop which he owns. The guitarist for the band some of the characters play in quits to go to college, and so in their search for a new one, they end up with Gil.

Now, it's easy to see how this could've gone wrong. It could've been condescending, an act of pure stunt casting, and just turned out insulting and wrong. And sure, the members of the group are a little bit weirded out by Gil. But 18-year-olds who listen to the Shins are weirded out by metal dudes, especially metal dudes who want to play in their indie-rock bands, so that's hardly unrealistic. And it works, because Gil is presented as a slightly out-of-it (as are almost all the characters on the show, about one thing or another--Lorelai about her mother, Rory about her OCD, Luke about his grumpiness, etc.) but undeniably good guy. Bach neither tries to coast on nor wholly avoid his image, but simply uses a certain veracity to evoke a very real kind of person--the aging local metal dude who never really made it in music but still retains his metal-dude roots while settling into a comfortable existence, and many guys of this type are, indeed, good folk through and through. They're arguably the naughts version of the aging hippie, except instead of abandoning ideals of social change, he just abandoned his ideals of partying all the time, which being sort of a good thing, tends to make him more of a positive figure, I feel.

It's just really nice to see. He's been good in the follow-up episodes, but the one where he actually joins the band is just so charming--when Lane decides to reverse the band's decision and let him in, Gil, who's in town watching the fireworks with his family, is just so happy about it, it's really nice. Because he's honestly happy to be making music. And it's sort of rare to see that acknowledged--that metal dudes really did, and do, love music.

So anyway, what I'm trying to say (aside from "Gilmore Girls is awesome!") is that I think this signals that practitioners of pop-metal are finally beginning to embrace their roots. Hell, this article[1] starts off with a quote from Bach thusly: "How did heavy metal become so mainstream?"[1.5]

Well, of course, it was a huge mainstream musical phenomenon that died over 15 years ago, so right on schedule, here it comes as retro. In some ways, not seeing this coming ("will never get respect") is a failure of vision on Klosterman's part, since he's lived through a few retro revivals himself--I mean, the guy grew up in the 70's for heaven's sake, and describes himself as having a Richie Cunningham haircut, if I recall correctly. The book was only written 3-4 years ago, so you'd think this trend would've been at least partially evident. Granted, in the Epilogue (which I've only skimmed) he acknowledges the coming pop-metal revival, but at the same time it would seem to be a clear critical point that if you're talking about a genre that's had over, let's say, 5 platinum albums, it's going to be sincerely revived at some point. It seems pretty obvious in hindsight, but I suppose that's what hindsight does: make things seem obvious when they really weren't.

That said (and I don't mean to be too harsh on Chuck, since in many ways making that claim of its eternal outsiderness was more true to the spirit of metal fandom than cynically predicting a retro renaissance[1.75]), I think the comparison with disco is a really useful one, especially as it validates the existence of a certain sub-cycle in the retro cycle. Of course, in many ways neither disco nor metal went away after their public funerals--the former simply transmogrified into house music, and the latter was subsumed in more diffuse ways, i.e. Soundgarden, the continuing dominance of the power-ballad form, Staind, etc. But this is the mainstream we're talking about, and both died, as I say, pretty public deaths.

What I remember about disco, though, is that it initially came back not as we know it today, but as a jokey fashion device along with the general wave of 70's nostalgia that the whole weird Gen-X thing ushered in. This was, I think, in the mid-early 90's, and "disco" was mostly bell-bottoms you wore because they were sexy and platform shoes you wore because they were funny and lava lamps and disco balls you displayed because they were tastefully hilarious, sort of. But music-wise, I think you'd have to search pretty hard to find anyone using the term "disco" to describe themselves.[2] Sure, there were scattered instances--the ABBA-worship of Ace of Base, the disco perfection of "Lovefool"--but these are a far, far cry from Franz Ferdinand and Heiko Vos, who come bearing both scene cred and genre fealty. I suppose it's still largely referred to as "dance-punk" or "shuffle-tech," but we all know it's disco, and it does get called that a significant portion of the time. It's disco without shame now, not disco-as-kitsch.

I think we're in that same early-revival stage with metal now. There's the jokey fashion, of course--I think that whole wearing-vintage-Styx-t-shirts trend started in late 2000, and has now simply been sublimated into trucker chic but has never really gone away. Music-wise, I think people are really beginning to undergo an honest reassessment of the music, but while it does get played, it's similarly for ironic nostalgia value; you don't yet see people touting their DJ sets of deep metal album cuts in the same way that you currently see them getting cultural capital out of obscure italo-disco.[3] Like with the Cardigans/ABBA/"Girls and Boys" thing, you have a few scattered instances you can point to, but none really suggest a sincere renaissance. Andrew WK is described as "dance-metal" despite having just as much in common with Motley Crue as the Rapture do with Donna Summer. The Darkness are doing an ironic take on it, and while it's certainly an awesome ironic take on it, it's also certainly going far off its kitsch value, and I don't think it's exactly prompting kids to look at the back catalogue of their sound. Rob[4] likes to point out how much certain Matrix and Matrix-y productions (Liz Phair, Courtney Love, etc.) have in common with pop-metal; certainly you'd be hard-pressed to listen to the first minute of the Liz album and not see the connection there.[5] But, as with mid-90's mainstream disco, no one's calling themselves pop-metal, so you can't really say it's arrived yet.

So let's call this a test: if good vocal pop-metal (I'm not counting bands like the Fucking Champs and Don Cab, who are more based on underground metal anyway) is the hot thing in the underground in five to ten years, let's call that a pattern. Backing up my claims is the fact that synth-pop, which was the pop predecessor to pop-metal--new wave of the early 80's, pop metal of the late 80's--is the big thing right now. I think it could work.

[1] Incidentally, the first picture on the second page of the article, featuring Bach in full frontman mode with his arms around a prim-looking Rory, makes me feel like someone's hitting me between the lobes of my brain with a trowel, but I can't say exactly why.
[1.5] Rereading this, it's odd that he doesn't have the word "again" at the end of that statement. Maybe he means to say that million-selling metal records are metal, but going on a TV program is mainstream?
[1.75] And, of course, you could point out that FRC itself is, in no small part, the cause of the critical re-evaluation of 80's metal, so maybe it was a self-denying prophecy. (Or, uh, a reverse prophecy.)
[2] Unless U2 did. Did U2? Or were they just calling themselves "pop"? Of course, I harbor a murderous rage toward U2, so I'm unlikely to put much stock in this fact, true or not.
[3] Which is not to say that such purveyors are insincere; it's the culture that's changed around them and given their true, abiding loves cachet.
[4] Who gets an assist on this one for a discussion a while back about the whole Bach-on-Gilmore-Girls issue, as well as pointing me to Bach's awesome website.
[5] Not to mention the fact that major tracks on Courtney's last two albums have focused on LA/Hollywood ("Malibu," "Celebrity Skin," "Sunset Strip"), which Klosterman points out is a key trope of 80's metal.