Friday 29 June 2012

Glitter rock for country boys

Reading Fargo Rock City: A Heavy Metal Odyssey in Rural Nörth Daköta, Chuck Klosterman's memoir mixed with a plea for a reappraisal of glam metal, I experienced a fundamental disconnect: that odd feeling that I'll never be able to share the author's evident enthusiasm for his subject, because it can't ever mean to me what it signifies for him: you had to be there. It's possible to consider Fargo Rock City from a technical perspective, but the critic's ability or otherwise to relate to Klosterman's experience plays a pretty crucial part. Thus, my criticisms of the book say at least as much about me and the metal culture I grew up in as they do about Fargo Rock City.

Klosterman, born in the early seventies, got into metal when his older brother brought back a tape of Mötley Crüe's Shout at the Devil. Loyal to pop metal with a teenager's devotion throughout the eighties, Klosterman's metal fandom went underground when the industry collapsed in the wake of the grunge explosion. Fargo Rock City is an attempt to pick up the pieces, to explain what W.A.S.P., Poison and Whitesnake meant to a whole generation (and why Klosterman still rocks out to them).

That's a project I'm sympathetic to. The rock critics who scorned glam metal may be right (Klosterman argues they are, but only in part), but if millions of young people loved a cultural phenomenon then it is worthy of consideration - important - even if it's bad. Especially if it's bad, perhaps: for the very features that make music unpalatable to critics (juvenile, aggressive lyrics, simple but infectious hooks, ostentatious hedonism - in short, all that is lurid, licentious and vile) attract teenage men. In that respect there's a great deal of overlap between Klosterman's love for glam metal and one of my pet passions, the slasher film.

Fargo Rock City may be a product of eighties nostalgia, but it's far from a straightforward evocation of the time. Instead, Klosterman alternates schizophrenically between memoir (and musings on youth in general) and essays on aspects of glam metal or larger issues in pop culture as illustrated by glam. These are usually interesting, but the book just feels cobbled together. Some of the autobiographical bits, like the semi-infamous 'drinking chapter', bear little relation to metal at all, even if they help illuminate the author.

I can relate to Klosterman's experience. I grew up in a village of 250 people in the marshlands of northern Germany, the European equivalent of North Dakota. Nor am I really free to indulge my reflexive metalhead disdain towards the Sunset Strip bands, which have become the black sheep of the family despite popularising metal in the mainstream and acting as a gateway. That would be rank hypocrisy, for as a teen I grew up with nu metal, quite possibly the only subgenre as despised as glam. And not just any nu metal: my life's devotion was to Linkin Park, who could never shake off allegations of being a manufactured group. So I get Klosterman's desire to reclaim the value of his youth. As he stresses again and again, to 80s kids glam metal songs were full of profound meaning. Since the voice of my generation is Fred Durst, I can hardly cast the first stone.

I was thoroughly rankled by Klosterman's slipshod use of terminology: 'heavy metal', 'glam metal', 'hair metal' and 'hard rock' are regularly used as synonyms. Metalheads, you see, are obsessives: we spend at least as much time arguing over precise classifications within the metal family as we do actually listening to music. As a result, we've more or less eliminated synonyms from our language, which makes the job of journalists like Klosterman that much harder. But Klosterman is, he freely admits, not what passes for a metalhead today. When he grew up, glam was metal, while the bands whose influences are felt throughout modern metal were far less famous. For thrash acts like Slayer (whom he calls 'speed metal' - see above), Klosterman professes puzzlement: their sonic aggression and self-seriousness, he believes, is antithetical to the sheer headbanging joy he associates with metal.

That's where the circle closes. Klosterman and I share the fundamental impulse behind heavy music: a desire - nay, a need - to rock. Until quite recently, I believed this was a universal human drive, but apparently there are people for whom shouting along and rocking out to heavy riffs simply holds no attraction. Despite metalheads' occasional elitism, this desire undeniably links Black Sabbath and Mötley Crüe, Poison and Bathory. It's why we can appreciate what glam metal meant. Even if the music was a bit rubbish.

No comments:

Post a Comment