I stopped by a friend’s house a couple weeks ago, a semi-professional musician recovering from cancer, and we caught up on what we’d been listening to/recording. He’s primarily a hybrid of classical music and heavy metal, and he played me some examples of the latter that he’d written while convalescing.
“My wife’s lost her ‘metal tooth’. Don’t know how that happened. She says you outgrow it. Well—” he shrugged with a skeptical look, wordlessly refuting it thus by the mere fact of his standing there, metal and proud.
I nodded sympathetically, but truth be told, I’ve outgrown a lot of it myself. I don’t mean it condescendingly—there are still a lot of metal records I would claim to like, but I just don’t ever seem to be in the mood to actually listen to them anymore, if that makes any sense. They did something for me once. They still have what I would call some sort of objective quality. But they just don’t seem to be suitable vehicles for the kind of thoughts I’m thinking at this point in my life. They don’t paint compelling pictures in my head. I can’t lose myself in them anymore.
Generation X was musically defined, of course, by grunge. That’s what the media appointed as the official soundtrack to our lives, the cultural essence of our generation. But really, a large number of us spent just as much time imprinting on heavy metal, from Sunset Strip glam metal to thrash. That stuff didn’t neatly fit into any grand sociological narrative, though, so it was given the cultural silent treatment from 1992 onward until it finally had the courtesy to make itself scarce so that everyone who mattered could forget the lost decade between MTV’s debut and Nirvana’s deliverance ever happened. As Krist Novoselic put it, “a lot of heavy metal kids are just plain dumb.” Pariahs within our own pariah generation.
Anyway. I forget what exactly started the snowball rolling, but I spent a majority of my time over the weekend looking up every band I could think of from that time period, on Wikipedia, iTunes, YouTube and eMusic, seeing what had become of them. In many cases, it was, as expected, not pretty. Some cut their hair and got “real” jobs. Some carried on gamely, stuffing their paunchy, aging bodies into the same tasseled cowboy boots and leather pants that lace up the sides, partying like it was always 1989. Some had ridden substance abuse into an undignified sunset. And some had sadly degenerated into feuding camps of the original members, trading lawsuits over whether the singer or the guitarist got to tour county fairs under the official name with hired hands filling in. It isn’t really a form of music that ages well, for the songs or the artists.
But imagine my surprise as I found myself missing those days, feeling a genuine surge of affection for them. And especially when it came to the cheesiest hair bands, there was nothing I could point to to justify it. The songs often were terrible. The riffs and lyrics were clichéd beyond belief. The images of poodle-haired drag queens and S&M leather daddies were hilariously over the top. But it’s like the shallow inauthenticity has a perverse charm all its own.
What on earth is it that would make me feel nostalgic about those days? It seems trite to call it innocence, but maybe music fans really can’t help but feel that way about whatever they spent their adolescence listening to. Maybe despite the fact that many of us as teenagers and early twentysomethings were already feeling some genuine angst and weltschmerz, there really is something irreplaceable in the mindset of someone whose life still feels like, in Rilke’s phrase, “the brightness of a new page/where anything yet can happen.”