PRINT April 1992


Heavy Metal

IN THE WANING MONTHS of 1991, as America passed from recession to “economic free-fall,” a struggle for the hearts and minds of the white teen proletariat took shape. Reaching the top of the charts, heavy metal’s established meanings and ingrained signifiers—the boundaries of what can and can’t be said, of what constitutes the genre itself—were suddenly in a free-fall of their own. A civil war began within the borders of a semiotics that time forgot.

Representing fanatical sonic fundamentalism, raising disillusion to a fiercely mystical pitch, Metallica mount a jihad against everything craven, impure, compromised. Instead of sex or satanism, they speak bitterly of power as a plague and all the world and its denizens mere carriers. But Metallica, their latest slab, jettisons the mindless instrumental ballast of their earlier music, extracting organic matter from pure mass with a surgical deliberation. The collective roar is dense almost beyond reckoning: darkness visible as the risen body of the unconscious, now resurrected in fable, in parables of noise. The album is a Trojan horse that lays waste to the mainstream from within, entering the charts at number one even as it rebukes everything else on them.

As debauched apostles of phallic aggression, preprogrammed insanity, and tongue-in-chic chaos, Guns N’ Roses are strictly from planet Hollywood. From the first, the release of their dual Use Your Illusion albums is structured as pure meta-event: each the equivalent of a two-record set, two and a half hours of music between them, an epic gambit aimed at securing rock ’n’ roll immortality and the financial redemption of the music business in one fell swoop. History initially seems to oblige, falling in line with the script like a row of State Department dominoes: the twin blockbusters leapfrog over Metallica and the rest of the Billboard pack, moving as preordained into the first and second sales positions. (Thus, the reasoning goes, returning lost fans to the record-store fold; Axl Rose anointed as blessed savior, only driving the moneychangers back into the temple.)

Yet the campaign falters, the fantasy machine stalls. All too soon Illusion I and II are slip-sliding ever so gently down the charts, overtaken not only by the predictable likes of Michael Jackson and that unstoppable zombie Garth Brooks, but by a resurgent Metallica and a trio of skanky punk insurgents calling themselves Nirvana. Nevermind, Nirvana’s debut on a major label (one they share with Guns N’ Roses at that), happily heaps insult on injury. Having no measurable publicity and hype behind it, Nevermind gets across on the basis of the single and video “Smells like Teen Spirit”—corrosive and ceaselessly insinuating, a great, derisive snort in the wilderness of mall culture. The song’s particulars hang seductively out of reach—cryptic phrases swallowed in mid sentence, plaintive melody playing hide-and-seek with thrashing chords—but the meaning couldn’t be clearer. A stench is haunting young America and it’s coming from the decomposing corpse of “youth rebellion” itself, the same moldering dead parrot that glib salesmen like Guns N’ Roses keep trying to pass off as the living article. (“Beautiful plumage,” chimes an anxious Axl Rose, to calm the corpse’s newly dissatisfied owners.)

If Kurt Cobain’s keening voice recalls R. E. M.’s Michael Stipe, it is only to reinstate the desperation Stipe has made a career out of equivocating. Cobain sings as a faceless member of a vital demographic—“Here we are now, entertain us”—baiting the infinitely self-assured stars who push remote-control buttons marked fear or hope, hate or love. The audience feels “stupid and contagious”: cattle in a pen at feeding time. “It’s fun to lose and to pretend,” the kid is supposed to believe. “I’m a Beatle,” he shouts, but he means a shell, a receptacle—a beetle-shaped ashtray. There’s rage at being helplessly used and at the real neediness that makes any one of us susceptible in the first place. Behind that is the realization that faked emotion may be better than nothing, even as better-than-nothing is staged as the apotheosis of everything. There is a shrug in the groping fury of “Smells like Teen Spirit,” and a wistful dirty grin: “Yet I guess it makes me smile/I’ve found it hard, it’s hard to find.” Looking for that elusive smile—the moments when music makes life less of what it seems—propels the song. Which only makes its denunciation of stasis-as-pleasure more cutting: as its last word on the subject, the song makes a mantra of “A denial.”

Such denial is the thin white line that runs through the discourse of the two Use Your Illusions, which invoke reality only to repress it more systematically. Axl Rose’s paroxysms are weightless, antiseptic, as if be spelled sociopath M-i-c-k-e-y M-o-u-s-e. Welcome to the jungle, Mistah Disney he dead. . . but Cap’n Axl’s right here to be your personal guide through “the sordid underside” of L.A., the sleaze, madness, uitraviolence (sexual and otherwise), and the awesome price celebrity exacts from its victims. Which is the central conceit here—Axl Rose as victim of his fame, of the media, of soul-stealing bitch armies of the night, of his urges and the voices in his head, This persecution complex is the engine of Rose’s charisma—every curse really a cry for help, every taunt a secret plea for unconditional love.

Hard as it is to separate from Rose’s omnivorous persona, there is the music itself to be considered. Which is derivative, blustery, impressively well-played, conspicuously consumable—music with the expensive finish of designer barbed wire. Use Your Illusion I and II turn energy into artifact, extremity into a conversation piece. The result is coffee table heavy metal, an instant version of those boxed-set retrospectives now flooding the market. The band seems to grow in stature as the albums unfold, so that by the conclusion of I and through most of II they make everything they steal their own (merging Led Zeppelin with the Osmonds in “Bad Apple” may be a dubious feat, but it’s a feat all the same). Yet there is a pervasive remoteness to their gestures, as though they were on loan from a hard rock museum, or morgue.

That’s what people mean when they call G N’ R “postmodern.” Which is precisely how Elizabeth Wurtzel described the band in a dizzy seven-page rave in The New Yorker, where with only the barest nod to irony she praised them as “the most harmless experience of subversiveness there is right now.” Yes, that sounds like postmodernism all right. The subtitle of Use Your Illusion ought to be “Bask in, the Disease” said disease being reification (turning desires into mechanisms of social control, recasting social control as desire).

This has always been the lingua franca of heavy metal alienation, so the thrust of Metallica is all the more jarring. It’s like a pop-cult staging of Simone Weil’s commentary on The Iliad: “Might is that which makes a thing of anybody who comes under its sway. When exercised to the full, it makes a thing of a man in the most literal sense, for it makes him a corpse.” On Metallica, the coercive logic of might is dissected from under its thumb. There’s nothing to bask in here, just a terrifying sense of helplessness before the fact that, as Weil put it, “nothing is sheltered from fate.” Everyone is as a child before social forces that have assumed the guise of nature, of destiny: “stripped of all but pride,” the unaccommodated man roams the world in exile from it (even in his dreams). Hence the child’s nightmare of “Enter Sandman” is father to the adult’s in “The God That Failed.” Despite the token saber-rattling of “Don’t Tread on Me,” every gesture here exists to make the void beneath it more real: what happens when the godhead of your choice (religion, communism, free enterprise, rock ’n’ roll itself) crumbles. Metallica offer no answers, just weary persistence against the betrayals reified inside us all.

This is just the human condition nearing the close of the 20th century, with nothing else on the horizon. “Sad But True,” say Metallica—they do justice to the immense, aching desperation of their disenfranchised audience, but refuse to pander to their audience’s illusions. That refusal is what makes this music so hard to shake off. “I’m your life,” roars James Hetfield, “And I no longer care.” But there’s no malice, no contempt, in his voice. Within that pitiless statement is a germ of hope: the truth will set you free, or as close to free as you get in the marketplace’s panoptical dystopia. Nirvana’s Nevermind, set in casually wasted slapstick-punk terms, is a still more overt debunking of the whole process. “He’s the one who likes all our pretty songs,” croons Kurt Cobain, “But he don’t buy what it means.” Flux and ambivalence have entered the equation.

Kids and the Jung-at-heart are drawn to the familiar strains of Guns N’ Roses, who (as a public-relations spin doctor recently said of his work) “help people resolve their cognitive dissonance.” But these rootless fans also feel the grave pull of Metallica’s unforgiving vision and the glee in Nirvana’s demolition of youth-culture piety. (Nirvana’s canny amateurism may feel a little shopworn—overcalculated—to diehard fans of Dinosaur Jr. and the Pixies, but to millions of initiates for whom punk was never much more than an ugly rumor, it hits home like a Smart Bomb payload.) What new consensus may emerge from all this is unclear, but for now a door is open and someone’s in there pissing on a pair of sneakers that cost a fortune.

Howard Hampton is a writer who lives in Apple Valley, California. He contributes frequently to Artforum.