Id N’ Ego Killed the Pop Metal Star... and the Alternative Rocker, Too

by Lana Cooper

28 September 2011


Egotism, "creative differences", in-fighting, and/or substance abuse killed "hair metal".

The combination of egotism, “creative differences”, in-fighting, and/or substance abuse in many of these bands was part of what killed “hair metal”. At that point, it had a successful five-year run, which is the given life cycle of popularity for any subgenre that achieves mainstream prominence. Factor in the “B”-list (Warrant, Winger, Cinderella, L.A. Guns, and Skid Row—whose 1989 debut and even heavier 1991 US number one album Slave to the Grind could have put the group on the brink of “A”-list status) and “C”-list groups (Kix, Southgang, Firehouse, Trixter, et al), and the pop metal genre was saturated in a sea of bands all peddling similar but not necessarily top-of-the-line wares.

Although many members of pop metal’s “B” List were highly skilled musicians, they lacked the headline-grabbing star power of the form’s upper echelon. When the inevitable backlash came, they were still so deeply associated with the genre that they couldn’t escape it and were overshadowed by the “hair metal” label. Winger had a great guitarist in Reb Beach and although Kip Winger had poster-boy looks akin to Jon Bon Jovi and solid songwriting skills, they just weren’t distinguishable enough to put them at the top of the heap (the fact that the MTV cartoon series Beavis and Butthead later targeted the band for mockery didn’t help, either). By the same token, Cinderella was a great band… but not great enough. The group’s bluesy tone was a little too derivative of Aerosmith and AC/DC to set it apart as something wholly unique. Warrant sealed its fate with its 1990 single “Cherry Pie”—a catchy, fun song in its own right which was completely emblematic of the poppy fluff of the hair metal genre. In fact, when I think of hair metal and what it represents, “Cherry Pie” is the first song that springs to mind. If you loved pop metal, this was the sort of song that prompted you to sing and dance along with it. If you hated it, “Cherry Pie” was your argument against any of the genre’s artistic merit.

When alternative (especially grunge) became popular, many “B” groups attempted to “grunge-up” their image with slightly heavier songs and adding flannel to their wardrobes. Unlike the “A” groups who each had a definitive sound that could be tweaked to accommodate a heavier, murkier sonic aesthetic. the “B” Groups came across as a musicians playing dress up, in both a literal and figurative sense.

Conversely, while a lot of “C”-list bands faded completely into the ether, Butch Walker, who was once a member of little-known group Southgang, was relatively anonymous enough that he could reinvent himself in the late ‘90s with the pop-rock trio Marvelous 3. Walker would then go on to much greater success as a solo artist, songwriter, and producer, currently working with some of pop music’s biggest names behind the scenes. No one knew Butch Walker from Adam in 1991, which allowed him to fly under the radar just enough to evade being forever slapped with the “hair band” label and continue as a pure musician instead of as a genre prop.

On the surface, pop metal and alternative rock are completely different animals. However, their respective, collective psyches have much in common. While the pop metal scene buckled under the weight of its own ego and propensity towards trend-hopping, grunge/alternative died in a manner that some of its biggest stars did. One genre craved fame and the excess that came with it. The other craved anonymity in the face of fame and met with despair, addiction, and in some cases, death.

In the mid-‘90s, shortly after the death of Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain, alternative’s “A” Group—Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Stone Temple Pilots, Alice in Chains, the Red Hot Chili Peppers (who, due to their funk-metal hybrid status were almost in a class by themselves), and Soundgarden—began to lose their foothold as kings of the rock landscape. The stripped-down earnestness and unbridled angst of grunge in particular that began in 1991 showed signs of wear five years later, at about the same moment on the fame clock that hair metal had begun to expire.

The grit of alternative rock that had become not just a dominant force in the realm of rock, but also achieved mainstream musical consciousness, soon found itself replaced by its own polar opposite(s). Rock began to favor shock value and showmanship again, giving rise to heavier bands such as Marilyn Manson, Korn, and Slipknot that had a less plebian image than those of the Seattle scene. On the other end of the spectrum, pop music did a 180 and threw up prefabricated pop confections like the Backstreet Boys, N’Sync, and the Spice Girls.

Although many a fan of pop metal insists that grunge “killed” the genre, I disagree. I believe that hair metal’s own ego killed it. Similarly, grunge’s own ego killed that genre, too. Hair metal had a more extroverted sense of ego typified by people like Axl Rose. These guys wanted to be loved and wanted to be famous so much that when it came to fruition, it overwhelmed their very being (or at least their artistic and/or business sense). The Id had overtaken the Ego. On the flipside, grunge had a different type of ego. It was more of a passive-aggressive ego born of self loathing. Whereas hair metal was more inclusive, grunge rockers gave the impression that they felt superior because they were alienated or misunderstood artists.

Alternative didn’t topple hair metal. It just took its place. Many of the same things that befell bands on the pop metal scene transpired with some of alt-rock’s biggest acts. The only differentiating factor was that while glam metal bands reveled in attention, many alternative bands did not want to cope with it. Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain committed suicide and Alice in Chains singer Layne Staley died of a drug overdose. Red Hot Chili Peppers’ guitarist John Frusciante left the band in 1992 due to his struggles with fame and heroin. He was replaced with former Jane’s Addiction guitarist Dave Navarro. Frusciante then returned in 1998 and left again in 2008. Soundgarden disbanded in 1997 and its lead singer joined with former members of Rage Against the Machine (minus vocalist Zack de la Rocha) to form Audioslave.

Many of the bands who were major figures when alternative breeched the mainstream were later branded sell-outs. STP was lambasted for a more glam appearance and shift in sound on its 1996 album, Tiny Music from the Vatican Gift Shop. Similarly, Soundgarden’s sound took a less grungy tone prior to its breakup (and eventual reformation in 2010). Even Nirvana, perhaps the most revered band of the era, was criticized by some earlier fans for the simple fact that its music was in heavy radio and MTV rotation. It was no longer “underground”. The battle lines had been sharply drawn and anyone who wasn’t toiling in the underground was considered a sellout.

Presently, thanks to a wave of nostalgia, both former “A” List pop metal and alternative acts are doing fairly well for themselves. At this point, many of the bands whose music has withstood the test of time are now considered classic rock. Additionally, while there have been casualties on both sides, many artists of both subgenres of rock have conquered their own demons of substance and ego to emerge stronger. Dave Grohl rose from the ashes of Nirvana to create an entirely new animal and has been successful in making damn good music with the Foo Fighters. Mötley Crüe’s Nikki Sixx and the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Anthony Kiedis have each written memoirs chronicling their addiction to and triumph over heroin; conversely, Mötley Crüe have become rock’s elder statesmen, introducing a new generation to heavy rock (with a touch of pop) and elaborate stage shows. Bret Michaels has reintroduced himself—and Poison—to the pop culture consciousness as a reality television star, capitalizing on the nostalgia factor. Pearl Jam and Bon Jovi—two distinctly different bands—still sell out arenas, as does Def Leppard. Over 20 years later, a new generation of women gyrate wildly to Def Lep’s “Pour Some Sugar on Me” which has now become a bachelorette party staple, transcending the genre itself due to its powers of pop persuasion.

And yes, “hair metal” and alt-rock even managed to meet in the middle. RHCP drummer Chad Smith aligned with Joe Satriani and former Van Halen-ites Sammy Hagar and Michael Anthony to form the super group Chickenfoot. Additionally, STP’s Scott Weiland splintered from his band and joined forces with Slash and most of the original GNR lineup to form Velvet Revolver. Weiland has since reunited with Stone Temple Pilots and their latest album met with critical acclaim.

Eventually, rock music genres that seem to be facing each other down on a battlefield, one dying as another emerges, all meet the same fate. Bands break up or sell out. Musicians die or reinvent themselves, some with more success than others. It’s just the natural life cycle of a band. Sooner or later, if a band is good enough, they all find themselves on classic rock radio rotation. Or a landmark album—be it pop rock or alternative rock—makes its way into a place of honor in a dedicated music lover’s CD rack.

People will always party. People will always get mad at the circumstances of life and society around them. Despite their differences, both pop metal and alternative rock still are about rebellion, regardless of the form that rebellion takes. Rebellion, whether it’s against school, parents, society, your job, or just “The Man”, is at the core of all rock music from Little Richard to KISS to Rage Against the Machine. Music, like any other art that reaches out to people, helps enhance a multitude of fleeting emotional moments or offer a voice of solidarity. Good music is still good music. Part of what makes it great is not just how it speaks to a given audience in a five-year period, but how it continues to speak to new audiences long after trends have shifted.

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