Id N’ Ego Killed the Pop Metal Star... and the Alternative Rocker, Too
Grunge didn't kill pop metal, it merely succeeded it as the genre of choice as part of a logical progression. To understand the emergence of alt-rock, we need to examine why the tide turned against a wave of music that had once been so popular.
“Music goes in cycles.” This was something that was explained to me back in 1994 by my old guitar teacher. I was 15 and learning to play Mötley Crüe’s “Girl, Don’t Go Away Mad (Just Go Away)” and Stone Temple Pilots’ “Sex Type Thing”. As I lamented that some of the bands I still loved were now dubbed verboten by the omnipotent entities known as music journalists and MTV, I pondered why bands like the Crüe and STP could not co-exist in a musical landscape at that point in time even though they peaceably co-existed in my CD rack.
Due to a new cycle of music began in 1991, by 1995 many of the bands I had grown up listening to had become a punchline and others simply faded into obscurity. Flannel had replaced spandex as the fabric of choice and music turned away from simple topics such as having fun and partying to much more complex social issues and angst.
Unlike a lot of fans of pop metal, I do not maintain that grunge “killed” it. It merely succeeded it as the genre of choice as part of a logical progression. To understand the emergence of alternative rock, it needs to be examined just why the tide had turned against a wave of music that had once been so popular.
By 1991, a form of music that had once been so gloriously simple and fun became a bloated, homogenized beast. The same can be said to have occurred to many different musical genres, which is why one style is usually supplanted in popularity by something that is its polar opposite.
Artists of the 1970s such as KISS, Alice Cooper, Aerosmith, Van Halen, AC/DC, Black Sabbath, and Cheap Trick played a large role in influencing most of the pop metal bands of the ‘80s. While all of those mentioned certainly had hit albums of their own in the ‘80s, their ‘70s roots exempt them from being lumped in with bands who sprouted from the “hair metal” movement.
Similarly, heavier bands like Iron Maiden and Judas Priest are also exempt from the hair metal label. While they shared some of the same characteristics as the pop metal bands (music driven by loud electric guitars, leather) and achieved cult status in the ‘80s, they didn’t possess the varying degrees of pop sensibility to make them household names. While any metal fan worth their salt could tell you Bruce Dickinson was the lead singer of Iron Maiden, he probably could not be identified or referenced culturally by non-metal fans as Axl Rose, Tommy Lee, or Bret Michaels could be. They were famous for reasons that went beyond music. Tommy Lee had “married into” pop culture status when he wed Heather Locklear and Rose’s turbulent relationship with model Stephanie Seymour slightly bumped up his own pop culture quotient. Metallica also defies the “hair metal” label although the group achieved prominence in the ‘80s. The band’s heavy thrash metal sound put it in a different category altogether. Although Metallica eventually achieved mainstream status with its self-titled 1991 album, that particular offering also saw it branded “sell-outs” among fans of a harder strain of metal.
It was a certain pop sensibility that allowed hair metal to crossover into the public consciousness and make it the prevailing genre of its day. It wasn’t as “scary” as Black Sabbath-tinted heavy metal, but was still dangerous enough to keep parents at bay. Pop metal was inclusive, uniting the youth under the banner of partying and rebellion. In addition to having varying levels of pop-friendliness, each of these bands possessed varying levels of a “danger factor”. You couldn’t take Axl home to Mom for fear of what he might do when he saw the family cat’s litter box. However, you could have guys like Jon Bon Jovi meet the parents but still count on them to ply you with a case of Boone’s Farm before a romp in the backseat of their ’78 Pinto.
At the top of the hair metal heap -- the “A”-list, if you will -- stood Guns N’ Roses, Mötley Crüe, Def Leppard, Bon Jovi, and Poison. Each of these bands had a distinct sound from the rest of the rock bands that came to be lumped into the pop metal scene.
Guns N’ Roses and Mötley Crüe were easily the heaviest of the “A”-list. While both had several power ballads in their arsenals, these two pop metal kingpins each devoted a large chunk of their material to songs about the harder side of partying and life on the mean streets of Los Angeles.
British band Def Leppard had a unique, pop-oriented sound that (like Van Halen) utilized vocal harmonies in addition to melodic electric guitar riffing. Even when drummer Rick Allen lost his arm in a 1984 car accident, the band’s sound still remained the same. Allen remained in the band, aided by electronic drums to help fill out the beats that were an identifying feature of Def Lep’s sound.
The poppiest of the “A” group was Bon Jovi. Its sound was an odd mélange of Bruce Springsteen-esque working-class rock (minus the Boss’ lyrical subtlety), pop rock, and (later) a touch of country. Despite hailing from New Jersey, lead singer Jon Bon Jovi fancied himself a cowboy and on a steel horse he’d ride.
Rounding out the pack and teetering between “A” group and “B” group status was Poison. Poison, like Bon Jovi, leaned towards the poppier end of the spectrum. Like John Bon Jovi, singer Bret Michaels also displayed tendencies towards believing himself a cowboy (as evidenced by the band’s hit power ballad, “Every Rose Has Its Thorn”). Curiously, even though Michaels was from Mechanicsburg, PA, he would occasionally lapse into a pseudo-Southern drawl. Arguably the weakest of the “A” Group, musically, Poison still knew how to craft simple, catchy songs that captured the hair metal ethos and spoke to a radio and video audience. Like Jon Bon Jovi, blonde Bret Michaels’ pin-up boy looks helped bolster the band’s popularity and grant it premier status in the genre.
Many of these bands began their implosions in 1991, most notably Guns N' Roses and Mötley Crüe. Infighting in GNR had lead to a revolving turnstile of band members, culminating in a lineup change in 1991 with the ousting of drummer Steven Adler who was replaced by Matt Sorum, and the addition of keyboardist Dizzy Reed. Later that year, rhythm guitarist Izzy Stradlin, who assisted heavily in co-writing some of GNR’s biggest hits, was replaced by Gilby Clarke.
Prior to Stradlin's departure, GNR released two separate albums in the same week, Use Your Illusion I & II. While there were several great songs on both LPs, the albums were fairly symbolic of the "bloat" the genre had become engorged with. There was a lot of filler and instead of the straightforward, gutter blast of Appetite For Destruction -- lauded as one of the greatest rock albums of all time -- Illusion contained a lot of overly-epic songs (the outstanding "November Rain", “Estranged”, and the aptly-titled drudgery of "Coma", among others) that tread into ten-minute territory. The best of both Illusion albums could have been combined into one filler-free offering instead of two uneven ones.
The year 1991 also proved a pivotal one for Mötley Crüe. That year, the band had released what was essentially a greatest hits package with Decade of Decadence which included three new songs, one being a cover of the Sex Pistols' "Anarchy in the UK". After celebrating a decade together, the band fired lead singer Vince Neil the following year.
Meanwhile Def Leppard’s lead guitarist Steve Clark died from complications due to drug and alcohol abuse in 1991. He was replaced with veteran session player Vivian Campbell. Poison also replaced its guitarist that year, ousting C.C. DeVille due to his own unwieldy drug problems. Bon Jovi did not formally disband, but in 1991, both Jon Bon Jovi and guitarist Richie Sambora put the band on hiatus to work on solo material.