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

“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.

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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