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Tuesday, January 3, 2012

On Hair Metal, Siberia, and Learning to Love Terrible Things

Posted By on Tue, Jan 3, 2012 at 9:00 AM

Skid Row
  • Skid Row

Lately, I've been listening to a lot of '80s hair metal, and when I listen to said hair metal, I frequently find myself thinking about Siberia.

Okay, let me explain.

Deviating from my comfy-cozy personal norms, and gamboling down such an execrable and anomalous (translation: powerfully lame) musical road leaves me feeling quite empty. As a way of legitimizing the whole experience, I began equating it with a genuine, self-determined, colorful, perilous journey. Glam bands, ho! And so lately, that means putting on Skid Row and thinking about Ian Frazier's Travels in Siberia. Or more specifically, the passage where Frazier details Siberia's ancient main route (commonly referred to as the Trakt) and how shackled exiles walked it under guard until they reached a tall, square white pillar marking the spot where the western Russian province of Perm gave way to the Siberian province of Tobolsk. Here, exiles were allowed to pause and bid final farewells to friends and family accompanying them, as well as to home and country. Writes Frazier: "Beyond this spot they were, in a sense, jumping off into the void."

Because when I put on Skid Row's "I Remember You" and vocalist Sebastian Bach pushes aside the hair obscuring his face like he's slowly drawing a velvet stage curtain, and guitarist Dave "The Snake" Sabo gets the hair out of his face by tossing his head like a baying hound, and the trademark ending to the song's melody -- the nifty hammer-on/pull-off move on the B string -- rings out, I ceremoniously arrive at that tall, square white pillar. I have jumped off into the void.

This has me significantly baffled. I've never particularly liked hair metal. When it peaked in the late '80s, I was stockpiling gangsta rap cassettes and taping episodes of Yo! MTV Raps. I liked to think that gangsta rap was the direct opposite of loathsome and more fashionable glam, the positive charge to its negative. (Much later, I realized that each genre's emphasis on caricature and excess rendered them remarkably similar. Jani Lane and Ice-T were practically interchangeable, right?) Today, it remains disagreeable because of its timeliness. The popular storyline is that grunge killed hair metal, when in reality it feels like it never quite went away. The genre's portrayals of wild youth and carefree living make it a perpetual nostalgic indulgence. Glam's teenagers never age, its partygoers never stop partying, and its unskinny boppers never cease bopping. This is appealing at age 25 and even more so at 40 -- the milestone that individuals originally reared on this stuff are currently approaching.

So yeah, hair metal sucks epically. Yet lately I find myself turning off that Dust-to-Digital or Soundway or Numero compilation so I can play Slaughter's "Fly to the Angels" and marvel at Mark Slaughter's voice -- a voice that sounds curiously artificial, particularly when he yowls repeatedly about THE PAIN that lingers from a break-up (anyone who has ever heard this song even once immediately knows the segment of which I write) but not in a Pro Tools-artificial kind of way. Artificial, as in, nobody intentionally sounds this wonderfully ridiculous. (Quick aside: During a recent listen, I found myself fantasizing about a scenario where Mark Slaughter didn't actually exist and that the voice we believed to belong to Mark Slaughter was in fact produced by a studio contraption designed by a label head incapable of securing his own glam superstar. The purpose of the device was to generate the ultimate hair metal vocal, one that sounded equally vulnerable, seductive, exaggerated, and rugged -- and used a falsetto so powerful it made girls instantaneously damp and boys' testicles retract back inside their body cavities.)

Lately, I find myself turning off some blues or jazz so I can play Motley Crue's "Don't Go Away Mad (Just Go Away)" and indulge in the idea that this guitar ballad, despite all the plaintive cries of "girl," was really about Vince Neil and his relationship with the band. (Check out the video and how happy the dudes are to see Vince during the song's climax. They're like baseball players celebrating in the dugout following a home run.)

The other night, I listened to "I Remember You"'s guitar solo eight or nine times in succession and then YouTubed lessons where it was decoded by instructors using clunky guitar terms like "pedal tones" and "pinch harmonics" and "straight pentatonic triplets." I marveled at how Sabo cleverly placed the middle finger of his pick hand across a fret like it's a capo and then began to wonder if this solo was the most perfect music thing to ever exist.

Finally at my wit's end, I put in a call to Dr. Ilene Serlin, founder and director of San Francisco's Union Street Health Associates, and a clinical psychologist well qualified to discuss aspects of developmental psychology and how they apply to matters of music taste. I asked about the evolutionary process behind personal preferences, especially as one reaches middle age, and what, if anything, could spark such an abrupt divergence in taste. I wanted to know if embracing hair metal was the reversal of a process detailed in Daniel J. Levitin's This is Your Brain on Music. Citing a bunch of freaky-sounding brain parts (the cingulate gyrus, the anterior cingulate, etc.), Levitin described the developmental trajectory of children and how they initially prefer simple songs before age whisks them away to more complex ones. Had my own developmental trajectory taken an unexpected U-turn?

"I think you need to treat the whole experience as research, as an opportunity for reaching out and communicating," Dr. Serlin told me. "The arts are the best form of communication. Don't view it as a problem; make it fun. Everyone goes through similar changes. It's all very healthy."

Dr. Serlin patiently explained to me that certain triggers can induce dramatic changes in personal taste: the death of a loved one, divorce. "I work with people who have suffered through these events and they suddenly don't know who they are," Dr. Serlin said. "They have always lived by certain rules and within certain boundaries, and now they are gone. They suddenly want to throw out their CDs or redecorate their house. It can be very terrifying for some people."

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Ryan Foley


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