March 24, 2007

Metallectuals

Hair Metal.jpg


Chuck Klosterman’s Fargo Rock City, from 2001, is the sometimes brave, often times self-consciously pathetic confession of a tortured ’80s metalhead. The Decline of Western Civilization Part II: The Metal Years (1988), which came out just before Guns ‘N’ Roses blew up big, is one of the best rockumentaries from the period. Convoluted motives and twisted logic reign supreme, sometimes in heroic operatic excess as in the interview with Motörhead’s Lemme in which he is romantically pictured as a lone figure high atop the Hollywood hills with the smog-draped city of Los Angeles for his background. Whether or not it was deliberate or just a hokey coincidence, the shoot cycles through day and night, just like Pink Floyd’s epic consciousness expanding 1972 rock movie Live at Pompeii. Klosterman’s only quote from the movie is Paul Stanley’s smug quip that “The only good thing about having money is that you don’t have to think about it,” but his book oftentimes reads more like what is probably the most famous (at least the most twisted) scene from the rockumentary in which the leather jump-suit-clad W.A.S.P. lead guitarist Chris Holmes is filmed at night draining a couple of bottles of Smirnoff drunkenly slouched in a floating recliner while in a manic / depressive rage, alternatively wildly optimistic and self-loathing, as his mother sits strangely composed poolside. What saves the book is it’s central conceit that Klosterman is first and foremost a fan. It allows him to make the most awkward observations — the kind most self-respecting rock journalists would find very hard to pull off — like, his point early on, for example, that hair bands, rather than offering any political criticism, openly and willfully celebrated the muscular power-play, crass materialism and just about every other selfish gluttony represented by the Reagan era. Among the standout quotes from Mötley Crüe: VH1 Behind the Music (1999), for example, was when the group's photographer recalls that the band was lovingly described as “music for morons”. And, regardless of whether anyone agrees, that’s Klosterman’s point: As a reflexive fan you can, for good or bad, get lost in the ugly confusing places of your subject in a way the critic can’t. Rock ‘n’ roll psychology is all about striking the correct pose. Attitude is as important as the music, if not more so. Both contribute to the total affect, and neither is separable from the other. In the epilogue to the book, added a year after the original print-run, Klosterman expresses some bewilderment and consternation that the chapter on his own alcoholism got so much attention. It’s a great example of how elaborately constructed the rock pose is, even for the fan. The name of the game is one-upmanship. Art critic and curator Michael Duncan took on a parallel issue in the 2002 show he organized at California’s San Jose Museum of Art. He called the exhibit Uncool. Loosely stated, the premise of the show was that minimal and conceptual art was cool (temperature-wise). The artists he chose to exhibit, according to Duncan, were by contrast more maximal and supposedly emotionally complicated than the previous generation, and by extension their work was (I guess) warmer. The degree to which he was influenced, if at all, by Marshall McLuhan’s ground breaking ’60s essay “Media Hot and Cold” was never made entirely clear. McLuhan, in short, argued that media could be separated by how densely information was packed into it. Radio and movies, according to him, were hot, while TV and the telephone were deemed cool. Exactly how that plays out in art, which is all about excess, is hard to ferret out. Curatorial license aside, none of the artists in the show could easily or clearly be characterized in terms of an obvious dominance of one media influence over the other. In order to accept Duncan’s assertion, we have to take it pretty much at face value that artists like John Baldessari and Ed Rusche, whom he specifically cited in his essay, make art which is cold and by extension, one could fairly suppose, is an inhuman kind of art. Forget how Oedipal Duncan’s impulse is. The fact is it only makes sense if you buy into his broad categorizations. In the wake of the show, what you were left with was a high-school level argument about cool verses uncool, and ultimately which one wins out. Klosterman makes the case that those are exactly the kinds of debates that define metal, and specifically that hair metal’s ace in the hole was that uncool is cooler than cool; the self-effacing, self-deprecatory pose beats out the formerly traditional position of dominance every time. No wonder his chapter on his own self-destructive urges got so much attention! How uncool was that? It is the Gothic legacy that we humans are imperfect, fallible and weak (at least by comparison to God). Lutheran Christianity is founded on exactly those principals. There’s no point making claims that metal music has major Gothic influences. It’s pretty obvious. The only shortcoming of Klosterman’s argument is that his history of rock is a bit narrow, limited as it is to his own admittedly shuttered fandom of hair metal. Duncan, in taking on a similar issue, might have been better served if he had copped to the convoluted “revenge of the nerds” psychology of dominance that underpinned his premise. What rock precedent reveals so clearly from the beginning about strategies of power is no stranger to art. Where being cool is concerned, at least, more often than not, being self-consciously wrong bests being right almost every time. Art is by no means averse to those tactics. Look at Rococo, folk art, 19th-century painters like Courbet and Manet, etc. Like Klosterman, the shortfall of Duncan’s curatorial assertion was not to realize that historically conscious artists like Baldessari and Rusche were using similar tactics all along. Metallica’s Some Kind of Monster (2004) goes one step further, and offers a glimpse of fine art from a headbanger’s point of view. During the filming of the movie, drummer Lars Ulrich auctions off his modern painting collection. It’s just about the most melodramatic and overblown rockumentary ever conceived. And that’s saying a lot in a genre where over-acting is the norm. The tagline was: “The film that redefines group therapy”. A camera crew followed the band around during the two some years it took to record St. Anger, and the band let it all hang out, warts and all. There were, of course, some quieter, more reclusive moments, too. In one scene, in particular, Ulrich is filmed at home draped over his couch in a sweat suit contemplating his giant Basquiat painting. As the camera pans into a detail shot, Ulrich ruminates out loud about the gestured golden brushstrokes the artist has painted over the black field that surrounds the figures head. The drummer is mesmerized by the number of strokes, and wonders why there aren’t fewer or more. “When is a painting finished?” he asks, “How do you know when it is done?” Then, more introspectively, he adds: “When is a song finished, how do you know when a song is done?” Klosterman, like many other folks who have written about rock before, in struggling with the inverted terms of uncool posturing as a power play (he is alternately embarrassed by his fandom for hair metal, and empowered by it), is trying to distinguish what makes one form of metal better than another when they are all equally limited to the most primary instruments — guitar, bass, drums and vocals. Ulrich can’t help but find a similar inspiration in the same kind of reversed dynamic at work in painting, itself limited to the most primary elements of brush, paint and canvas.

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