They'd already repurposed the mullet and the foam-mesh trucker hat, so it was clearly just a matter of time before hipsters sank their talons into heavy metal. The music's camp value is well established: This Is Spinal Tap first mined hard rock's excesses for laughs 20 years ago, and bands like Manowar, Gwar, and arguably Kiss have been lampooning them at least that long. As Jack Black has shown in his prog-metal goof Tenacious D and, more recently, while imparting rock wisdom to Generation Z in School of Rock, it's certainly possible to send up the trappings of metal and get a genuine kick out of the music at the same time. But when the joy isn't there, it's a tired exercise.
Case in point: Andrew W.K. For all his admonishments to party till you puke, there's nothing especially fun about his latest record, The Wolf. In fact there's something vaguely fascist about it: "I want to have a party! / I want to have a party! / I want to have a party! / I want to have a party! / You cannot kill the party! / You cannot kill the party! / You cannot kill the party! / Long live the party!" he bellows over the grind of menacing guitars and windy synths on "Long Live the Party." And with its Wagnerian pomp and lockstep chants, "Victory Strikes Again" feels like the sound track to a Michael Bay remake of Triumph of the Will.
Mostly it just doesn't sound like W.K. actually likes the music he plays. On "Make Sex" he shouts, "Want to make sex / Want to make sex! / Oh!" over and over, his voice multitracked to sound like a stadium full of soccer hooligans. Who the hell says "make sex"? He seems to be goofing on metal's clumsy machismo, but what he doesn't get is that while AC/DC's Brian Johnson may sound like a Neanderthal grunting about being knocked out by those American thighs, he at least sounds like he comes by it naturally.
Of course W.K. insists that he means it, man, in interview after interview. "When you say something is just a joke it absolves you of all responsibility of being wrong," he lectured a British writer. "If someone says 'that sucks,' then I say 'Oh yeah, no big deal, I didn't really work on it that hard anyway. It's just a joke.' Fuck that! I am giving it all I have and being completely one hundred thousand percent committed to something. It's like I am committed to smiling." But "Tear It Up" builds a preposterously grandiose arrangement of bullying guitar and meandering electric piano behind lyrics snatched from the mouths of fourth graders ("I met a lot of friends who were cool / But a lot of them were jerks"), and on "Your Rules" the wall of cheesy synths makes inane chants like "We will never listen to your rules / We will never do what others do / If you want to fight we'll fight with you" feel less like a tribute to the teen anthems of Slade, Sweet, and Twisted Sister than a sub-SNL parody of them.
When I Get Wet, W.K.'s Island debut, appeared in late 2001, some suggested he was a hoax perpetrated by Dave Grohl. Prior to the album's release, W.K. had opened a handful of Foo Fighters shows, dressed in tight white jeans, a sweat-stained white T-shirt, and white sneakers, dancing wildly and shouting hoarsely to prerecorded tracks. His aesthetic fit Grohl's kitschy sense of humor (remember his spoof of the Mentos commercials in the "Big Me" video?) and well-documented interest in metal. But W.K.'s attraction to metal in fact predates his association with Grohl: as a youngster in Ann Arbor he played in Pterodactyls, a neo-no-wave-metal outfit whose output was more performance art than pop music. And it seems unlikely that a kid who used to hang with Magas and Wolf Eyes could write lyrics like "Hey you, let's party! / Have a killer party and party!" (from "It's Time to Party") in earnest.
As social commentary, though, they're depressing, making rock 'n' roll out to be a fascist enterprise selling meaningless messages to an audience of fools. When in "I Love Music," which closes The Wolf, he professes, "You are my faith / You are my friend / You are my family / And I am coming," he's not so much mocking metal bands (as Gwar and Spinal Tap did) as he is metal fans. Even if you take him at his word that his music is a sincere attempt at spiritual uplift, he couldn't have gotten uplift more wrong: the onslaught of bombastic power chords, simplistic synths, and mechanical rhythms is nothing if not the musical embodiment of punishment.
Satanicide's Heather is far less subtle--the band's official Web site categorizes them as "parody metal"--but at least it's occasionally funny. Satanicide's inspiration is mostly mid-80s hair metal like Skid Row, Poison, and Motley Crue; they play songs about cars, girls, the road, New Jersey, how hard Satanicide rocks, and (slightly incongruously) Dungeons & Dragons. The cover art features the band members posing in tattered T-shirts, headbands, and leather pants: singer Devlin Mayhem stands scowling in front of a muscle car; guitarist Aleister Cradley looks pensive as he reclines on a Victorian sofa; drummer Sloth Vader trashes a hotel room; and (slightly incongruously) bassist Vargas Von Goaten grimaces through a death-metal mask, wielding a sword and clutching a severed head. Just in case it's not clear that this is all supposed to be ironic, the album includes an over-the-top cover of Celine Dion's "My Heart Will Go On."
The problem is that the joke gets old quickly, and there's little else there. These guys can truly play, but they hammer home the punch lines as if they're afraid their audience might mistake them for the buffoons they're ridiculing. There isn't even a cheesy double entendre to enjoy in lines like "Heather, you've been sluttin' around for a while / Heather, come on baby, just give me a slice." And of course anyone who paid even cursory attention to metal in the 70s and 80s knows that the kind of bands who sang about rock 'n' roll debauchery were not the same ones who wrote songs like "20 Sided Die," an ode to fantasy role-playing games. If Satanicide can tell the difference between Poison and Dio, they don't show it: both are just easy targets.
I'm not saying hair metal doesn't deserve to be mocked. But to mock it well you first have to appreciate it, in all its perverse purity. Bands like Poison and Motley Crue never denied their id--they indulged their impulses without reservation. What Satanicide and Andrew W.K. indulge in, from a safe distance, is just class snobbery.
As Vanessa Grigoriadis pointed out in a recent New York Times feature on Vice magazine and white-trash chic, "hip taste is embraced by hipsters because the masses don't get it." This metal mini renaissance isn't any sort of sincere embrace of blue-collar culture--it's condescension masked as populism.
So how do the Darkness manage to get it right? Permission to Land, the debut from the British four-piece, is as infectious as it is hilarious. Front man Justin Hawkins--a beanpole of a guy who wears skin-tight, chest-baring Spandex unitards--sings with a theatricality that raises the specter of Freddie Mercury, careening between a working-class snarl and a quivering, glass-shattering falsetto. And the band has the chops to back him up. As Hawkins howls, "Get your hands off of my woman, motherfucker" (on "Get Your Hands off My Woman") his brother Dan cranks out a meaty power-chord progression that's no less powerful because it was cribbed from Urge Overkill. "Growing on Me" and "Givin Up" both give up monster hooks over an insistent pulse, while "Love Is Only a Feeling," with its soaring arpeggios and swooning chorus, is like a valentine to the institution of power balladry.
Are they kidding? Maybe. Probably. But they refuse to let anyone know for sure. There are no winks, no nods, no snooty derision. The Darkness's take on metal is often as silly as Andrew W.K.'s or Satanicide's, and I'm sure there are plenty of people who appreciate them ironically, but Permission to Land feels more like a celebration of the genre than a smug condemnation of it. (The Darkness's first major tour, tellingly, was with bubblegum-metal icons Def Leppard; Andrew W.K., on the other hand, tours with the likes of Black Rebel Motorcycle Club and the Coral.) On "Friday Night," if anything, they're taking the piss out of themselves the way the Upper Crust does, as Hawkins sings, "Monday rowing / Tuesday badminton / Dancing on a Friday night." All the lyrics are hopelessly sentimental and trite ("Could you ever fall for me / The way I fell for you?"), but there's an essential innocence and generosity to them that separates them from Andrew W.K.'s totalitarian sloganeering or Satanicide's unmitigated sarcasm.
What Permission to Land displays, as much as anything else, is a sincere belief in--as corny as it may sound--the power of rock 'n' roll. Big, gleefully dumb rock 'n' roll. The Darkness understand, as their predecessors seemed to intuitively, that there really are few better ways to spend a Saturday night than getting drunk with your friends, chasing girls, and listening to a kick-ass band. They're not embarrassed by their enthusiasms; they don't care if they look stupid and they're not concerned whether their audience appreciates Judas Priest the same way they do. Their version of metal doesn't involve any secret handshakes--only high fives.