Who Killed Hair Metal? Part Three

It’s on to part three of this exploration of who killed hair metal. I’ve already rendered verdicts on grunge, the prime and obvious suspect. I’ve also convicted Guns N Roses of killing their own scene by being better than it. Check out the links below to see all that in action.

Part One – Grunge

Part Two – Guns N’ Roses

Grunge, and specifically Nirvana, get the lion’s share of blame for killing hair metal. It’s warranted, as I already went over in part one of this series. But grunge didn’t just kill hair metal. The truth is that heavy metal in all its forms was very much hurt by grunge’s influence.

Record labels weren’t only signing hair bands left and right – they were out to get on the next cash cow, and the next-heaviest thing that seemed logical to take off was thrash. The offshoot of punk had come in hard in the early ’80’s and was the polar opposite of its bastard cousin hair metal. Major record labels stocked up on thrash acts in order to be ahead of the curve and be there when thrash broke big.

The only problem was that thrash didn’t enter the music mainstream. Well, except for one band, and that band turned their back on the thrash that they helped invent and instead conquered every music chart known to man. I submit for consideration as a suspect in the murder of hair metal one of music’s most significant acts who made their own mark on 1991 – Metallica.

Suspect Three – Metallica

Metallica could have killed hair metal very early on. Lars Ulrich has told a story of his band wanting to fight Motley Crue in the streets in the early ’80’s, when both bands were getting their starts. Lars set out to find Tommy Lee and teach him a lesson on who is the bigger badass in music. Unfortunately for Lars, his 5’6” frame didn’t quite measure up to Tommy’s 6’2” stature, and Lars wisely chose to disengage.

Metallica might not have beaten up hair metal way back when, but they got to put their own nail in the coffin a decade later, even if Motley Crue themselves would outlive the death of the genre they founded.

The story is simple – Metallica arrived on the scene with an intense thrash record, they then refined their approach through songwriting and combined heavy with tasteful. They entered the 1990’s looking to do something different and hooked up with Bob Rock. The resulting record, the self-titled affair known as the Black Album, took over the world and is one of music’s best-selling records ever. The record has sold 31 million copies since release and served to catapult Metallica into the upper echelons of rock stardom, an unlikely feat for a group of nasty, long-haired geeks who cut songs like The Four Horsemen starting out.

As a whole, heavy metal did not do that well in the 1990’s. A few exceptions are noted – a brief movement from the early half of the decade loosely categorized as “alt-metal,” including Danzig and Type O Negative, saw some time in the Sun. Pantera rose to mainstream prominence as a pretty harsh act. Extreme metal bubbled toward the surface as thrash fell by the wayside, with black metal being the vanguard sound by decade’s end.

But heavy metal in the 1990’s largely belonged to one band. Metallica took over the world, one platinum certification and sold-out arena show at a time. While their sound was not the same as what they cut their teeth on, there is no denying the massive impact they had on all of music when they stole the show in 1991. Their influence lasted longer and was more far-reaching than grunge, and Metallica have sales records that outpace almost every album released in the decade, even industry titans like Shania Twain couldn’t keep pace.

But what does Metallica and their 1991 advent to superstardom mean in terms of hair metal? Hair metal was already on life support before Nirvana dealt the fatal blow that September. That summer, hair bands were already reshaping their music videos to be more plain-dressed, an effort to keep up with groups like Alice In Chains who were taking over airwaves. Gone were the gaudy shiny leather outfits and make-up of the decade prior, the bands left were scratching for a bit of relevance and a hope of lasting through the record contract they just signed.

Then Enter Sandman hit MTV on July 29, a few weeks removed from the Black Album’s release. It was a whole new ballgame the second that riff fired up. Rock could be menacing, dangerous and yet still accessible and catchy. There is no doubt that Enter Sandman is one of the catchiest songs in history. It might have been overplayed, sure, but that fatigue came later and detracts from its immediate impact on the music scene.

What did a person about to enter their freshman year of high school want to be caught dead listening to – some 12th generation hair band that was dead in the water before the first single released, or Metallica? If someone wasn’t on the grunge hype train, they’d better be sporting Metallica gear. No one could argue with that, even if Metallica had pared their sound down from the pioneering thrash days.

Metallica was a safe haven for the rocker who was caught with his bleached jeans down as hair metal made a quiet exit stage left. Was Nirvana too incomprehensible and dissonant? Check out Sad But True! Still need that feeling a good ballad generates? Nothing Else Matters and The Unforgiven scratch that itch. Metallica were just as big as hair metal – bigger, even – eventually eclipsing the mark that even Guns N Roses left on the music.

It might be something of an abstract link, but Metallica deserves some share of the responsibility for killing hair metal. It’s only fitting that the band throws darts at a picture of Winger in the Nothing Else Matters video. Metallica themselves irrevocably altered the face of rock and metal music while bands like Winger were left churning in the wake. It was the combination of a heralded reputation and the fusing of metal with accessible sounds that made Metallica one of music’s biggest bands, and that commercial likability helped give people a lifeline as they fled the sinking ship of hair metal. The alternative music wasn’t for everyone and heavy metal’s biggest act came to save the day.

Tomorrow – we deliver the final verdict on who really killed hair metal, in case anyone actually didn’t already know.

2 thoughts on “Who Killed Hair Metal? Part Three

  1. Pingback: Who Killed Hair Metal? Part Four – The Crooked Wanderer

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