Who Killed Hair Metal? Part Four

So far I’ve issued several verdicts in the case of The People versus Whoever Killed Hair Metal. I’ve found grunge, and by extension alt-rock, guilty. Guns N Roses too is guilty, having set the bar too high for anyone else to attain. And Metallica, of all people, is certainly also guilty of providing another alternative to the stale and washed up format of hair metal. Here are links to my previous rundowns in the series.

Part One – Grunge

Part Two – Guns N’ Roses

Part Three – Metallica

But in the end, we all know who is truly guilty of killing hair metal.

And no, it isn’t hair metal.

It’s ok, I’ll give you a second to process that. But you know I’m right, if only technically.

Suspect Four – The Record Labels

No, hair metal did not kill hair metal. Sure, quality control was noticeably absent in the early 1990’s just before the death knell rang from Kurt Cobain’s guitar. It can be said that hair metal was a watered-down mess that was nearly unrecognizable from the form it began on in Motley Crue’s early recordings. It couldn’t even hit the high notes of the late 1980’s, struggling to keep pace with choice recordings from the likes of Cinderella and Skid Row.

It just wasn’t there anymore. Sure, some recordings of various merit came out. The last gasp of hair metal saw acts like Slaughter, Trixter, Firehouse and Winger generate interest while also seemingly flailing against the inevitable. The party was just about over on the Sunset Strip, at least for all but the few biggest acts who had transcended the genre in various ways. Skid Row would go on for a few years of touring success. Guns N Roses had big hits with their double albums in 1991. And Motley Crue seemed poised to take on a new decade with the excellent cut Primal Scream from a greatest hits collection, only to implode in band turmoil a year later.

Everyone else was left to either die off immediately or slowly flail away. White Lion split when guitarist Vito Bratta had enough of the music industry, totally unwilling to this day to return. Poison tried their hand replacing CC DeVille with up and coming guitarist Richie Kotzen. The move produced some worthwhile music but personally backfired for everyone involved in an extramarital affair.

But Poison had a bigger name and therefore more capital than most, and were able to reestablish themselves as a worthwhile nostalgia act years later. Many other of the hair bands would fall off a cliff in terms of notoriety. Small but dedicated fanbases would turn out for shows at far-flung clubs or state fairs, but hair metal had fallen and wasn’t getting back up.

Rock music as a whole had changed. The sound that grunge ushered in led way for rock’s alternative base, something aired on college radio in the 1980’s, to truly take over and redefine the sound of rock music. The sound of late ’90’s rock was more akin to a CW TV show theme song than a big party anthem. Even legacy rock acts like the Scorpions and Def Leppard, bigger than hair metal but not immune to its movements, had to take time to readjust as their favored sound faded away. It seemed like everyone in rock music, with the exception of Aerosmith, felt some kickback from the demise of hair rock in 1991.

It wasn’t the bands that killed hair metal. No one on Earth would kill their own livelihood. The bands might be complicit in recording drek that got worse as time went on, but it wasn’t really under their own direction.

No, music is a business, and it was the record labels who were milking the hair metal cow dry. Hair rock was a fad – the gaudy fashion, the good times and fast women, the massively excessive image and music was not going to last forever. Nothing last forever in music. Those acts who see longevity have pivoted over the course of years and decades. They languished at times and then resurged when the moment was right.

The record labels were living large in the 1980’s on piles of money from overpriced albums and hoarding of profits off the backs of its artists. They churned out act after act in the course of business, without considering the artistic effects this assembly line of hair rockers was going to have.

And it wasn’t hard to find willing acts to keep the hair metal machine going. Who doesn’t want to be a rock star? Hair metal represented the zenith of excess for rock stardom. Women, parties and drugs were the order of the day. Sure, every other genre of music sees its stars indulge in the same, but hair metal put the show front and center. Take the record company’s money and head out in search of the stars. Never mind the terms of that contract and the severe unlikelihood of reaching those stars…

No, hair metal did not kill hair metal, at least in a sense. The music had gotten derivative to a point of being parody of its earliest incarnation, but the bands themselves aren’t to blame for their demise. It was the record labels, in their perpetual avarice, who truly killed hair metal and shoulder the lion’s share of guilt in the case. The entity that brought the hair metal movement to light was the same one who killed it.

It has now been 30 years since the death of hair metal. Rock music shifted course forever after 1991. There still is that “old rock” sound to be found, many legacy acts and even newer bands born of inspiration from the old days abound, though mainly in the independent scenes. While I don’t necessarily yearn for the glory days of hair and makeup, I do sometimes miss the rock music that was the underpinning of the hair metal movement and I’m glad some old school folks are keeping that kind of rock around. But modes of music distribution and information sharing have changed so much since the 80’s that there is likely no way to truly bring that scene back into existence. Things are just way too different now.

This stands as my final testament to who and what killed hair metal. The record labels bear the blame in my eyes. There is no appeal to a higher authority regarding my verdict – my judgment is final. It’s time to move on to other scenes in music for a bit, and to have nothing but a good time while doing so.

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